July 28, 2022 by Sarra Cannon
Welcome back to Episode 3 in our “Writing Great Scenes” series. Last week, we discussed the importance of each scene having a point-of-view character with a clear goal or desire. This week, we’re going to talk about what I feel is the most important aspect of writing an engaging scene: conflict.
If you missed the first two parts, I’ll link the below so you can catch up!
Episode 1: How To Write Great Scenes That Keep Readers Engaged: Writing Great Scenes #1
Episode 2: Your Character’s Goal or Desire In A Scene: Writing Great Scenes #2
Conflict is basically an obstacle to your character’s goal or desire. What’s standing in the way of your character getting what they want? Conflict is what provides tension in your scene, and tension is what keeps readers turning pages. Conflict is absolutely essential to writing a good story, but conflict for conflict’s sake isn’t enough.
In order to truly make your scenes engaging and have readers invested in what’s happening, the conflict or tension needs to be relevant to your character’s goal, which is why we spent so much time on that in Episode 2. The scene goal and conflict, in turn, plays a part in the overall story or plot of your novel. It should all flow together and be connected in some way. Let’s talk about how to do that.
Similar to your character’s goal, conflict in a scene can be epic, life or death confrontation or it can be a more subtle, tense conversation between two characters. It’s also possible for the conflict in your scene to be completely internal and happening inside your character’s mind and emotions.
There are several resources out there that outline the types of conflict you can have: character vs. self, character vs. character, character vs. society, character vs. fate. In truth, conflict can be literally anything that creates an obstacle to your character’s goal or desire, but the part of this that a lot of writers get mixed up on is that you really want that conflict to be organic.
Organic conflict is conflict that arises from your character’s personality, their struggles, their situation, their relationships, or their inner and outer goal in the story. Organic conflict will naturally arise from either something that has happened or been set up earlier in your story or it’s something that’s going to impact whatever is coming next in your story.
For example, if you know the central part of your main character’s growth arc is going to revolve around trust, make sure you use the theme of trust in as much of their scene-level conflict as possible. If your character needs to learn how to love again after loss, create plenty of scenes that challenge your character in regard to that specific theme of love and loss.
The more you can weave the high-level inner and outer conflict and transformation into each individual scene, the more it’s going to feel like a cohesive story.
In other words, organic conflict feels real. It’s a logical progression or is connected to the rest of the story in a way that feels believable.
So, let’s look at a potential example of weak conflict versus strong, organic conflict.
Let’s say you’re writing a romance novel and the tension you envision in a particular scene is for the heroine to have an argument with her roommate. Whether this argument is organic and a strong point of tension is going to depend on three things:
Goal: Heroine is trying to get a rent check from her roommate.
Conflict: The roommate is late on rent and keeps stalling.
Example 1: This scene establishes tension and disagreements between the heroine and the roommate. The heroine wants rent money, but she actually has plenty of money to cover the rent and overall, money doesn’t play a role in the rest of the book in any way.
Example 2: We’ve already set up earlier in the story that our heroine grew up in an unstable home and for that reason, she tries to control every aspect of her seemingly perfect life. She dates a ‘safe”, responsible guy with a strong investment portfolio and pays all her bills on time. She’s annoyed with her roommate for not paying rent for the second month in a row. She cares about her roommate because they’re good friends, but issues around money and stability send her into panic mode, and she does not want to go back to a life filled with anxiety.
In example 1, we’ve technically got conflict in the form of an argument. While this might set up the fact that our heroine is unhappy with her current living situation, it’s not really the strongest kind of conflict because it isn’t organically tied to the rest of the story.
In example 2, however, the idea of rent money being late directly plays into our heroine’s character arc of needing to control everything in her life and being afraid of becoming like her mother, who could never hold down a job and dated irresponsible men. To strengthen this organic conflict, maybe in the next scene our heroine loses her job. This amplifies her feelings of loss of control. Then boom, her “stable safe” boyfriend gets caught cheating on her and her life is spiraling out of control. Enter our hero, a fun-loving world traveler who owns nothing more than the backpack on his back. He’s the opposite of “safe and stable”.
Can you see how the tie-ins to the rest of the story and the character’s arc adds to the tension a reader will feel in this scene? If it’s just a random argument or misunderstanding, there’s no real conflict. In order for the conflict to matter and be engaging, it needs to tie into the character’s arc, goal, and the overall progression of the story in some way.
