“How Much Worse Can It Get?!”: How to Effectively Combine Conflict in Your Story

Photo by lucas clarysse on Unsplash

The first quarter of 2024 has admittedly not been all that kind to me. With my fairly successful rebranding, I set lofty professional and personal goals. Purposefully making the decision to treat my business like a business felt like a weight had finally been lifted from my shoulders. I was moving closer to the work I set out to do.

As usual, life had other plans. The universe cackled and, day by day, set fire to each goal. It was as if it knew how much I hated when my plans go off the rails.

My autism must have structure: an optimized routine and to-do list to reach each of my objectives. My ADHD, bipolar 2, and major depression team up to see how many forks and knives they could shove into me on any given day. Let me tell you, balancing those diagnoses on a daily basis sometimes feels like Star Trek‘s Borg are trying to assimilate me. Resistance is futile and whatnot.

When these types of personal and professional conflicts blend together, it looks as if the world is out to get me. It’s not something I look forward to every morning when I sit at my desk, but it is something your readers look forward to when they open your book.

In her book Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel, Cheryl St. John reiterates that “we have to make it difficult for our characters to reach their goals. It’s our job to throw opposition at them and keep telling them no.”

So, how can you effectively combine conflicts in your story?

How can you pile on new stressors that are both plausible and consistent without venturing into the melodramatic?

Below are three tips to help you in your drafting and self-editing journey.

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Use Subplots

Technically, a subplot is its own separate entity. It can involve either your protagonist or one or two major secondary characters. Subplots don’t just add another layer to your story as a whole, though. Effectively and seamlessly threaded into the main conflict, subplots give your reader another lens through which to view that character’s resilience.

My business became about three services:

I’ve even thrown in a dash of nonfiction line/copyediting for a little razzle-dazzle.

I stepped up my content creation. I even—le gasp—started making TikTok videos on a regular basis, both scripted and native.

In making these changes, I created a subplot I didn’t see coming. I want to write my own fiction books. That’s a conflict for me only because I have the same 24 hours to work with as every other human. And yet…. I really like sleep, y’all. Love it, in fact. Can’t get enough of it.

Your subplot(s) may never interact with the main conflict like mine. In fact, sometimes it’s even better if they run parallel to that main conflict. It gives your character space to grow in intriguing ways, which will then passively affect the decisions they make in dealing with the main conflict.

Keep in mind that regardless of whether it slams into, travels alongside, or weaves through and around the main story, subplots must serve a purpose. If you can take it out and the character is not affected by being removed? In short, nothing lost and precious page space gained.

Challenge Relationships

While my editing specialties are queer romance and queer romantic suspense, relationship problems are not confined in the least to these two subgenres. Interpersonal conflicts are between your protagonist and another entity (usually living, but not a requirement) that either aids or blocks your protagonist from their short- or long-term goals.

They clash over objectives, plans, where to go for dinner, or the final showdown with the story’s antagonist. These kinds of conflicts serve to intrigue your reader because they know the fight is usually about way more than whether or not to take that shortcut to the villain’s lair.

Intrapersonal conflicts are what bolster the interpersonal ones. Merriam-Webster defines it as “occurring within the individual mind or self.” In other words, internal conflict weighs your character down. That unacknowledged—or worse, ignored—weight gets heavier as the story unfolds for both your character and your reader. They are what have that reader up in the middle of the night wanting to shake literal sense into that person and scream, “Can you just get your s**t together already?!”

Give your protagonist insecurities. Show their internal response when they feel regret or shame. Drop hints as to how those same responses will bring your character closer to their breaking point.

External conflicts drive the plot. Internal conflict drives the character arc. It pulls the character away from what they want and pushes them toward that lightbulb moment of realizing the true purpose of their journey. What they most wanted is not likely to be what they needed, tangibly or intangibly.

Raise the Stakes

Being an entrepreneur is not as glamourous as it looks on TV. In fact, every day I question the decisions and situations that led me to this point in my life, hanging onto hope by my stress-chewed cuticles. And yet, despite the emotional, physical, and financial obstacles that only seem to get higher and worse, I still get out of bed, sit at my desk, and power up my laptop, ready to try again to reach my goals.

Why? Fall down seven times. Get up eight.

Stakes in fiction, whether they come from external or internal goals, are the motivation behind every choice your character makes and why they act on those choices. Even knowing they can’t predict the outcome, those stakes drive them forward anyway. Donald Maass makes this point clear:

A hero who does not have many reasons to solve a problem will gradually become less interesting. [. . .] When stakes rise to a high enough order of magnitude, a protagonist’s problems will become the problems that we all have.

Your story’s stakes must matter to your protagonist. That character must believe that their inaction will have devastating consequences, whether for themselves or for those they care about and want to protect. No matter how inconsequential the conflict may seem to others, show your protagonist as someone who cares about how their actions will directly or indirectly affect those around them.

In fact, consider occasionally showing them not caring what others think and doing what they’re going to do anyway.

If you don’t do anything else with your story’s stakes, remember to always make things worse. Having a goal is good. Having motivation to attempt to achieve that goal is even better. But goals and motivations are dead in the water if your protagonist is not facing bigger and more difficult obstacles leading to the novel’s climax.

Even assuming your protagonist will eventually defeat the antagonist or villain, readers must simultaneously believe that character will pay a steep price that the average person—real or imagined—would never even consider.

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

On June 28, 2010, I started what I always call my first real “adult” day job. I was earning a whopping US $14.00 an hour. Even more, I had benefits. Three months shy of fourteen years later? Unfortunately, I do not have benefits. What I do have now is an innate ability to power through even my worst days. Alongside that, I have an insatiable thirst for learning and improving my skill set on a daily basis.

Thanks to the support system I’ve cultivated over the past eight years since I permanently moved from my hometown, I can take risks knowing they have my back. Better, they’ll call me on my idiocy and demand I do what they know I can do.

Only your protagonist can walk the road you’ve set them on. You are duty-bound as the author to fill that road with potholes, roadblocks, overturned trees, or a pack of blood-hungry hellhounds. Put them at odds with others, especially those they trust. Put them at odds with themselves.

Make them sacrifice more and more until they think they have no more left to give. Then take a little more.

Finally, make it clear to your readers that only your protagonist can actually overcome their conflict, both external and internal. Give them a plausible reason to care about your character’s struggles. They’ll stay up until the sun rises again, reflecting on your story one word at a time.

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