Hooking readers is the first job of any story, and to do that you need conflict. But where does that conflict come from? Writers often spend the first part of their story exploring the setting, looking for the cracks where conflict can be found. Because nothing is happening, readers may grow bored and go elsewhere, especially in shorter works.
So how do you make sure your story is exciting from the start? One way is to pick a scenario that provides access to immediate conflict. That way you don’t have to spend your energy thinking of problems to throw at the protagonists; the setting will provide the problems for you. These scenarios won’t work for every story, but they’re a great place to start if you’re stuck. Let’s look at a few!
1. A Cutoff Colony
Either a domed settlement on a far-off world or a small village on the shores of a lost continent, this colony is still dependent on support from home. A magical portal or hyperspace gate provides vital supplies and equipment until one day it shuts down without explanation. That’s where your story starts. The colonists are helpless to repair their way home, and now they must fend for themselves. Supplies are running low, and the dangers of their untamed environment grow worse every day. What the colony needs is some kind of protagonist!
This scenario has an immediate problem: What are the colonists going to eat? Most, if not all of their food came from home. If the setting is science fiction, you can add oxygen and water shortages into the mix. The protagonist must find a new source of supplies, or everyone is doomed. After the initial crisis, there’s still plenty to do. Vital equipment must be repaired, since there’s no way to replace it. If anyone threatens the colony,* the protagonist must deal with them without any reinforcements. And of course, there’s the mystery of how the colony was cut off in the first place.
Stargate: Atlantis based an entire series on this premise, featuring a small expedition of humans trapped in an alien city when the stargate closed behind them and wouldn’t open. While Atlantis wasn’t a perfect show, there was never a shortage of problems for the characters to deal with, and the writers never had to explain why Stargate Command didn’t break the story’s tension by sending in reinforcements.
2. A Sinking Ship
A ship sinking into the sea, an airship dropping towards the ground, and a spaceship falling into a planet’s atmosphere all have the same problem. The ship is in danger and the protagonist must do something right now. There’s no time for clunky exposition: they’ve got to patch the leak, re-inflate the lift sacks, or fire the braking thrusters. Failing that, the protagonist has to get themselves and their loved ones off the doomed vessel before it’s too late.
Use this scenario if you want really immediate conflict. So immediate your protagonist can’t ignore it for a second. Your story could focus on keeping the ship from going under or getting as many people as possible to life pods. Maybe it’s a tale of human versus machine as the ship’s engineer climbs down into a superheated reactor to make vital repairs. Or maybe it’s a human drama, with the ship’s captain trying to maintain order as some passengers turn on others for a space on the lifeboats. Of course, if you need extra conflict, just bring back whatever damaged the ship in the first place. Be it submarine, dragon, or alien warship, a powerful external threat will certainly add to the conflict.
The Deep Space Nine episode Starship Down uses this idea by damaging the Defiant so badly that it starts sinking into the atmosphere of a gas giant. As the ship suffers more and more damage, the crew must deal not only with the increasing atmospheric pressure but also with the Dominion ships that attacked them in the first place. The crew is forced to improvise, and the extensive damage means even Quark, a mere bartender, has a vital role keeping the ship in one piece. It’s a fantastic episode because the conflict just will not let up.
3. A Besieged Fortress
Enemy forces surround the protagonist’s fortress. The besiegers close in. It’s only a matter of time before they break through the final defenses. The fortress can be an actual castle, a fortified island, or a space station in orbit around Saturn; the drama is the same. Trebuchets take aim at the walls, and assault shuttles burn toward the shield perimeter. Can the protagonist fight off their enemies, or is the fortress doomed to fall?
The most obvious conflict in this scenario is that of the besiegers versus the besieged. If your protagonist is a commander in the fortress, they’ve got no way to avoid the conflict; it’s coming to them. Here’s the perfect chance to write all those beautiful action scenes you’ve always wanted, with dragons sweeping down from on high or armored shock troops teleporting in through micro-wormholes.* If glorious violence isn’t your thing, the conflict can be centered around negotiations between the protagonist and the enemy commander. Why is the enemy attacking? What do they want?
The conflict doesn’t stop there. Characters inside the fortress may turn on each other as well: The station’s police chief accuses everyone who looks at her wrong of being a traitor. Maybe she’s right! The king insists on riding out with his knights on a doomed last stand, even as the protagonist knows they can’t afford to lose so many defenders.
Battlestar Galactica may be a mobile fortress, but it is besieged nonetheless. In the first and second seasons especially, the Cylons dog Galactica’s trail every step of the way, launching attack after attack on the ragtag fleet. Paranoia that some of Galactica’s crew may be in league with the Cylons, or be Cylons themselves, dovetails with resource shortages and frayed tempers to create a delicious soup of conflict.
4. A Haunted Town
This tiny collection of houses is minding its own business, not getting in anyone’s way. Just one problem: something stalks the streets at night. It dismembers its victims in grizzly displays, or it leaves them alive but with their minds wiped blank. It might be a carnivorous alien or a supernatural creature, but it isn’t human. Whatever it is, the creature strikes without mercy, picking off characters one by one until only the protagonist is left.
