Sometimes a scene needs a splash of hot sauce— just one ingredient to make it more thrilling or surprising, or even a little uncomfortable.
If a scene feels bland, you can add conflict to capture your readers’ attention. Conflict takes many forms, but it can be defined as anything that gets in the way of a character’s happiness or prevents them from achieving their goals. Here are four flavors you can try out.
Flavor One: Bold
The character makes a brave move, putting themselves in danger.
It’s easy for the main character to turn into a passive observer in a scene where there’s conflict between two other characters. They are passengers of the story rather than drivers. But by deciding to act, they are creating a question in the reader’s mind — what will the consequences be?
Let’s look at the knife-throwing scene from Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel Divergent. The protagonist, Tris, is undergoing rigorous physical training to become a member of Dauntless, a group that values bravery and strength.
In this scene, the short-tempered Dauntless leader, Eric, is teaching them how to throw knives. The underdog of the group, Al, sucks at knife-throwing, and Eric angrily calls him out, asking his co-leader, Four, to help him teach Al a lesson. Eric tells Al: “You’re going to stand there as he throws those knives until you learn not to flinch.”
The atmosphere is tense as Tris observes the scene. But then she makes a choice.
I look from Al’s wide, dark eyes to his shaking hands to the determined set of Four’s jaw. Anger bubbles in my chest, and bursts from my mouth: “Stop it.”
Four turns the knife in his hand, his fingers moving painstakingly over the metal edge. He gives me such a hard look that I feel like he’s turning me to stone. I know why. I am stupid for speaking up while Eric is here; I am stupid for speaking up at all.
“Any idiot can stand in front of a target,” I say. “It doesn’t prove anything except that you’re bullying us. Which, as I recall, is a sign of cowardice.”
“Then it should be easy for you,” Eric says. “If you’re willing to take his place.”
The last thing I want to do is stand in front of that target, but I can’t back down now. I didn’t leave myself the option.
Tris stands against the wall, and Four throws the knives — one nicks her ear. Afterward, Tris is pissed at Four and accuses him of being just as bad as Eric. Four implies that he did it to help her, which leaves Tris confused.
The threat of violence hangs heavy as a source of conflict here, and this scene establishes several objectives:
- It shows that Eric and Four are different types of leaders
- It reinforces how dangerous the training is
- It showcases Tris as a defender of the weak
- Added tension comes from the fact that Four, Tris’s love interest, is the one throwing the knives. Four’s reaction at the end of the scene hints at his protective feelings toward her.
Tris’s decision to intervene is what allows all this to happen.
It can be equally powerful for a character’s lack of boldness to create major consequences. What if Tris considered taking Al’s place, but then chickened out? Al might’ve flinched into the knife’s path and gotten himself killed. Tris would’ve regretted not choosing to act, and that guilt might’ve influenced her later choices.
We can see the consequences of inaction in books like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, where the whole plot revolves around one choice, leading the protagonist to seek later redemption.
Put your protagonist in a situation where they can make a bold move. Will they watch an innocent get hurt or try to protect them? Kill their enemy or show mercy? Lie or tell the truth? These hard choices reveal a character’s true nature.
Flavor Two: Bitter
Someone delivers bad news.
In the case of receiving bad news, the main character might ask their best friend to find out if their crush likes them back — and the best friend hedges in his response before finally revealing that said crush has actually got the hots for him, the best friend, and not the protagonist.
In the case of giving bad news, the protagonist might need to tell a mother that her son has died in battle, and he died a traitor.
In either case, there is a hopeful question (like “Does she love me back?” or “Is my son alive?”) followed by a devastating answer that’s even worse than a simple “no.” The best friend struggles to tell the protagonist, “Not only does your crush not love you, but she actually loves me instead.” The protagonist has to tell that mother, “Not only is your son dead, but he was also a traitor.”
Bad news can come in many shades of horrible. Death is a common one, and when the reader knows it’s coming but the character doesn’t, it can generate a sense of dread.
In The Iliad, one can feel Achilles’ anguish after he learns of his best friend Patroclus’ death; Hector, his enemy, has slain him and stolen his armor. Fueled by his intense grief, Achilles rejoins the battle. Similarly, when Denethor learns of his son Boromir’s death in The Return of the King, it pushes him further off the deep end, and his despair drives his attempt to burn his other son alive.
Hearing of a loved one’s death often acts as an impetus for character action, whether for good or ill.
Another form of bad news is the threat of violence or betrayal. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, the main character Jim must deliver bad news to the ship’s captain — he’s overheard that some of the crew are planning a mutiny. Stevenson builds anticipation by creating a slight delay between when Jim finds out about the mutiny and when he tells the captain.
Captain Smollett, the squire, and Dr. Livesey were talking together on the quarterdeck, and, anxious as I was to tell them my story, I durst not interrupt them openly. While I was still casting about in my thoughts to find some probable excuse, Dr. Livesey called me to his side. He had left his pipe below, and being a slave to tobacco, had meant that I should fetch it; but as soon as I was near enough to speak and not to be overheard, I broke out immediately: “Doctor, let me speak. Get the captain and squire down to the cabin, and then make some pretence to send for me. I have terrible news.”
The doctor changed countenance a little, but next moment he was master of himself.
“Thank you, Jim,” said he quite loudly, “that was all I wanted to know,” as if he had asked me a question.