When it comes to conflict and tension in your story, intensity matters, as well. So, what makes some conflict more intense than others?
Part of it is going to be what’s at stake for your character. Remember in Episode 2, we discussed how it’s important to understand what happens in a scene when your character fails to achieve their scene goal? If the consequence of failure is high and life-altering, it’s going to be more intense for your character, and therefore more intense for your reader, who hopefully cares very much about what happens to your character at this point.
When you start to brainstorm a scene’s conflict or point of tension, ask yourself: How will this obstacle impact my character’s life moving forward? What will this mean in terms of their overall story goal?
If the answer is that this particular conflict is going to really mess things up for your character and impact them in multiple ways moving forward, then you’ve likely got good conflict on your hands. The more intense the stakes and impact, the more intense the conflict.
One way to ramp up the intensity of your conflict in any scene is to layer it. When you’ve got multiple layers of conflict or obstacles going on in a scene, your reader is really going to feel it.
For example, in our roommate scene, you could ramp up the tension by making the roommate her sister instead of just a friend. Her sister has nowhere else to go, and our heroine is always the one who comes to the rescue. The family connection here will layer in a new emotional element to our heroine’s sense of responsibility and stakes when she loses her own job in the next scene.
Another way to possibly ramp up the tension in that scene is to add a layer of external conflict. Maybe this argument is happening while our heroine’s phone is ringing. She’s late for her date with her “safe” boyfriend and he keeps calling her to let her know he’s downstairs waiting in the car. Now we have two people the heroine is dealing with in the scene and we’ve introduced a sense of urgency by having an element of rushed timing. Besides that, maybe your heroine knows her boyfriend hates it when she’s late, so that adds to the stakes for her. She needs the check, but she also needs to keep this boyfriend happy.
If you can introduce multiple layers of organic conflict in a scene, your readers won’t be able to put the book down.
Let’s look at a second example:
This is a young adult fantasy book and your main character is being called to the castle to answer for stealing a loaf of bread.
Goal: Convince the prince she’s innocent
Conflict: If he doesn’t believe her, he could have her killed or thrown in jail.
Example 1: There’s built-in tension here because the stakes are high for our heroine. Death is naturally a high stakes situation, right? But if she convinces him of her innocence, walks out, and the prince doesn’t come back into the story again, it’s still not an organic, strong conflict because it has no connection to the overall storyline.
Example 2: You could ramp up the tension here by increasing the stakes. Our heroine’s little sister is in her care and could starve to death if she isn’t there to help her. (This is why she stole the bread to begin with.) The prince won’t even listen to her (obstacle to her goal) and immediately throws her into the dungeon. This kicks off the heroine’s journey to get back to her sister. Tension and stakes are intense and the conflict is directly connected to the overall story arc.
Conflict is essential to your story, and without it, there’s really no story. While the overarching, high-level conflict is important, it’s really the escalating conflict that happens inside each scene that causes your readers to feel invested in what’s happening. Without conflict, your main character would sail through life and never have any meaningful obstacles to overcome.
But a series of unrelated conflicts scattered throughout your story just for the sake of getting conflict onto the page is not going to create an engaging story. Instead of just throwing out random arguments and misunderstandings, craft conflict in every scene that feels real, is vital to your storyline, and arises organically from your character’s personality, relationships or situation. Tie each moment of conflict into the greater story arc by having it stem from something you set up previously in the story or by having it impact what comes next.
Then, escalate the conflict by ramping up the stakes for your character and the story world as you go along. Don’t be afraid to really torture your characters by putting them through massive conflict, as long as it feels real. Build flaws into your characters. Create relationships that are complex. Dream up worst-case-scenarios that will push your character to their ultimate transformation.
I promise you this way of writing organic conflict will revolutionize your writing, level up your career, and gain loyal readers who will keep coming back for more.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions you have about conflict and tension in a scene. Next week, we’ll move onto Episode 4, where we’ll discuss scene structure and pacing.
✰✰✰My Favorite Craft Books That Helped Me Learn To Write Great Scenes✰✰✰
“Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell.
“Scene And Structure” by Jack M. Bickham.
“Story Genius” by Lisa Cron.
“The Anatomy of Story” by John Truby.
“Structuring Your Novel” by K.M. Weiland.
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