Using the 6 Types of Conflict to Create Pitch-Perfect Tension

Conflict is the lifeblood of stories. However, most of the time we think conflict can only happen between characters.

This isn’t the case. In fact, there are many other types of conflict writers can create. But before we get to those, let’s define conflict.

Conflict = result of a force stopping a character getting what they want …

… Which creates tension.

Most of the time, this opposing force will be another character. However, this force could also be a whole bunch of other things. Let’s look at the different types of conflict:

1. Character vs Character

This is the most common type of conflict. In this scenario, a character’s goals are being blocked or opposed by another character, typically called the antagonist.

2. Character vs Nature

With this type of conflict, the protagonist is pitted against humanity’s oldest foe: nature. Whether it’s a storm that drives the main character’s car off the road, or a tornado that dumps sharks onto a screaming bystander, there’s plenty of ways to use the elements to create tension.

Example: Castaway. In this movie, Tom Hanks’ character is marooned on a deserted island, and must use his wits to survive.

3. Character vs Society

Sometimes the obstacles our heroes face aren’t easy to pin down. If that’s the case, and your protagonist is facing some form of nebulous external pressure, chances are that conflict is society-based.

With conflict between a character a society, a character might struggle with the pressure to conform, or be scorned by society, or reject society’s values. Also, ‘society’ doesn’t have to refer to the billions of people who populate Earth. It could be a smaller group, like a school clique, or the society of an office.

Example: 1984. The oppressive forces of Big Brother (society) generate the main type of conflict in this dystopian story.

4. Character vs Self

Internal conflict can be a rich source of tension. Protagonists who doubt themselves, struggle with addiction or wish they could be better all display self-related conflict.

Example: Logan. Easily my favourite movie of 2017, this gritty film portrays the titular character as a broken-down, depressed alcoholic. This internal conflict creates a strong theme of atonement. This itself feeds into the external plot, showing the rich creative possibilities offered by this type of conflict.

5. Character vs The Supernatural

In classic myths, humanity’s struggle against the supernatural serves as the central form of conflict. Whether your protagonist is struggling to cling to their faith in God, or fighting against magicians, the supernatural continues to create conflict in stories today.

Example: Skullduggery Pleasant. In this YA-urban-fantasy series, mages exist in the modern world, providing a rich source of supernatural conflict. Other popular YA-series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson also use supernatural conflict.

6. Character vs Technology

Technology is crucial to all societies, not just our modern one. (And by the way – ‘technology’ doesn’t just mean your smart phone. Plows, roads and swords are all examples of human-made technology.) This makes it a great source of conflict. Science fiction stories in particular often focus on conflict between humans and technology, especially developing technology.

Example: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner). In this classic sci-fi thriller, conflict is created through the protagonist trying to find and kill human-like androids.

Creating Perfect Tension:

As I’ve written about before, tension and suspense are crucial ingredients of good stories. If you want to craft excellent tension, use all 6 types of conflict. A story that over-relies on one type of conflict (i.e. character vs character) will fall flat – most big-budget action blockbusters show why this is the case.

For example, Castaway would suck if the only conflict was between Tom Hanks’ character and nature. By adding different types of conflict (internal conflict through Hanks’ longing for his wife; society-based conflict where Hanks struggles to understand the new world once he’s rescued; character conflict between Hanks and his wife’s new partner), the story feels layered, realistic and three-dimensional.

So, when you’re mapping out conflict in your story, don’t settle for one type! Use all 6 forms of conflict – your readers will thank you for it.

What are your thoughts on the 6 types of conflict? Do you agree with the way I categorised them? Do you have a favoured type of conflict? Can you think of stories that use the 6 types of conflict perfectly? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Photo credit: mdanys via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

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