The dramatic tension comes from the readers wondering how the other characters will emotionally react and what actions they will take in response to this news. You can build anticipation by stretching out that moment until it snaps at the reveal, the greatest point of conflict.
Flavor Three: Ghost Pepper
The protagonist makes a mistake that goes against their own goals.
Similar to eating an extremely spicy pepper, this action is often self-destructive. What if, during a conversation, the main character accidentally offends the person they’re talking to — and that person is a crime boss? What if, in the process of learning a new skill, they injure themselves or someone else — such as their love interest? These mistakes should further complicate the plot or character relationships.
A character can also make mistakes in acting selfishly and hurting someone else, whether emotionally or physically.
In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the narrator Celie makes a selfish choice that she later regrets. A young man named Harpo turns to Celie for advice about his wife Sofia’s stubborn attitude. Harpo wants to know what “he ought to do to her to make her mind.” Celie has noticed how Sofia talks freely all the time and doesn’t fear her husband like Celie does. In her jealousy, Celie tells Harpo, “Beat her.” So, here is our protagonist telling a man to beat his wife — a woman she’s friends with, no less. Sofia confronts Celie afterward.
You told Harpo to beat me, she said.
No I didn’t, I said.
Don’t lie, she said.
I didn’t mean it, I said.
Then what you say it for? she ast.
She standing there looking me straight in the eye. She look tired and her jaws full of air.
I say it cause I’m a fool, I say. I say it cause I’m jealous of you. I say it cause you do what I can’t.
What that? she say.
Fight. I say.
She stand there a long time, like what I said took the wind out her jaws. She mad before, sad now.
She say, All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house.
This selfish action unveils Celie’s deepest insecurities — she hates her own inability to fight back against the men in her life and takes it out on Sofia, another woman. Their discussion about violence showcases the novel’s larger themes regarding the gender dynamic between husbands and wives. It also creates a moment of kinship between Celie and Sofia as they try to better understand each other and themselves.
Mistakes teach us important lessons about ourselves, as they do for our characters.
Flavor Four: Sweet and Sour
An ally becomes an obstacle.
Conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is expected, but when two friends butt heads, the scene takes on a different type of friction. Friends might suddenly have clashing goals, or even if they share the same goal, they could disagree on how to accomplish it.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the main trio — Harry, Ron, and Hermione — are rushing to sneak out of the Common Room and stop someone from stealing the philosopher’s stone. Just as they’re about to leave, they run into Neville, a fellow Gryffindor and friend who usually lets people walk all over him. This time, however, Neville is adamant about sticking up for what he believes in.
“You can’t go out,” said Neville, “you’ll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble.”
“You don’t understand,” said Harry, “this is important.”
But Neville was clearly steeling himself to do something desperate.
“I won’t let you do it,” he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. “I’ll— I’ll fight you!”
“Neville,” Ron exploded, “get away from that hole and don’t be an idiot — ”
“Don’t you call me an idiot!” said Neville. “I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand up to people!”
“Yes, but not to us,” said Ron in exasperation. “Neville, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
He took a step forward and Neville dropped Trevor the toad, who leapt out of sight.
“Go on then, try and hit me!” said Neville, raising his fists. “I’m ready!”
Harry turned to Hermione.
“Do something,” he said desperately.
Hermione stepped forward.
“Neville,” she said, “I’m really, really sorry about this.”
She raised her wand.
“Petrificus Totalus!” she cried, pointing it at Neville.
Neville’s arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board.
Hermione ran to turn him over. Neville’s jaws were jammed together so he couldn’t speak. Only his eyes were moving, looking at them in horror.
The tension in this scene comes from the difficulty in resolving the conflict. If they were facing off against their nemesis Draco Malfoy, they wouldn’t have hesitated to petrify him. But because their opponent is an ally, the choice is much harder, and it also makes the outcome less predictable. To achieve their goal of sneaking out, the characters are forced to bend their own moral code and hurt a friend.
So, if you have a scene where multiple characters are deciding what to do next, try adding disagreement. Who is the person the protagonist would least expect to create an obstacle? Make them the obstacle.
There’s a caveat here, though — the action has to make sense for that particular character. You don’t want characters disagreeing just for the sake of conflict. In the Harry Potter scene, Neville is following up on the advice Ron gave him about standing up for himself, and Gryffindor is at risk of losing the House Cup if they get into more trouble — he has clear motivations that fit his character. This scene also influences the plot later on, as it’s Neville’s bravery in standing up against his friends that causes Gryffindor to earn the extra points they need to win the House Cup at the end of the novel.
The Four Flavors
Stepping back, we can see that all these examples share certain features — namely, they involve the protagonist doing or saying things that cause confrontation with other characters.
Active choices, bad news, mistakes, and tension between allies often manifest as huge turning points or plot twists. But you can add smaller moments of conflict like this to keep readers absorbed in the story on a scene-to-scene basis.
These strategies aren’t necessarily meant to be used in every story — just like you wouldn’t use every flavor in every dish!
- Identify a “blah” scene you’ve already written or are struggling to write.
- Determine what you want the reader to take away from that scene. Do you want to showcase the protagonist’s strengths or their flaws? Is there any underlying tension between two characters that could somehow be brought into the open?
- Choose your source of conflict based on the answer to those questions. What does the character dread, and how can you make that happen?
Whatever you do, keep writing.
In the comments, I’d love to hear about those moments of delicious conflict you’ve enjoyed cooking up in your work in progress.
This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!