Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Interpersonal Conflicts

We've discussed external conflict scenes and antagonist conflict scenes. The third layer explores interpersonal conflicts which test the protagonist’s friendships, loyalties, and will to continue. Your verbal camera is focused on stage left. Interpersonal conflict scenes can involve the friends and foes interacting with the protagonist, love interest, antagonist, or each other.

Friends and foes can be used in any combination of scenes that fit with your story line. There will be both positive and negative interchanges with these characters. This layer addresses subplots and side stories which should culminate before the climax, with everyone lined up and revealed to be on which side of the fight. Subplots should circle back to and intersect the external story problem. If they don’t, you should consider cutting them.

Secondary characters should have an agenda and stakes. Their personal goals may be at odds with the protagonist’s or  antagonist’s goal. Their situation may intentionally or unintentionally complicate the overall story problem. If you change POV, you can express the friends' and foes' thoughts and feelings or show them taking actions the protagonist is unaware of. Interpersonal scenes require the most flexibility depending on the point of view you choose, the number of subplots, and the length of the story. It is easy to divide scenes among secondary characters.


A) List ideas for events involving secondary characters that help or hinder the protagonist or antagonist.

Continuing our meteor story, let’s say Jane is in love with Ted and wants to help him. Captain Curtis is in charge of the space shuttle. General Smith represents the military and controls the satellite. Bob is the ground crewman controlled by Ted. Jane works with Ted and Dick.

1) Jane meets with Ted to declare her feelings before it is too late. He manipulates her into helping him without telling her the real reason.

2) Jane meets with Dick and gives him erroneous data.

3) General Smith argues that his satellite is too important to be used to adjust the meteor’s trajectory. It could cause more harm than good. They should blow it up.

4) Bob tries to tinker with the satellite, but almost gets caught by Jane.

5) General Smith relents and allows the satellite to be used.

6) Captain Curtis balks at sending the laser to the space station.

7) Captain Curtis appeals to his crew. Is anyone willing to go? Captain Curtis decides to go himself.

8) Ted and Jane have a show down. Jane can’t believe Ted is so evil.

9) Bob rats on Ted.

10) Jane and Bob celebrate when the shuttle succeeds.

11) General Smith tells Dick to stay. He is too valuable an asset to retire.

B) List the side stories or subplots you wish to explore. How do they tie into, overlap, or intersect the overall story problem?

C) List how each friend and foe enters and exits the story. How do they end up?

D) If you already have a rough draft, look at each scene. Save a copy of your draft as “Interpersonal Conflict” and delete everything except the interpersonal scenes. Examine how each scene affects the overall story problem. Are they in a logical cause and effect order? If not, can you revise them so that they are? Which order would best serve your plot?

E) Save a draft as each secondary character’s name. Delete everything but the scenes they appear in. What part did they play? Does it contribute to the story in a meaningful way? If not, consider cutting them.

Next time, we will look at the final layer: Internal Conflict.

For earlier posts in this series check out:

Antagonist Conflict Scenes

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. There is either a mind-blowing amount of information in this post or the fact that I came down to an empty coffee can this morning is weighing heavy on me. Definitely will bookmark! Thanks Diana. :)

  2. It is a bit longish, but there is no other way to show how it works without examples. Two more posts and it will all come together. :)

  3. This is an excellent piece, Diana. I'm going to print out all the components of this series and file them away because they're so essential to great writing.

  4. Diana, I was with you until I got the 'exercise' ... I was winded by step 7 and had to lay down for a nap.

  5. Great information. Secondary characters can add so much to a story. I agree with Christopher though, the continuing meteor story for the exercises was a bit complicated to quickly read through. :)

    I'll be sharing the link.

  6. Once you understand the process, you can draft an outline for a book in a day or two. I can spit one out in a few hours with this method. I came up with this outline just for BRP. Anyone is free to write it. If you do, let me know! I'd love to see it.

  7. Also, thanks Linda! And Christopher, I give you permission to take beer breaks between bullet points. :)

    1. Thanks, Diana ... and seriously, this is some helpful stuff.

  8. Your post reminded me of a diagram from Wikipedia for the characters in Steppenwolf:

    The diagram gives potential conflicts based on very short descriptions of the relationships. Just a simple way to visualize it.
    --Conflicted writer (ha ha, could not resist).

  9. Very good way to check on the viability of secondary characters. Thanks for the tips. This has been a helpful series.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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