Conflicting emotion

Conflict and emotion are two pillars of fiction writing whether in high-end literary fiction or the most melodramatic genre fiction.

A story will often start by providing the main character with a conflict, be it professional or personal. Sometimes it’s the place where the initial event is set (weather, nighttime, urban, with unlit streets), a dilemma delivered by another character (friend, enemy or stranger) or an inner conflict (love, friendship, betrayal, values, choices, memories). Sometimes, it can just be a gun barrel or the tip of a razor-sharp knife.

In real life, you’d often freeze, be frightened, stunned, angry, helpless, and/or want to lash out (but probably wouldn’t). In fiction, it’s the same, and the main character reacts  in an equally emotional way. But where we would dither around and then make a nice cup of tea or gulp down a glass of wine and tell all our friends about it over the next few weeks, the conflict served up to a character in a novel and his/her reaction to it is the springboard for the book’s plot.

Simultaneous destruction of the Cordelière and the Regent  by Pierre-Julien Gilbert

It can be as dramatic as a shipwreck, catching a lover in flagrante delicto, discovering debts instead of an inheritance, or a burglar in the house.

Or it can be an agonising dilemma between job or love, being true to your values, a past memory where your life took a wrong turn or failing a friend.

Once the character has this dilemma and is struggling to make sense of it, emotions should be in overspill mode, even if the writing style is succinct and spare.

Readers want to feel for the character, to share their emotion and to root for them. So how do writers express this?

  • Let it build, even if it’s an instant reaction.
  • Set up a happy or contented character for a fall – a classic method
  • Put the character in a terrible situation, then pile more on – the ‘If it wasn’t bad enough already, X happened’ approach
  • Add pressure from another source, especially a negative element from a previously trusted friend
  • Expectations not met – another classic
  • Expectations exceeded or an unexpected pleasant surprise which can make the character overjoyed or even suspicious
  • Anticipation/dread of having to do something
  • Disappointment/betrayal/hurt contrary to previous experience
  • A secondary character questions the main character’s expectations
  • Make your character unwell, then introduce a challenging incident
  • Let your character feel the various stages of the reaction – disbelief, anger, sorrow, determination to act

  • Use both words and actions to show the reaction – often actions reveal more plus allow the reader to interpret the emotions
  • Let the conflict sink in and give the character a secondary reaction later especially at a point where they need to be thinking clearly
  • Use physical reactions to show emotions, but don’t overdo it
  • Let emotion/reaction to conflict inhibit physical movement or action
  • Character initially dismisses the emotion/reactions but allow the reader to guess differently
  • Add in environment elements – rain, snow, hold-ups, too bright sunlight, noise to reinforce the feeling
  • Introduce constraints to speaking out loud or in confidence

Some examples…

‘What did you expect?’ Miklós said. (secondary character questioning)

I’d kept my gaze on the back of Sándor’s neck, too miserable to speak (emotion inhibiting action), as we’d ridden home in the car engulfed by driving sleet (weather element). As Sándor got out to close the black metal gates behind us (constraint to speaking in front of minor character), I slumped against the seat.(physical sign of internal reaction)

‘I don’t know. (uncertainty) I thought they would at least talk to me when they saw me. (expectations not met) We’ve shared so much.’ (sense of betrayal contrary to previous experience)

‘You know how hard they all are,’ he said. ‘You should know – you’re very much one of them.’ (secondary character questioning the main character’s expectations)

‘Apparently not.’ (hurt contrary to previous experience)           RETALIO, Chapter II


‘You seem a bit tense, love. Are you all right?’ (secondary character questioning the main character) He stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers. (physical sign of emotion) A wave of warmth rolled through me. (internal reaction) How could he have the power to do that after all this time? (expectations exceeded) We were an old married couple.

‘I’m fine, really. Maybe a bit tired. (character initially dismisses the emotion) But there’s something else. Probably nothing to worry about, but—’ (and again!)


As the tunnel doors swished open, I felt my irritation at Mossia unwrap itself and flood back.(secondary, later reaction) What in Hades was she playing at? (negative element from a previously trusted friend) By the time I arrived at our end, I was annoyed for not being able to figure out whether she’d told me something significant or not. (reaction building up)                            PERFIDITAS  Chapter I


The thought of writing directly to Caius to express my feelings and ban him (anticipation/dread of having to do something) made my hands tremble so violently I couldn’t hold a pen firmly enough (physical indication of emotion). Half an hour later, after creating a pile of torn-up drafts (physical indication of emotion), I wrote Countess Tella a formal letter, informing her of my mother’s illness and cancelling all visits from her household. It would have to do. (dismissing further emotional reaction)


Emotional conflict is crucial for grabbing, then gripping a reader’s attention and it’s a good way of exposing your character’s weaknesses, strengths and above all, humanity.

What are your favourite ways of expressing conflict and emotion?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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