How Does an Author Use Conflict in a Story?

An engaging story draws the reader into a new world, distracting him from his everyday life. Authors use conflict to keep a reader's eyes glued to the page, to keep a reader wondering "what next?" In fiction, conflict typically consists of obstacles or antagonizing forces that stand in the way of a character achieving his goals.

Types of Conflict

Man-versus-man conflict occurs when one man stands between the protagonist and her goals. Man-versus-self conflict occurs when a character's conflict lies within her personality, habits and wishes. Man-versus-society conflict occurs when a protagonist is at odds with society as a whole. Man-versus-nature conflict occurs when characters struggle against powerful forces of nature. Typically, authors explore one type of conflict in a short story and several types of conflict within a longer story. In most stories, authors impose a conflict closely related to the theme. For example, a story with the theme "be true to yourself" typically contains man-versus-self conflict.


The plot of a story essentially charts the progress of a character facing and overcoming obstacles. Each obstacle, also known as a plot point, functions as a new conflict. In a story wherein a man wishes to save his wife from kidnappers, the conflict resides foremost between himself and the kidnappers. If he is in a rush to overtake someone and a wrecked bus forces him to slow down, the bus adds a new conflict. Typically, the plot of a story starts with the major conflict and each obstacle thereafter adds to the total conflict.

Tension and Pacing

As conflict in a story builds, tension builds. Though tension typically accompanies conflict, tension also increases alongside rising elements of mystery, dramatic irony, and suspense. A reader feels tension when he worries that the protagonist will not reach her goal, due to a series of conflicts, or that the protagonist faces danger, because of a specific conflict. Typically, a story with excellent pacing consists of steadily rising conflict that culminates in a climax. The climax, which occurs near the end of the story, brings the resolution to the major conflict. In a story wherein a man wishes to save his wife, for instance, the climax comes when the man succeeds in saving his wife.


A fully developed character - one who functions not just as a distinct individual but as a part of society - exists within a framework of relationships. As in real life, even the best relationships contain conflict. The specific conflicts that arise within a relationship help an author define a character's personality and his relationships. For example, a character that engages in a fight with his wife over the well-being of their children is different than a character who fights with his wife because she talks to another man. The first character acts in a positive way, and thus is likely a good father and a moral person, while the latter character is jealous and possessive.

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