Writing young adult (YA) fiction can be a challenge, especially when it comes to creating a realistic, relatable conflict for your central character. Here we discuss how to write conflict in YA that resonates with an audience and drives your story home.
Every good story contains conflict. Whether internal or external, conflict is what drives the plot forward and challenges characters to grow and change. This is never more true than in young adult (YA) literature. Because development is an inherent part of growing up and because the adolescent experience is constantly shifting, conflict plays a large part in their experiences. Whether it’s contention between two nemeses or the inner struggle of finding one’s identity, both internal and external conflict make stories more engaging and relatable. For more details on internal and external conflict and how to utilize them in your narrative, check out this blog on Examples of Internal and External Conflict. But how do you write effective conflict and implement it in YA?
In this article, you’ll find how to write good conflict by:
- Considering common themes
- Focusing on character identity
- Utilizing decision-making
- Maintaining logic
- Understanding relationships
- Establishing turning points
- Making conflict essential to plot and character growth
Consider Common Themes
Young adult conflict often focuses on a specific theme, such as oppression, rebellion, or being misunderstood, all of which are common adolescent struggles. These are relevant challenges for teens and can be quite impactful as sources of conflict. While considering these YA themes, it’s essential to look at the situation through a young person’s eyes, accounting for their age and experience, or lack thereof. Sometimes a lack of scope might skew the narrative; but other times, a young, unjaded point of view can make these themes more impactful.
Focus on Character Identity
Forming an identity is a major part of growing up, and with that comes challenges and conflicts. Teens question who they are, what kind of person they want to be, what they want to do with their lives, what they believe in, and what is important. Growing up means finding the answers to these questions, and they’re not always straightforward and easy to find. Knowing what morals drive a person may mean questioning their principles. Discovering what your character wants to do in life could take learning a lesson the hard way. Understanding what’s important may mean losing the thing they care about most. Writing hard situations in which the character must face tough questions will escalate the conflict and leave the opportunity for growth—or failure, depending on how you want the character to develop. For a hero, that might mean conquering fears or reaching self-actualization. For an antagonist, it could be the starting point of their spiral into evil. To get a broader picture of how to develop your antagonist, check out this article on Writing Antagonist Characters.
Establish Turning Points
Conflict is an important part of development, both within the character and as a way of reaching the turning points in the story’s plot. Without presenting a struggle that the character must then overcome, there is no growth. For young adult stories, this might be the moment where a hero has to face their fears and confront a bully or find the courage to venture out beyond their parents’ protection to learn about the world. As they reach these moments of struggle and growth, their lives change and move the plot in different directions.
Make Conflict Essential to Plot and Character Growth
Recognizing the turning point and incorporating the conflict into a character arc and a plot are two separate things. Conflict should be intentional with a goal to drive the character closer to the end goal of the story. Consider how it will change them. Is it for the better or worse? Will that lead to the ultimate climax and resolution? Or is it a tangential conflict that doesn’t adhere to the plot or teach the character what they need to know in order to find the resolution? When writing conflict, be sure it furthers the story and character arc in a meaningful way.
Establishing a character’s identity and developing a young adult into a mature being happens when the character faces circumstances in which a choice must be made. This is true for both internal and external conflict. Be it the decision to save a loved one over a group of strangers or asking a girl out on a date, these moments shape the character while also driving the plot forward. Both are necessary when writing good conflicts. These choices come with repercussions that, for better or worse, the hero must face.
Conflict establishes a moral compass, either by showcasing the young adult’s beliefs or, more often, by challenging them to find what those beliefs are. As young adult literature commonly contains the theme of growth and development, so too should their understanding of right and wrong grow and shift. But sometimes, it can be more engaging to offer no good answer when the hero has to decide. This leads to internal turmoil and opens up further questions about what the hero is made of, how they will choose, and what consequences will come from their decision.
While it may seem straightforward to pose challenging questions for your character to answer, it’s key to consider the logic behind their decision. Conflict and how the hero handles it demonstrate what their priorities and desires are and shapes where their life is headed. And while the decisions teens make can be more emotionally driven, they still have reasons for having made those choices. It could be their desire to fit in, the hope to impress someone, or an anger that comes from a perceived injustice. Consider the teen perspective and understand what motivates their choices before they confront the conflict.
Understand the Impact of Relationships
All different types of relationships can present opportunities for conflict: parents, friends, love interests, rivals. And with each relationship there can be both internal and external conflict. The internal conflict of finding self-worth after a parent abandons the character could manifest in an external conflict when that parent turns back up in the character’s life. Or the loss of a friend could challenge the character to face fears about death. These relationships are strong foundations to building conflict that will develop your character.
Writing young adult conflict can be a daunting task, but it’s also an opportunity to grow right along with your heroes. By focusing on their identity, challenging them with hard decisions, staying true to their logic, and utilizing that struggle to further the plot, you can write riveting conflict that will blow your readers away.
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