Learning How to Write Conflict

One of the main reasons I challenged myself to do the Year of Stories was to force myself to practice my writing. I’ve written 11 stories at this point and released 5 of them, with February’s batch of 4 more coming out soon.

Putting together a new short story every single week means that I have to explore lots of different plot types and methods of storytelling. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far, relating mostly to developing conflict.


1. Clarify the conflict.

Sometimes I’m tempted to write a story that’s based more on a concept than a conflict. In Burns Mar the Sun-Grasper’s Hands, for example, there isn’t actually much of a conflict: the events of the story take place without a whole lot of tension, and it doesn’t really feel like there’s something at stake.

As a speculative fiction writer, I love a good concept. I love to build a story around an idea, a “what if” scenario, like I did in Diana and the Animal and A Kingdom of White. If the concept is all the story has going for it, though, then it isn’t much of a story.

Conflict and tension keep the reader reading, so that’s something I’m trying to be more intentional about creating as I come up with the ideas for my future stories.

2. Tell the story during the story.

In Discovery Two, a significant portion of the conflict has been played out in the past, and doesn’t happen during the flow of the story. Building a conflict outside the events of the story doesn’t involve the reader in what’s happening, and it’s very important for the reader to feel involved, I think.

In the case of Discovery Two, the “outside-the-flow” conflict was playing out as the backdrop to an active, “inside-the-flow” sequence of events, so I think the story reads okay because of that, but if I was writing the story again I would try to find a way to build those past events more directly into the flow of the storytelling.

3. Make the characters proactive.

Don’t let the story happen to the character. Make them an active part of its evolution and resolution. Having passive characters who simply react to a story playing itself out in front of them is the storytelling equivalent of using the passive voice to build a sentence.

Not to pick too much on one story, but Burns Mar the Sun-Grasper’s Hands is an example of the main character being largely reactive rather than proactive. I don’t think the story is terrible, but I feel like the way I constructed it didn’t allow for the strongest storytelling.

4. Resolve the conflict.

If I do all of the other steps above, building a good conflict, playing out that conflict within the flow of the story, and making the characters proactive in exploring that conflict, it will all come to nothing if I don’t resolve the conflict.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Short stories are an especially fertile ground for cliffhangers, partial resolutions, and other forms of alternative plotting. But in general, a reader wants to feel satisfied with their experience when they come to the end of the story. The main questions should be answered. At least part of the conflict should be resolved.

A Kingdom of White is an example of a story that I think does this well. The overall conflict may not get resolved, but the conflict that is actually played out within the story–the character’s internal conflict–does get resolved. The larger, external conflict is left as a sort of cliffhanger. (That external conflict is something I’d love to expand into novel length, if I get the opportunity.)


Obviously I’m not an expert at applying all of these rules to my writing, not yet. I have a long way to go this year, and I expect to learn a lot more. I’m sure I’ll still see some of these weaknesses creeping into my stories here and there, but I’m growing and improving as a writer, and I hope that comes across to you as a reader.

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