Storytelling Building Blocks

Conflict Thesaurus

In life, conflict can be a painful teacher. Situations where we are out of our element, don’t have time to think, or must act without enough information will challenge us and cause us to struggle. Add in a moment where we must face fears, navigate possible repercussions, or face a task we're not suited for…it can be debilitating or even terrifying. Because of the discomfort it brings, people typically avoid or minimize conflict.
But in our story world? There, conflict is celebrated. We force our characters into difficult scenarios again and again, causing problems and introducing obstacles that will poke at their weaknesses, make them doubt themselves, and push them toward a cliff of terrible fallout. Conflict forces a character to prove themselves or suffer the consequences of failure. Win or lose, readers are held in thrall as they turn the pages. Let’s look at how to use conflict in our storytelling.
Central Conflict
Every protagonist has an overarching story goal—something they're trying to accomplish by the story's end. Maximus wants to kill the man responsible for his family's death (Gladiator), Tommy Callahan needs to sell 500,000 brake pads to save his father's business (Tommy Boy), and Beth Harmon wants to be the best chess player in the world (The Queen's Gambit). But someone or something is standing in each character's way.
Over the course of the story, there will be a great many somethings, but in terms of the specific story goal, a person, organization, entity, force, or idea will oppose them. Once that adversary is established, the game will be on, with the protagonist pitted against nature, technology, the supernatural, society, another character, or even themselves. (For more information on these literary forms of conflict, check out this tip sheet.)

Whoever the antagonist is, they'll be a thorn in the protagonist's side, blocking them again and again from achieving the goal they so desperately want—need, even, if we've made the stakes high enough. This is why conflict at the story level is so important, because it ensures the character's road won't be an easy one. It casts doubt in the reader's mind as to the character's ability to succeed. And, voilà! The reader-character connection is born.
Story-Level (Macro) Conflict 

Some conflicts present bigger problems your character doesn’t have the means or ability to solve. These threats loom over much of the story, and the protagonist will have to work through them while handling other immediate, scene-level dangers and challenges. 

For example, in Die Hard, John McClane is one man against an organized, armed group who have taken over Nakatomi Tower. His central conflict (character vs. character) is to stop the terrorists and save everyone in the building, especially his wife. That on its own seems impossible, but it’s complicated by a few other problems he also has to deal with: Keeping Holly's identity as his wife a secret so the terrorists can't use her as leverage, figuring out Hans Gruber's real motive for taking over the tower, and doing it all despite the bungling interference of a grossly inept FBI. And in the back of his mind is the most challenging problem of all, the one that brought him to California in the first place: how to fix his crumbling marriage and reconcile with Holly before it’s too late. 

Large-scale conflicts like these will need to be addressed by your protagonist, but they won't be ironed out immediately. Very often, they'll have to work on these issues in stages as they dodge danger and achieve smaller goals from scene to scene. 

Scene-Level (Micro) Conflict
But story-level conflict isn't enough to hold the reader's interest. This is why the character should have a goal in every scene—something that acts as a steppingstone to their larger mission—and plenty of conflict standing in their way. From one scene to the next, conflict supplies tension and adds complications that attempt to derail the character’s progress. Sometimes they'll circumvent these difficulties and prove themselves. Other times, a bad decision or mistake will create more problems or even lead to disaster. These failures are a painful (and necessary) reminder of their weaknesses and limitations and will push them to make a choice: keep doing things the same way and getting the same negative result, or adapt and evolve so they can succeed.
Some writers have a hard time with conflict because they don’t want to hurt their characters. It can help to remember that conflict pushes our characters beyond their comfort zone and discover their own inner strength, and in doing so, learn to let go of any fear and uncertainty that is holding them back. 
Change Requires Internal Conflict
And this is where inner conflict comes in. Each character should be flawed at a fundamental level. They have bad habits, cling to dysfunction, and believe things that aren't true. While they'll be broken in many ways, their fatal flaw is the one they'll have to face and reevaluate if they want to succeed in the story. This won't be easy. They cling to their weaknesses for a reason: because they're familiar. Even if they don't work, they're what the character knows. To bring the protagonist around, you must introduce conflict scenarios that will challenge their flawed way of thinking and acting.
While external conflicts occur between the character and an outside entity, internal conflicts create a quandary within. These character vs. self struggles include a certain level of cognitive dissonance, with him wanting things that are at odds with each other. Internal conflicts can manifest in a variety of forms, including:
  • Opposing or competing wants, needs, or desires
  • Conflicting feelings generating confusion over what to feel
  • Questioning their own morals and values 
  • A challenge to their worldview, beliefs, or biases
  • Indecision, insecurity, self-doubt, or another undesirable emotion causing an internal tug-of-war 
  • Conflicting duties and responsibilities
  • When priorities change
  • Mental health struggles

