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Jun
19
2016

How to Intensify Your Story's Conflict (Without Being Cheesy) -- by Yaasha Wheeler

In every meeting of the main hero and the main villain, there must be an intensification of the conflict. This holds true even in those stories that center around internal conflict (man vs. his own conscience, for example), or conflict against a force (like nature or a corrupt system). 

You see, the reader unconsciously breaks the story into rounds (usually three), and expects each successive round to raise the stakes, with more on the line, more injuries received, and more suspense achieved.

The problem for the writer is: How do you intensify the conflict?


What Not to Do

One author I read explained the rising conflict in terms of a meeting between the hero and the villain. They meet in Round One, and get their first taste of the others' strength. In Round Two, they throw themselves into the fight, and the injuries multiply. The writer's dilemma: How to top Round Two? The answer of the author in the magazine: Add an uncontrollable circumstance. A freak earthquake, perhaps.

This was the point when I threw down the magazine with disgust. I've seen this technique played out too many times, and, frankly, it not only gets old, but it's super cheesy. 

Take, for example, the scene in which the hero and villain carry on an epic sword-fight while standing on floating islands over a river of lava. Right, like no one is breathing poisonous fumes or combusting from the super-heated atmosphere. 

Or they carry the battle to the very top of the highest skyscraper in the city, where they teeter on the edge of the rooftop. Right, like the wind at that height wouldn't blow you right off the roof. 

Or they race in their peppy sports cars or on their glorified motorcycles at 100 mph through a crowded city, ignoring stop lights and the rules of traffic. Right, like our valiant hero isn't endangering every pedestrian and motorist in the vicinity. Not so heroic, buddy.

So the question remains: How do you intensify the conflict without making the action cheesy? Here are a few ideas:

Sow suspense in the first conflict.

If you start at high intensity, then getting higher at every stage of conflict is difficult. If you start with low intensity, you make the higher intensity of later battles seem, by comparison, even more intense. I recommend that Round One remain a careful testing of each other's strengths. The purpose is not action, but suspense. It's a primer for the real action. 

Since most people are familiar with Star Wars (the original trilogy), I'll use it as an example. Luke Skywalker doesn't personally meet the villain Darth Vader in "Episode IV: A New Hope," but he watches his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi die beneath Vader's lightsaber. This heightens the suspense. With his mentor gone, Luke must take his place. The watcher asks, What happens when Luke finally meets Vader himself?

Reveal character in the second conflict.

The second conflict is not about the conflict itself. It is about the character of the villain and the character of the hero. What are the hero's strengths and weaknesses? What are the villains strengths and weaknesses? Does either have secret motives?

In "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back," Luke trains for the inevitable show-down between himself and Vader. Then Vader deliberately lures Luke, using Luke's friends as bait. The duel between Luke and Vader reveals a startling truth: Vader is Luke's father. When Vader tries to persuade Luke to join the Dark Side "and together we can rule as father and son," Luke plunges himself down a giant air shaft in a dramatic refusal. 

Thus we add two powerful elements to the conflict: an emotional twist, and the introduction of a struggle in the hero's conscience. It's a struggle that continues: Do I kill my father to save the galaxy, or do I compromise the galaxy to have mercy on my father?

Bring at least two elements of conflict into the final battle.

The three main types of conflict are: man versus man, man versus a force greater than himself, and man versus himself. I recommend bringing in at least two of those elements into the final conflict. If the main conflict is man versus man, I suggest adding man versus himself, since man versus a force greater than himself might lead back to those freak earthquakes. (Unless man versus a force greater than himself involves something like the hero's draining physical strength.) In general, I find the addition of a moral dilemma, seeded in the second conflict, to be most powerful.

In Star Wars "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi," Luke's conflict intensifies in all three ways. He is man against man, as he battles Vader in the presence of the powerful Emperor (so that's really man versus two men). He is man against himself, as his desire to save the galaxy conflicts with his desire to appeal to his father to return to the Light Side. He is man against a force greater than himself, as he feels the magnetic attraction of the Dark Side. (You could also call this another man vs. himself conflict; it depends how you look at it). Regardless of how you interpret the conflict, the fact remains that there are multiple dimensions to this final battle.

And that's what makes it so effective.

What are some of your favorite stories, and how do they intensify the conflict realistically and powerfully for you?


Yaasha Moriah is a speculative fiction author from New England. In 2015, her short story "Wings Beneath Water" earned Silver Honorable Mention in the international L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Her published works and free short stories can be found at YaashaMoriah.com.

