Tag Archives: conflict

Why Mutually Exclusive Desires Make Great Conflicts


Your story should be jammed packed with conflicts.

You should have conflicts about the setting, like the tropical storm that’s been seen down south is heading north and could turn into a hurricane. Or, you could have conflicts about every day life, like maybe the cat is missing and he has a history of getting caught in small spaces. Also, you could have conflicts involving sickness, like a character with Crohn’s disease can’t stop eating animal crackers. Or maybe a conflict regarding money: the bank may foreclose on the family homestead any minute now.

A great story has many kinds of conflicts all layered on each other, each eating away at the main objectives of the main character.

Why Mutually Exclusive Desires Make Great Conflicts

But the best conflict -- the one that will keep your reader turning pages is on that pits two…

Mutually exclusive desires are when our character, let’s say, Steve, wants to do one thing, but he also wants to do something else.

He wants to provide his family with a good home and oboe lessons for his daughter but he also wants to play the ponies at the track. Another example could be that Steve wants more power and responsibility in his neighborhood gang, but he also wants not to whack his best friend for ratting out.

Good mutually exclusive goals can work side by side for a while, but then, somewhere about 2/3 of the way into the story, Steve has to choose.

He realizes that if he takes what he wants all along, then he’ll have to sacrifice something that he wants even more. This is the hinge on which the entire second act sits. It’s this moment that sets up the climactic ending. The reader understands that he can achieve only one of these goals. This is the type of stuff that your reader will eat with a spoon. This is the type of story telling that keeps those pages turning. WHAT WILL HE DO?

But let’s back up a minute. How did you get to this point in your story telling? How have you set Steve up so that he can get into this great climactic situation?

You start with Abraham Maslow.

Maslow was this scientist in the 1930s who came up with this hierarchy of needs for individuals in society. He was not a novelist. I’m not even sure he knew how to create a character. But what he did do was articulate how people get their needs met.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Most of this is going to make a lot of sense to you.

You’ve been in those places where you yourself had mutually exclusive needs and it caused conflict. Conflicts are not so much fun when they happen to us in real life — but they are great fun in stories. If your character, say, Steve, wanted to have this one thing in his life. But then it threatened another equally important desire. He would have to make a choice on what to do about it.

While you are plotting, consider all the needs that Steve has:

Are they at the bottom of the pyramid? He needs to maintain his immediate food, clothing and shelter needs. If your story is a wilderness adventure story, this will be obvious. Steve has to find a place away from the elements to sleep tonight. He’s not sure he has enough jerky for one more day. He also thinks he’s being followed by a bear.  If he stays here, he’ll certainly die from exposure. If he travels on, there is no guarantee of shelter. What will he do?

Or are they on the next level up? If your story is a thriller, Steve wants to keep the Soviets from destroying the military installation in his hometown. Steve is worried not just about his family, but also his neighborhood and maybe if he’ll lose his job at the bank to the communists. If he confronts the Soviets, then they could kill him. But if he doesn’t they’ll destroy capitalism anyway and he won’t have a job, but he’ll be alive. What will he do?

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Or do things get a bit complex with Steve’s relationships? If your story is a family saga, Steve’s issues may be harder to find. He may want to pursue his lifelong goal of touring with a traveling bassoon ensemble. But he’s worried what his father will say. He could lose this opportunity to play or he could lose the family fortune. His band adores him. They can’t function without him. But a cool ten million could buy him friends. What will he do?

Or Is it really all about Steve’s inner life? In the next level, Steve’s quest for significance could come from his life’s work: A book Amish Zombie Princesses. His manuscript has been stolen. The low life who stole it is really his loyal writing coach. These aren’t life and death stakes, but they are gripping nonetheless. He could fight for his book, after all it took him a whole week to write! But then he loses a friend and a mentor. What will he do?

And as for the upper level? To be honest, few books are written with those kinds of needs– the need for self-actualization. Les Miserables is one of the few novels I can think of that touch on those needs. You may find that your readers identify more with the needs on the lower levels.

And that fine, the lower the level, the more likely you have hand-to-hand combat and that’s always fun to read.

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All of this is well and good but unless you put your character in a position, about 2/3 of the way through the story, in which he has to choose between two needs.

He can also choose between two needs that are on two separate levels. Many of the great books you’ve read or films you’ve watched have this kind of choice. A great storyteller will bring his reader along for the ride. But then, a choice must be made, and to the reader it is excruciating.

