The key to a great story (okay, maybe one of several keys) is great conflict. Have you ever read a story, and you really liked the setting or one of the characters, so you really wanted to like the story, but you just couldn’t make yourself care? This can happen for any numbers of reasons, but more often than not, the absence of compelling conflict is what turns people off to the story. As a reader, it’s frustrating. As a writer, it’s oh-so-avoidable!

I’m often told that my subject matter is very interesting. That’s the non-writer’s way of saying that my conflicts are engrossing. As a writer of dystopian, I have to create conflicts within conflicts. My dystopian world has to be one big conflict, my characters have to be facing conflicts,and it helps if they’re a little conflicted within themselves. So, what makes a good conflict? What is it that makes you devour a story verses devouring dinner instead of reading?

I got to thinking about this and came up with a few keys to keeping your reader engrossed. As you read, apply these points to your favorite stories. They may help you discover the formula for why those stories are your favorites!

1) You have to hook them. Make them care to begin with. I said that conflict is one of many keys that make a story work. Another is characters. In my experience, your conflict could be relatively boring, but if you make your readers care about your characters, and your characters care about the conflict, then the reader will care about the conflict too. So, make your characters likable, human, and relatable. Give them at least one quality that makes the reader root for them. If you can do that, then your reader will keep reading past the first few chapters.

Make it so that if your characters don’t act, something terrible will happen to them or someone they care about.

2) Make your conflict something your characters are passionate about. Make sure there’s something very threatening to the MC about the conflict. I recently (tried) to read a novel and stopped about a third of the way through. The writing was actually quite good and the characters were okay, but there almost no conflict in the story. At first the MC was kidnapped, which was good, but then she was suddenly jumping through all these fantastical worlds, and I just couldn’t make myself care. I realized that I had absolutely no idea why she was doing what she was doing. Make it so that if your characters don’t act, something terrible will happen to them or someone they care about. If Frodo didn’t run from the black riders, they would have killed him. If Katniss hadn’t volunteered for the Hunger Games, her little sister probably would have been killed. If your character is passionate to the point of hyperventilation about the conflict (or perhaps putting a stop to it) then your readers will feel the same way. Trust me.

3) Raise the stakes. No matter how dire things are at the beginning of the story, they must get worse as the story progresses. In a way, you really have to stress your reader out. They must fear for the characters and what will happen to them should they fail. Things can get worse, plans can fall through, a mentor/friend can die, a worse bad guy can show up. These things will cause your characters (and therefore your readers) stress, which means they will keep turning pages because they so desperately need the release of relief when things are finally better. (Why do you think people scream and throw books at walls when a volume of a series ends on a cliffhanger?) 

No matter how dire things are at the beginning of the story, they must get worse as the story progresses.

4) Shock your reader. That’s right! Shock them. How?

  • A twist in the plot. Now be careful with this one. You must make sure the twist is both worth it (twisty enough) and also realistic enough to be believable (not too twisty). There are some twists that are done WAY too often. Since The Sixth Sense came out ten years ago, everyone and their dog has ended the story with the-character-is-actually-dead scenario. I also think the-character-is-actually-crazy thing is done too often. The best way to orchestrate a twist is by putting in tiny, subtle details early on. They must be small enough that the reader won’t pick up on them, but potent enough that when you reveal the twist, they’ll remember the details and have a light bulb moment.
  • Shock your character. I went to a writer’s workshop about a year ago where the speaker (don’t remember her name, which is terrible!) said that you must always know what the worst thing you could do to your characters is. You don’t always have to do it, but you have to know what it is. Doing the worst thing to them definitely heightens the conflict, though. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this in Harry Potter. Books 3-7 pretty much all ended this way. What was the worst thing that could have happened to Harry at the end of book 3? Losing Sirius after finally finding him. Book 4? Facing Voldemort unprepared. Book 5? Death of a loved one. Book 6? Death of another loved one. Rowling figured out what would be the worst thing for Harry and did it to him…right before the end of the book. Woman’s a master, if you hadn’t already figured that out. 
    you must always know what the worst thing you could do to your characters is.
  • A betrayal—this one is good, but also sometimes hard to pull off and *warning* your readers may hate you for it. If you take a character that’s awesome and lovable and relatable, and then have him/her betray your MC, that will shock your audience. Some of them will hate you for it, but it definitely ups the conflict.
  • Death of a character. This only works as a shocker/conflict enhancer if the audience loves the character. Side or stock characters don’t count. By far the best author I’ve seen at this is George R.R.Martin. He always said he wanted to write a book that people were afraid to keep reading. Well, he’s done it. He’s been known to let you love a character for two or three volumes (some of them over a thousand pages, people!) and then kill the character off. Was I sad? Yes. Did I chuck the book across the room and swear? Uh, pleading the fifth. Did it make me a die-hard fan of the series? Absolutely! Just saying.

These are some awesome ways to up the ante in your stories and make sure your reader cares about your characters and their conflicts. Take a moment to examine your favorite stories. If you can find where the author escalated the conflict and made you care just so darn much, you may have discovered the formula for just why those stories are your favorites. Happy stressing everyone! :D

This post originally appeared on 9/11/12 at http://lkhill.blogspot.com/2012/09/4-keys-to-awesome-conflict.html.



About the Author

Liesel Hill
Liesel Hill
Liesel K Hill is an award-winning author with a degree from Weber State University. She writes across three genres: scifi/fantasy, historical fiction, and crime drama, and has had at least one book picked up for each genre. She is an active member of the League of Utah Writers and a prolific blogger.