This article first appeared on YaashaMoriah.com.

Posted by Yaasha Wheeler 19 Jun 2016 at 00:11
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Responses to this blog

Mhtritter 22 Jun 2016 at 13:50  
I see what you are saying and appreciate your analysis.


Or they carry the battle to the very top of the highest skyscraper in the city, where they teeter on the edge of the rooftop. Right, like the wind at that height wouldn't blow you right off the roof.


I am not sure, however, that I would dismiss this so out-of-hand. This is the type of dramatic fodder we see in lots of action motion pictures, which is why you added it as an example, and it is in so many movies because it accomplishes what it is meant to. While I agree with you that internal conflict is important to include, perhaps even crucial and critical to a story's lasting resonance, environmental conflicts are not necessarily bad or cheesy on their own and have a role to play and value to add when written well.
Ymoriah 22 Jun 2016 at 17:40  
I agree that environmental conflicts definitely have their place and I admit to even liking those movies where such (unrealistic) climactic battles take place. I guess I'm just weary of people using the same type of scenery as a crutch. "And now let's make it MORE interesting by making his footing preposterously precarious!" ...as if the main conflict is not intense enough to carry the scene on its own merits.

I'm not saying people can't use environment. If you look in history, the geography of various adventures or conflicts play a huge role and we have the right to do the same in fiction. The smart writer uses environment to his advantage, artistically and thoughtfully.
Dangit 22 Jun 2016 at 21:30  
Oh yeah! Then I must be dumber than a wet dirt rock. Please, tell me more.
Whimsybyrd 23 Jun 2016 at 18:22  
So here I am, outlining a story and having a rough time deciding on the ultimate conflict, and here you are writing about conflict! HUZZAH!

So here's a question, when do you introduce the overarching conflict? Star Wars has great examples of the types of conflict you cover in your article, but what about the story as a whole? Your examples cover one story segmented into three movies...So does each one have a unique conflict arc? I'd say so. When would you say these minor conflicts are introduced? What about the overarching light vs dark?

Also, do you have any suggestions on how to avoid being cheesy? Its been one of my bigger hurdles lately. I'm crafting characters and a world, but the conflict that brings them together.... I'm having a time with.

I refuse to go the route of 'big ancient evil', or orphan out to save the universe... but what else could motivate someone to take risks?

Thanks for writing the article
Ymoriah 2 Jul 2016 at 06:25  
Whimsybyrd, wow, you ask some good questions!

1) When do you introduce the overarching conflict? That depends on you. In LOTR, Tolkien introduced his after a few chapters (after Bilbo's party, for example). I'm the exact opposite. I like some small hint of it to show up on the first page, or even the first sentence. It hooks the reader from the beginning. In A New Hope, the opening scene begins with Princess Leia's ship getting boarded and her sending a desperate message to Obi-Wan through R2-D2. But it takes a while for us to understand what the conflict is all about, what plans she's got hidden, how to blow up the Death Star, etc. etc.

2) Does each one have a unique conflict arc? As you say, yes. It's sort of like a TV series. Every season must have its finale, but there's enough loose ends left to continue to the next season.

3) How do you avoid being cheesy? It's a hurdle for all of us, me included. Some of it just has to do with your style. You expect cheesiness from Princess Bride, for example, because it's meant to be a spoof. But if you're going serious, like LOTR... I wish there were a short cut, but I've never found one. I just study the heck out of human nature, observe what people actually do, talk to people, read history and more "serious" psychological fiction books like the ones by Orson Scott card, and find other resources to root myself in how reality actually works.

4) What else could motivate someone to take risks? Again, I defer to history. If you were George Washington, you were drawn into the conflict because you truly believed someone had to act against unjust taxation and other oppressions. If you were a Gentile during the Holocaust, you were drawn into the conflict because you saw that someone needed to hide the Jews and better if it was someone "unimportant" and unnoticed like you. If you were "Bonnie Prince Charlie," you were drawn into the conflict because you were born into it and groomed to believe that it was your right to reclaim the throne. If the world experienced a zombie apocalypse tomorrow, what would motivate you to fight?

Good luck in your story!
Breeze 8 Aug 2016 at 04:46  
Excellent points. I need to be reminded of these, because though I have six novels in print that are doing pretty well, I find it's easy to get bogged down in all the elements of a story and forget to include what drives it. Thanks for posting!

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