Internal conflict scenarios like these provide an opportunity for the character to reevaluate what they have always known or believed. Readers also find these inner struggles compelling because they often grapple with the same questions, doubts, and uncertainties. When they see a character wrestling internally, they empathize on a deeper level because they recognize the weight of that struggle and want the character to make the right decision. For these reasons, it’s important to include internal conflict in your story. And, whenever possible, it should be incorporated both at the scene and story level.
What's at Stake?
For conflict to matter to readers, something needs to be at stake: a cost incurred if your character fails to navigate the situation successfully. If retired munitions expert Rodney doesn’t defuse the bomb in time, it goes off and kills a building full of people. Or if Landy can’t stop her toxic family from running her life, she’ll forever lose the man she loves. When each new problem has a serious or else attached to it, the character must take action. Their desire to avoid these negative consequences becomes a big part of their motivation for achieving the goal. 
Stakes, like conflict, should show up in your story like a bumper crop of rotten apples, increasing tension and raising the cost of failure by the bushel. They can be far-reaching (causing loss for many if the protagonist fails), moral (risking the character's most important beliefs), or primal (involving the death of something significant, such as a relationship, innocence, a dream, career, or physical life).
Regardless of which kind of stakes you employ, the most compelling kind will be personal for the character. If the outcome doesn't matter to the protagonist, they're going to look at the task and think, Well, this isn’t my problem. We have to make it their problem, otherwise why should they risk hardship, danger, and perhaps even death? 
In this way, impactful and personal stakes are a necessary part of effective conflict, but they also solidify the reader’s attachment to the character. How does that work? Well, it goes beyond making a character likeable or talented. It really comes down to their inner landscape: their morals and values, vulnerabilities and wounds, fears and needs. By chipping through our character’s tough exterior and revealing their inner thoughts, emotions, and desires, readers come to know them and identify with them. Maybe they share an insecurity. They might experience some of the same doubts. The conflict scenarios you employ will lay the groundwork for these revelations, creating emotional touchstones as readers connect with what the character is facing and feeling. 
Conflict by Category
So, conflict at the story level and in every scene…that's a lot of drama. It can be overwhelming, trying to find the right series of stumbling blocks to put in your character's path. How do you find meaningful and realistic conflict scenarios to take your story and your characters where you want them to go? It can help to think in terms what type of conflict will target your character’s soft spots. To help with this, we’ve created conflict categories to point you toward specific scenarios.
For example, does your scene include an important person in the protagonist's life? Relationship Friction might be what you need. Is your character at work? Then something from the Duty and Responsibility category may do the trick. Is it time to turn up the heat and make success seemingly impossible? Try conflict that involves a Ticking Clock. Each entry in The Conflict Thesaurus is labeled by type; just run a search for one of the following categories to see which scenarios may work for your story or scene.
Relationship Friction: Conflicts that create problems in relationships can easily activate your characters’ emotions, increasing the chance they will lash out, cross a personal or professional line, or make a mistake that leads to more trouble. 
Duty and Responsibility: Another way to create conflict with high stakes is to think about how duties and responsibilities can pile up and disrupt the status quo—especially when they leach into the character's personal and professional lives.
Failures and Mistakes: In the aftermath of a failure or mistake, a character will often panic. They believe they must act immediately to prevent catastrophe, only they aren’t calm or objective enough to think things through. This usually lands them into even more hot water, which is bad for them but good for you and the story because…conflict! 
Pressure and Ticking Clocks: Whether you introduce a delay that makes the character late, trot out an ultimatum, shorten their timeline, or place them under unwanted scrutiny, the squeeze is on. Sometimes you want characters to rise to the challenge; other times, you need to finally break them. Pressure and ticking clocks can help you do both.
Moral Dilemmas and Temptations: This type of conflict will target your character’s core belief system, which is central to their identity and worldview. It may be the most important conflict you can introduce because it forces your character to wrestle with big questions about what they feel and believe. 
No-Win Scenarios: Sometimes you need truly agonizing conflict—the type that forces the character to choose between bad and worse. Lose-lose situations are especially dangerous because they bog characters down in an emotional quicksand of fear, obligation, and guilt. This negative psychological spiral often results in them sacrificing their own happiness and needs.

Dangers and Threats: This is one of the most obvious and versatile forms of conflict: a hazard or menace that represents direct harm to the character or the people they care about (and may be responsible for). Danger can originate from other people, the environment, a location, or even from within the character themselves.

Ego-Related Conflicts: Ego-related conflicts undermine the character's basic need for esteem and recognition. They stir up internal conflict and trigger sensitivities that are hard to hide. Even in cases where the character has done nothing wrong, these conflicts can cut deep simply because there's a witness.

Loss of Control: Conflicts in this department are devastating because the character thinks they should have seen what was coming—anticipated it and had an escape plan ready. As with ego-related conflict, they'll categorize their inability to control every aspect of life as a personal failure and falsely believe there's something wrong with them.

Losing an Advantage: This is a versatile type of conflict that can be especially helpful at specific times, so it should be wielded strategically. Taking away something the character deems vital, like a position of authority, a trusted ally, or cherished relationship, can convince them to stumble through that first story door. These conflicts can also test their commitment to the objective or offer enlightenment when they're chasing a false goal.

Power Struggles: These tussles often happen in relationships where characters don't have equal status, such as a police officer and suspect, boss and employee, or teacher and student. Conflict will also arise when it's perceived that one person is using their position unfairly or when the person with less power tries to level the playing field or unseat the other party.

Miscellaneous Challenges: Conflict is multifaceted, and like most things in life, not every scenario can be filed neatly into a particular box. If you're searching for conflict that provides a unique challenge for your character or complicates their situation in ways you might not have considered, look through the ideas in this category. 

Conflict, as awful as it can be, is an opportunity for characters to discover who they really are—but only if they can let go of who they were. In this way, it drives character development. It also moves the story forward as those involved are forced to take action. With just a little preliminary thought and planning, the conflict scenarios you include in your story can do exactly this. So choose wisely!

For more information on how to incorporate conflict effectively for your characters and your story, see Volume 1 and Volume 2 of The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles