Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 15, 2024

4 Story Moments that Don’t Need Conflict

by Becca Puglisi 

Conflict in every scene. 

It’s popular advice because it’s true. Conflict ratchets up the tension for readers because it makes the character’s success less likely, and readers start worrying about the hero’s ability to win. Will she find true love? Can he overcome his demons and move forward into fulfillment?

Conflict is also desirable because of the emotions it stirs. To engage readers, you have to engage their feelings, and a surefire way to do this is to threaten, humiliate, undermine, or sabotage the protagonist they’ve come to know and love. This is where emotion amplifiers can be especially useful.

Emotional Amplifiers

An emotion amplifier is a specific state or condition that influences what the character feels by disrupting their equilibrium and reducing their ability to think critically.

If you’ve done your job as the author, your character’s journey will be difficult enough. But add an amplifier like illness, pain, sensory overload, or burnout, and their situation becomes more tenuous. As the character’s volatility rises, their ability to think clearly and rationally drops. The result? Mistakes and mishaps that push them farther from their goal. And readers who feel their pain because they’ve been there and have experienced those same uncomfortable emotions.

So amplifiers are great vehicles for providing the conflict that will further your story and propel the protagonist along their character arc. Which is handy, because if every scene must have meaningful conflict, you’ll need a lot of it to get the character from Page One to The End

That being said, there are times when struggle and strife will actually get in your way. Here are 4 key story moments when it’s best to hold the conflict.

1. The Resolution Phase of a Scene or Plotline

Successful stories have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The same formula applies to strong scenes.

The beginning of a scene is an opportunity to show the scene goal, the thing the character is hoping to do that moves them toward their overall objective. 

But then conflict arrives in the form of obstacles, adversaries, or dilemmas; the middle of the scene is dedicated to the wrestling match with that conflict. (This is the perfect place for amplifiers to augment tension and complications.) 

The end of the scene shows whether the character is successful in reaching their goal. Hint: most of the time, they aren’t.

A visual image of the tension in a scene might look something like this:

graphic of what story tension looks like

Tension rises as the protagonist encounters conflict that makes it more difficult to get what they want. After a prolonged climb, the tension reaches a peak before dropping off as the scene is resolved and comes to an end.

New conflict applied during the end stage would ramp things up again, delaying the resolution. But this is the time to de-escalate the situation, not fan the flames. Once you reach this point in the scene, resist the urge to add conflict and or any amplifiers.

But what about cliffhangers? you ask. Half the chapters I read end with serious conflict, high tension, and a character smack in the middle of a sticky situation.

Ah, but in this case, you’re talking about chapters, not scenes. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same.

Scenes are the basic building blocks of a story. Every scene should follow a defined structure, and the scene is not complete until all the elements have been included. The arc above is a visual representation of that structure.

Chapters, on the other hand, are used to divide the story into manageable chunks for readers. Rather than adhering to a certain structure, the end of each chapter is arbitrarily determined by the author, a choice that depends largely on style.

A chapter might encompass a complete scene, or it might end in the middle of one. In the latter case, the chapter could end with high tension because it hasn’t yet reached the end of the scene. Ending a chapter at this point often results in a cliffhanger, and there are good reasons to do that. But conflict should be avoided at the completion of a scene, whether it coincides with the end of a chapter or not.

2. In Revelatory Moments

As characters trudge along in their growth journey, you’ll be throwing every difficult thing imaginable at them. In the beginning, they won’t respond well because they’re stuck in their old dysfunctional, ineffective habits. But as the story progresses, they’ll experience periods of introspection (often following a big event) that lead to a light-bulb revelation. They’ll realize they’ve been believing a lie, or the shielding behavior they thought was a strength is their greatest weakness and is holding them back. These moments of clarity push the protagonist to rethink their methods and make much-needed changes that help them succeed.

At times like these, characters need to be thinking clearly. If their thoughts are fogged by an amplifier like arousal, intoxication, or exhaustion, the likelihood that they’ll come to a logical conclusion is low. Save amplifiers and conflict for the events that lead to these introspective interludes and you’ll put your characters in the strongest position to become self-aware and embrace change.

3. During Zen Times

If you’re doing your job as the author, the protagonist will spend a lot of time frustrated, angry, afraid, or uncertain. Amplifiers are great for creating situations that escalate to those emotions.

But a story in which the protagonist is always emotionally activated can grow tiresome for readers. It will also lessen the character’s authenticity because they’re unable to experience a complete range of feelings.

Since amplifiers and conflict influence a character’s emotions and make them more volatile, they’re not so effective at eliciting relaxation and inner peace. When the protagonist needs to be chill, hold the conflict.

4. When a Character Can't Take Any More

Authenticity is crucial when writing realistic characters. In every way possible—their motivations, fears, flaws, strengths, quirks, and so on—characters should imitate real people. Just as we each have our own breaking points, your characters have theirs, too.

So how far is too far? This often becomes obvious during drafting. As you continue abusing the protagonist, you’ll realize you’ve crossed a line or are close to doing so. Critique partners will also let you know when things have gone on long enough. Either way, that’s the time to stop. Drive the protagonist right to their breaking point, but stop short of pushing them past it.

Conflict and tension are vital pieces to a successful story puzzle, so it’s necessary to keep turning up the heat on our characters. The moments discussed above are good examples of times when conflict and amplifiers can work against the story. Leave them in the toolbox until the right moments so they can do what they need to at the right time.

Can you think of other times in the story when conflict hinders instead of helps?

* * * * * *

About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 1 million copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.

For more information on amplifiers and how they can generate conflict (and steer story structure, contribute to character growth…the list goes on!), keep an eye out for the 2nd edition of The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus, releasing on May 13th

Writers Helping Writers

Descriptive Thesaurus Collection

One Stop For Writers

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18 comments on “4 Story Moments that Don’t Need Conflict”

  1. Wonderful way to make the right instincts of when to NOT increase the conflict more controllable - because you're absolutely correct about the bad effects.

    It sounds like a checklist to use when something is off, and you are piling on the conflict, as recommended, but it's not having the right effect. Writers know, but not necessarily consciously. I added it to my prompts list: 'Is this one of the moments to LOWER microtension?' I like to be conscious about my tools.

    Without the pacing of the soft introspective and change moments, everything is an adrenaline nightmare, and readers will get wiped out.

  2. Can you think of other times in the story when conflict hinders instead of helps?

    I'd add: when, in non-children's literature, you deal with children. It's far too easy to traumatize them more, tough to find a way to meet them where they are in their development, and give them an age-appropriate way forward.

    It's not always possible, in fiction as in life, but adults should model calm and control when they can. We're supposed to be more mature than the kids. And we're offering tools to readers.

    I have some specific examples if you like. They were fun to develop.

  3. Hi Becca,
    This is a great way to think about conflict. Too much of a good thing can ruin your story too. Thanks for this informative post.

    1. Yes, a big piece of this is pacing. If the roller coaster keeps going up, up, up, it gets exhausting after a while, and people want to get off. Taking breaks from conflict encourages the ebb and flow that makes for a satisfying read.

  4. I really needed this list, Becca. We're so drilled with tension on every page that sometimes it's hard to remember that we can let the tension that's *already there* linger and resonate for a bit.

    1. I've been rethinking a lot of the old "rules" lately, and I'm finding that there really are few absolutes. There almost always are exceptions to those rules that make the story better.

  5. These are great reminders, Becca. I love the moments when we get to just experience a story world or have a breather/laughter moment with a character. Those are often the moments I remember the most.

    1. Right? There's value in the introspective, regrouping moments when the character is able to process what they've been through, draw conclusions, and possibly learn from them.

  6. I really like this. It can get tiresome when the tension just keeps ramping up without a break so the characters (and the reader) can breathe. You really need those Zen moments where the character collects their thoughts and reflects. I also use humor to give those breaks as a way to release some of the tension.
    When it comes to the last chapter, I like to avoid tension all together. I want to leave the reader happy and satisfied with the resolution...until the seeds I've planted for the next book in the series germinate and sprout into a whole new batch of problems!

  7. You make a great point that you need to know the breaking point of your MC- and bring them to the precipice, but not launch them into it. That really requires you to take the time to truly know your character. Thanks for the great post.

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