This scenario drives the protagonist to act because something is haunting their town, be it a Medieval village or a Martian colony. Even if the townsfolk are still in denial, the protagonist knows something is happening. They’ve lost a loved one to the creature or seen its scaly hide in the flickering light of a broken street lamp. The story could be a straight up monster hunt, or it might be dealing with a panicked mob eager for a scapegoat. Perhaps someone in the town really is to blame for the creature, but if so they’ll only be revealed by the protagonist’s clever investigation. This scenario also works well for authors who want to start a little slower, because it ensures a high level of tension even if no immediate action takes place.
The Netflix series Stranger Things is a near perfect example of this scenario. The story is barely past its first scene when it’s made clear that something is going on in this small town. The main characters are all tied into the plot when someone they know disappears without a trace, and the writers slowly release tidbits of information as the main characters investigate patterns in the monster’s behavior. With the monster’s threat constantly prodding the characters to action, Stranger Things never feels boring, even when a scene appears relatively calm.
5. A Kingdom With No Monarch
The monarch is dead, and the throne lies empty. Maybe it’s a throne made of actual swords; maybe it’s the futuristic space throne of an interstellar empire. It might even be the CEO’s office of a powerful corporation. Either way, the line of succession is muddled. The rightful heir is a young child surrounded by power-hungry nobles, and each noble has their own agenda. The protagonist might be one of those nobles, eager to see their family’s star rise. Or perhaps they’re a beleaguered CFO trying to keep the company together while the board fights it out. They may even be one of the heirs, with their eye on the big chair.
When a kingdom has no monarch, conflict is inevitable. Everyone who’s anyone is invested in being or controlling the next monarch. Court intrigue leads to violent duels and assassinations, which in turn leads to open war. Will the space empire even stay together, or will it fragment as each planet asserts independence? At a more personal level, this scenario has the potential to rip families apart as siblings turn on each other for a chance at their parent’s office.
A Song of Ice and Fire* is a beautiful example of this scenario. The king doesn’t die right away, but he’s obviously on his way out. Then the great houses fall on each other, certain they must grab power or perish. Some families even split apart, with more than one son claiming the throne for himself. Removing the king created an endless source of conflict for George RR Martin’s story, and it can for yours as well.
6. A Lost Expedition
From a convoy of spaceships heading deep into the unknown to an Arctic adventure party dog-sledding across the ice, this scenario is about traveling through hostile territory. The expedition might be a flight of dragon riders thrown off course by a storm or an airship flung into the wilderness by an evil sorcerer. All expeditions face the same problem: finding their way to safety.
The lost expedition generates conflict much like a cutoff colony, except this time the characters go to the problems instead of the problems coming to them. The expedition must find their way home, which creates immediate conflict because they either don’t know where home is or something stands in their way. The road home lies through hostile territory, spawning even more conflict the protagonists must deal with. New characters join along the way, replacing those who fall and ensuring the expedition is never quite comfortable with itself.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent example of the lost expedition. First, Furiosa is trying to get home to the Green Place. She doesn’t know exactly where the Green Place is; she just knows the general direction. Along the way, they’re under constant attack by Imortan Joe’s forces, not to mention raiders living in the territory they cross. Then they turn around and start back for a different home: the Citadel from which they came. Again, this generates conflict with every mile traveled.
7. A Divided Population
The esteemed peers of the wizards’ collective are divided. An important matter stands before them, and there’s no agreement on how to resolve it. In another version of this scenario, a starship’s crew has split into factions as their home planets go to war. Soon there’ll be fighting in the halls. A divide is tearing both groups apart, right when they most need to be unified. An enemy vessel bears down on the starship, and demons tear at reality around the wizards’ collective. If this divide continues, both sides will be destroyed.
In this scenario, your protagonist enters a ragged split between at least two factions. This split must be over deeply held beliefs, and it cannot be easily resolved. Neither side can simply walk away, either because they’re constrained to the same location or they have too much to lose. Now the scenario is ripe for conflict. Will your protagonist choose a side? If so, how will they foil the other side’s dastardly plans? If your protagonist doesn’t choose a side, how will they keep the conflict from spiraling out of control? Introduce an outside threat to raise the stakes even higher, and add a time limit. If the issue isn’t settled soon, it’ll be too late.
For this final example, we’re going old school: Romeo and Juliet. While it’s best known as a tragic love story, Shakespeare’s teenaged romance takes place against the backdrop of two feuding families. The Montague-Capulet enmity drives the entire plot; otherwise no one would care about the two lovebirds fooling around. Romeo and Juliet’s secret marriage is even a ploy by Friar Laurence to end the feud. And it works, for the low price of only six people’s lives. If that’s not immediate conflict, I don’t know what is.
Not every story requires a scenario tailor-made for conflict, but they certainly help. They’re especially useful for shorter stories, where you have less time to hook the reader’s interest. Even in a longer work, it’s often more efficient to build conflict into the setting, rather than spend valuable plot time looking for it. If any of these ideas have inspired you, then I hope you’ll take them and go write. That’s the next item on my itinerary, anyway.
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