What does Steve choose?

Steve makes a choice that is not necessarily predictable, but the one that makes the most sense. He can choose a third option that satisfies neither needs. He can come up with an option that satisfied both. The final choice he makes is the climactic moment. After that choice is made, the results should be final and permanent. Hopefully the reader will say, “Of course! That’s the only real choice after all.”

In your story, make sure you have many layers of conflict, but for your main character, develop his needs intentionally.

He’s going to have to make a choice. It doesn’t have to be the right one, but it does have to be the best way to end a story.

Did you like this post? Want to read more like it?

Try this:

Top 10 Questions To Ask About Authority Figures That Could Beef Up Your Conflict


Top 10 Things You Can Do When You Are Stuck, Either Literally or Figuratively


Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

Four Reasons Why Authors Shouldn’t Be Nice In Their Stories

Nice authors can be dull ones.

I think that authors should be well-behaved and respectful. They should have great ethics and never be undignified or rude in public where their readers can see them. I fully believe that an author’s brand is far too fragile (especially in this competitive market) to risk alienation by their readers for their bad behavior.

But when it comes their writing, authors need to stop being meek. Instead they should be as mean as they can possibly be within the confines of their genre.

If well-mannered authors carry their sweetness into their stories too much, they risk weakening their books.

Nice people can make dull writers.

In Their Stories by Katharine Grubb 10 Minute Novelist

Not-so-nice authors need to be hard on their main characters. Great stories are built on conflict and the more conflict, the more tension. The more tension? The more the readers are engaged in what’s going on. A sweet and gentle writer may feel sorry for their poor main character and ease up on them a bit. But that will put readers to sleep faster than herbal tea. Instead, once the protagonist’s goal is determined, the not-so-nice author should put obstacles and setbacks around every corner. So what if the protagonist doesn’t like it? They aren’t real!

Not-so-nice authors need to start some wars between characters. Nothing makes me more stabby than when my children argue for the sake of arguing. I am a huge fan of peace and quiet. But in my books, I need to be willing to start some personality wars. A not-so-nice author should create deceptions, misunderstandings, lies, contradictions and failures. The protagonist does need his squad around him, but some bickering would make the story more interesting. This is for book, the bickering will be quiet. Unlike my kids.

“If you actually succeed in creating a utopia, you’ve created a world without conflict, in which everything is perfect. And if there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading!”

— Veronica Roth

Not-so-nice authors need to put all of the conflict resolutions late in the second act. If a tender-hearted author decides to solve the big problems for the main character too early, the the story doesn’t feel right. Rising conflict should have a goal: that ultimate moment about 3/4 of the way in. Not-so-nice authors realize this and have the protagonist’s struggles get worse and worse up to that point. Who wants the reader to stop early? No one!

Not-so-nice authors need to use all types of conflicts in the story. Conflicts come in layers. An overly sensitive author may just keep the story to the protagonist and the acquisition of his goal. But a not-so-nice author may incorporate the main character’s health issues, the unreliable vehicle, or the impending tornado. A not-so-nice author not just uses the antagonist to thwart the main character, but has the IRS show up too. A complex series of setback and roadblocks make a story interesting. Don’t worry too much about the main character, he’s going to make it in the end and be all the stronger for it. The more conflicts a not-so-nice author puts in the story, the greater the tension, the more interesting the story and the more enjoyable it will be for the readers.

Save your niceness for your online persona.

Put that mean and torturous streak into your stories!

Are you too nice? What can you do to increase the tension in your story? 

I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

Top 10 Questions To Ask About Authority Figures That Could Beef Up Your Conflict by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

I may know a thing or two about conflict: I have three teenagers.

Conflict is really great in stories, it raises the stakes, it drives characters and it makes the story more interesting. In life, I could do without it.

I’m the mom, so I have something besides gray hair and tax files that my kids don’t have: I have authority. I have more power, more wisdom, more responsibility and more invested in them than they do. (Note: I didn’t say more money. They have more money than I do.) A regular source of our conflict is them lamenting the fact that they have less. And they want more. It’s this imbalance of more/less that I’ve noticed in a lot of relationships. This is the stuff of conflict. I’d like to suggest the more we analyze it in our fiction, the richer our story’s conflict will be.

