How to introduce and Develop Short Story Conflict

Short story conflict develops quickly. The plot moves swiftly, the action reaching its peak in a short time.


Conflict is also known as the tension or crisis of the story.

Unlike a novel, where the crisis can be developed gradually because the setting covers a considerable period of time, the tension, crisis or conflict in a short story should be developed quickly.

Though styles differ, most stories have the same basic plot i.e.

  1. Exposition: The characters are introduced and the crisis or conflict is identified.

  2. Rising Action: the action intensifies progressively towards the climax.

  3. Climax : The action reaches its maximum; the conflict is at its peak.

  4. Falling Action : The action gradually reduces in intensity.

  5. Resolution: The crisis is resolved.

In a short story, the transition from exposition to climax is swift; sometimes so short that it is not discernible.

Oftentimes, it seems that the story starts with the climax and then proceeds to the resolution.

Considering what a short story is, (Review this article for the meaning of a short story: How do you define a short story?), it is important that you, as the writer, learn to quickly introduce the short story conflict and quickly but skilfully develop it to its climax.

Keep in mind too that the short story aims to fix the readers attention on one single theme. Limiting your number of characters (one character is preferable) helps you to quickly develop your short story conflict.

Tension is very important. It’s what makes a story worth reading. The struggles of the character as she tries to solve this conflict are what grip the reader.

Imagine a story which is innately serene; which describes the life or lives of its character(s) and never introduces any conflict or crisis that the character(s) endeavour to solve. It is not a story. It would more appropriately be described as a newspaper article…

According to my observations, what makes certain stories boring is the fact that the writer does not sufficiently develop the crisis or does not develop it at all. After reading it for a while, the reader puts it down and asks herself:

“What the heck am I reading?”

Yes, indeed, our readers should see the point. They should quickly identify the crisis and get curious. Your aim should be to make the reader ask:

“What the heck is he gonna do?”

So how can you create that tension and develop it? Yes, how do you develop short story conflict?

Let us look at some examples of swift introduction and development of short story conflict:

In Forgotten, LJ quickly introduces the main character, Luis. Note how he subtly introduces the conflict, right in the first paragraph:

When he left, he left without saying goodbye—or at least not in the manner he should have. If he knew that he would have been gone for so long a time, he would have done more than say goodbye…

The readers can tell at this early stage that the conflict is internal. Notice how he develops the short story conflict as he proceeds.

As he sauntered along the corridor, the memories flooded his mind. He paused and rested his elbows on the rails to take in the scenery below.

It is evident now. Luis is deeply troubled by something in his past. He is reminiscing…remembering something…

As he looked around campus, which had hardly changed, he unconsciously relieved those moments he had spent with Nancy. He recalled how the two of them would seat by the pond, chatting endlessly as they fed the fish and also how they would take walks together, lost in their own world. Yes, Nancy was one of the few friends that he had ever had.

….He was suddenly filled with nostalgia as he recalled that afternoon he had bid farewell to Nancy. He sniffed loudly as his eyes filled with tears.

Ah…we get it now: Luis is missing an old friend, Nancy; and there is something about the way they parted that is bothering him.

Now how does LJ intensify the action?

A flash back - goes back in time so that he could build on the crisis. He thus helps the reader to understand the magnitude of the crisis – why Luis misses Nancy so much…Flash backs are often used to help develop short story conflict where the story especially seems to start with the climax of the action.

After the flash back, he returns to the present. Intuitively, the reader knows that something drastic is about to happen and that the action is about to reach its peak…

Yes, Luis meets Nancy!

The action reaches its peak when Nancy reveals that she cannot remember him. (Oftentimes, as in this case, the title of the story serves to identify the crisis).

From this point onward, the action swiftly drops to the resolution.

Here is another example of the evelopment of short story conflict:

Emily’s Hidden Terror.

In the Exposition, LJ introduces the main character, Emily. He concentrates on developing the conflict early on, and from an early stage, the reader discerns that it is internal.

LJ contrasts Emily’s present disposition with her past to really show the extent to which the conflict weighs on her.

He introduces the character Mrs. Chonia, Who not only has a motherly disposition, but also happens to have an avid knowledge of Emily past and present…By means of her, he drives the action to its climax when Emily opens up to her and reveals what is causing the conflict in her mind.

From this point on, the action reduces in intensity towards the resolution.

Thus, to make your story more interesting and captivating:

  • Introduce your conflict as early as possible

  • develop your conflict to its climax

  • The development of the crisis should not take too long, else your story will not be short anymore…

  • reduce the number of main characters, preferably one

As writers, we don’t just make blunt statements of facts. We want the reader to be fully involved—not just intellectually but more emotionally. We want them to get into the characters shoes, so to speak and feel what the character feels, see what he sees…

In other words, short story conflict has to be felt.

For example, when developing or bringing to light a crisis involving a bully, we don’t just bluntly state:

Jane had a problem with a bully

We would more appropriately say:

Jane’s heart seemed to thud in her ears as she approached the school gate. Her knees felt wobbly, as though they were going to give way under her weight, and she was only 40 pounds.

‘Oh Lord, let her not be there!’ she breathed. ‘God let her not be there.’

But her heart nearly stopped when she saw a shadow emerge from behind the stone pillar. Then her huge, monstrous body seemed to appear instantly before her. The large face, devoid of feminine beauty, glared threateningly at her.

‘How are you, little Jenny?’ she hissed in a gruff voice. ‘Have you brought my gift?’

Jane shuddered profusely as she shook her head.

In the blink of an eye, the bully’s hand was tightly pinching her ear, and pulling it so hard that she felt that it would come off her head.

‘I am sorry!’ she cried, the tears thick and heavy as they streaked down her cheeks…

So don’t just briefly or bluntly state the crisis. Let the reader perceive it through the character’s senses.

And as the story proceeds, so should the action. The reader should sense a change in speed and intensity. She should be gripped by the action:

The door flew wide open, slumming into the wall and sending a sharp ear-piercing bang echoing into all corners of the classroom. And lo and behold! There in the doorway stood Mary, her chest heaving with rage, her eyes a fiery red and her teeth gnashing against each other in a dangerous fashion.

‘Where is Jane?’ she yelled, her tongue darting in and out of her mouth as she licked her lips.

The girls just stared at her, without saying a word, their faces reeking of so much fear that you could actually smell it…

As Mary lowered her eyes to the table under which Jane hid, they all held their breaths…

The climax is the highest point of the action, the point just after which the tables turn and the action falls to the resolution.

”Mary,” the Principle boomed. “You’ve been expelled!”

A hush fell upon the assembly as they watched Mary walk out of the hall. Inwardly, they were all jumping with joy. Their source of heartache, pain and horror, was gone.

“It’s all over,” Jane whispered with a sigh, “it’s all over…”

To learn to write good short stories takes time and practice. Therefore, read a lot of short stories and note how the writers introduce the crisis and develop it to its climax…

In time, you will learn to do it yourself. Yes, you will know how to introduce and develop short story conflict.

All the best!!!!

 For more information on short story conflict, check out this article:

Elements of a short story.

Return from Short Story Conflict to Writing Short Stories

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