Posted On October 3, 2011 by Print This Post

C.J. Redwine – How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel

Does your manuscript have enough conflict to sustain the story? Our regular columnist C.J. Redwine gives us several examples on how to inject conflict into your manuscript. 

We all know every story requires conflict. And most of us start writing our stories with a glorious, shining piece of conflict in mind. The problem is that most of our initial glorious, shining pieces of conflict are inadequate for sustaining the interest of a reader throughout the entire story. There’s a balance to writing good conflict. A way to pace it so that it steadily grows throughout the story, keeping your reader glued to the page.  Here are some suggestions for ways you can escalate the conflict in your story.

  1. Use all three types of conflict: Your hero should have a difficult internal conflict, relational conflict with other characters, and an external conflict against his environment or circumstances. Developing all three strands of conflict gives your story depth and keeps your reader constantly invested in reading more.
  2. Use fear: What does your hero fear the most? Make him face it. Don’t pull your punches. Shove your hero face to face with his biggest nightmare.
  3. Cliffhangers: A fabulous way to keep the reader engaged is to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. It becomes next to impossible for your reader to put the book down. Even if you’re writing a chapter where the characters have some breathing space, you can use cliffhangers by ending the breathing space with the start of the next piece of conflict.
  4. Pacing: The pacing of conflict in your story should look like this: Conflict Simmers à Conflict Boils à Conflict Explodes à Breathing Space à Repeat as necessary.
  5. Pacing #2: All of that simmering, boiling, and exploding should look like peaks in your manuscript while the breathing space looks like valleys. Your peaks should get progressively higher and higher as the story nears completion. If you have two or three peaks in a row that are all at the same level of risk/intensity/stakes, you aren’t at a peak. You’re at a plateau, and you need to reassess those conflicts and figure out how to escalate them.
  6. Make it worse: In every instance of conflict, ask yourself “How could this be worse?” If you can think of several ideas, it’s time to either find a way to use those ideas as you move through the manuscript, or make the original instance WORSE. Again, don’t pull your punches.
  7. Have inner and outer conflict meet: When your hero’s choices in how to face his outer conflict lead to increased inner conflict (isolation, fear, guilt), you’ve done a good job of escalating the conflict.
  8. Lose it: What does your hero need to lose? What would hurt the most? Cripple his resolve? Set fire to his good intentions? Push him irrevocably closer to that final conflict?
  9. Mystery and suspense: Using mystery and suspense increases the tension and feeds both the hero’s fear and the reader’s as well. Each answer should raise a more harrowing question. And don’t kill the suspense by having the hero be too stupid to figure out what’s right in front of his face. Put thought into your mystery. J
  10. Surprise: Surprises are an excellent way to escalate conflict. Sudden obstacles the hero has to scramble to overcome. Left turns in the plot that force the hero to contend with a new set of circumstances. Reveals that deepen the mystery and push the hero closer to the final conflict. Just be sure your surprises rise authentically from your plot, your setting, and your characters’ choices. Beware the convenient surprise! That way lies the death of interesting stories.

Next month, C.J. will be critiquing one lucky reader’s query. To submit your query, please go to the tab above labeled “Labs.”


These are just a few ways you can escalate the conflict in your story. Which method did you find most useful? Do you have something you’d add to the list?


Join us on Wednesday, October 5th, when author Inara Scott talks about “Discovering the Genius in Your Writing”.


Bio:  C.J. Redwine writes YA fantasy adventure. Her debut, DEFIANCE, comes out next fall from Balzer + Bray. When she isn’t writing fiction, she’s working on materials to help other writers conquer the dreaded synopsis or write a winning query. For more information on C.J. go to

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21 Responses to “C.J. Redwine – How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel”

  1. Hi C J,

    You’re right to concentrate on the hero. As women, we need to find the guy and make him realistic. To me, there’s the challenge.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 3, 2011, 5:12 am
  2. Hi C.J. Great list! It’s going right into my binder!

    Thinking on it, I think #2 and #8 are my favorite ways to up the conflict. I love messing with my characters’ heads!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 3, 2011, 6:28 am
  3. C.J., Fabulous list. Definitely love “make it worse.” I’ve also heard to have your protagonist come full circle with their greatest fear. Whatever you laid on them in the beginning, bring it back at the end so they can overcome their fear.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 3, 2011, 6:41 am
  4. Hi, CJ!

    This is perfect timing for me as I’ll be looking for powerful ways to escalate the conflict in my latest story. Question for you: do you sometimes find that although you have the main story conflict clinched from the beginning, those escalating conflicts have to be refined in the revision, rather than the draft?

    Thanks so much!

    PS – Tracey does a fabulous job of bringing her characters’ fears full circle in her books!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 3, 2011, 7:22 am
  5. Great post CJ!

    I really struggle with the balance between the relationship conflict and the “other” conflict. Since, I write category romance targeted for Blaze,it lends itself towards more emotional conflict/internal conflict than a plot driven-conflict. At least I think it should be.

    Any pointers on how to up the conflict ante when you really don’t have a plot driven conflict such as you see in romantic suspense?

    Posted by Robin Covington | October 3, 2011, 8:01 am
  6. I really enjoyed this post. When I began editing my WIP, I realised my MCs resolved their conflict too soon. Oh well, live and learn, huh? So now I’m revising the last part of my WIP. What you shared is very helpful.

    Posted by Mercy | October 3, 2011, 8:04 am
    • I’m glad you found it helpful! My first manuscript didn’t have enough conflict, and I hadn’t pushed any of my characters to the brink. That’s what revision is for! 🙂 And the next book you write will have more of those elements in it from the start.

      Posted by C.J. Redwine | October 3, 2011, 8:32 am
  7. Morning C.J.!

    Great to have you back! =)

    I have a hard time with conflict, and making it worse. I always THINK I’m making it worse, but … then I realize I’m being a weenie. =) Something to work on, and I’m sure your lecture will help!

    Thanks again!

    Mean Carrie. grr.

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 3, 2011, 9:56 am
  8. Hi CJ!

    I’m printing off this post. I usually have the conflict mapped out for my story, but there’s always the nagging voice in my head asking if the conflict will feel contrived/unbelievable to the reader.

    How do you feel about additional conflict after the big black moment?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 3, 2011, 2:55 pm
  9. I love number 6 — make it worse! Thanks for sharing this. Head-first into first book of another romance mini novel series … I’ve nailed the internal conflicts of both the hero and the heroine, but the external conflict and tying it all up is challenging… getting there — thanks to your article. 🙂 Cassandra

    Posted by Cassandra Black | January 19, 2014, 6:11 pm

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