Top 10 Questions To Ask About The Authority Figures In Your Story That Could Beef Up Your Conflict by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

Understanding the nature of the authorities in your fiction will help you define your characters, it will beef up your conflict and it will clarify your antagonists. Your main character has less. The authority figure has more. As you are planning how your main character can get in and out of trouble, consider how this imbalance can build and sustain your conflict.

Regardless of whether or not this relationship is a formal or an informal one, the person or institution with more is the one with the authority. I am the parent, so I have more maturity, more power and more responsibility over my children. The local police department has more power and responsibility, so they are the authority when it comes to traffic laws. Your boss could have more influence and seniority. Your elderly parents may have more money. An authority figure can have more wisdom, more age, more experience, more power, more and they use that more to try to control our protagonist.

Use these ten questions to analyze the imbalance between your protagonist and your antagonist to make your conflicts more interesting.

1. What expectations does your authority figures have of your protagonist? The greater number of expectations, the greater the imbalance of power, the more potential for conflict. Consider having your authority figures demand more from your main characters — this will create more sympathy from your reader and a sense of justice will be a bigger drive.

2. How well does your authority figure communicate these expectations? The more unclear or cloudy that communication is, the greater your conflict! Consider shaping your antagonists personality in such a way that they are poor communicators, they give mixed messages or they set your protagonist up to fail.

3. How does your authority figure demonstrate inconsistency with their expectations? This falls into the classic “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. If you have an inconsistent authority figure, your protagonist may face a moral dilemma, which can add depth and meaning to your story.

MOM! Really? Can we? No? But MOM!
MOM! Really? Can we? No? But MOM!

4. How much empathy does your authority figure demonstrate to those who are under him? A more empathetic antagonist will encourage sympathy from your reader — not such a bad thing. A less empathetic antagonist will make the evil villain even more obvious. Think of empathy as the dial on your antagonist that makes things more or less fuzzy. If you want your reader to really wonder who to root for, make your authority figures more empathetic. If you want your reader to only root for your protagonist, then make your authority figures cold and unfeeling.

5. How does your authority figure react emotionally when their authority is threatened or the rules are broken or expectations are not met? Do they yell and scream? Are they quiet and unresponsive? Do they manipulate circumstances to make them pay? The more surprising their emotional response, the more interesting the story. You may even consider making a list of all the things the emotionally distant father could do when he finds out is son is in jail, then choose the most unexpected result.

6. Is your authority figure someone that your main character has chosen or is it someone who is just put in their life? This distinction will make a huge difference in the way that your authority figure is viewed and respected. Parents are not chosen, so the teens under their authority have to live with the authority whether they like it or not. (Ahem.) An employee, however, has chosen the authority figures in their lives. If they don’t like the situation, they can always quit. Or put another way, how much power does your main character have in this position? The less power they have, the more potential for conflict, the better your story.

7. Does your authority figures have authority figures over them? This can also add to your conflict. Let’s say your main character’s boss is a softie: they look the other way when main character comes in late. Yet, the CEO of the company finds out that boss isn’t doing their job. This conflict trickles down to main character and creates conflict. Examine your authority figures in your story and ask yourself, who do they have to please? Who has power over them? How can this create trickle down conflict?

8. Does your setting create new levels of authority that contemporary life doesn’t have? For example, your 16-year-old heroine in 2016 has far less authority in her life than a 16-year-old heroine in 1916. In your research, make a list of authority figures your setting will demand. Specifically list how this affects the life of your main character. Use this list to create conflict.

9. Do the authority figures in your story want more authority than they are entitled to? Your main character’s landlord already has an expectation of rent and respect of his property, what if he wants to enter the house without knocking? What if he parks his car in the driveway? What if he wants our main character, the tenant, to hide stolen goods? By increasing your authority figure’s expectations to the unreasonable or unexpected, you can create new levels of conflict and that can enrich your story.

10. How does your authority figure react when they lose their authority? Our main character quits his job so his psychopathic boss can’t harass him anymore — unless he follows him home. If your antagonist goes beyond the expectations of his authoritative position, this can add elements of surprise and drama to your story. More conflict!!

If I’m having conflict in my house, I can almost always bet it’s an issue of authority.

If I’m having conflict in my stories, (which I want!) the first and best place to look is in the relationship with authorities. So give your authorities more attention, you may be pleased with the results.


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I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.