Conflict in Life and Literature

A Teaching Unit for English Teachers

by Barbara Stanford

Adolescents are capable of very sophisticated writing and analysis of literature. However, most younger adolescents only demonstrate their higher capacities if they are led to abstract ideas from analysis of concrete, everyday experiences.

Combining a study of conflict management in everyday life with a study of conflict in literature gives students an opportunity to reinforce the learning of quite complex ideas in several learning styles. The following lessons can be used in an English class as a unit on conflict management. They are designed to be used in conjunction with literature; either short stories or a novel will work best.



Students will recognize that conflict is an essential and constant part of both life and literature, and that conflicts can be resolved in both positive and negative ways

Students will develop the skill of active listening.


1. Introduction to the Unit

Tell students that they are beginning a unit on conflict in literature and in writing, but that many of the ideas may be useful in their own lives. Ask students to raise their hands (or stand up if they need some activity) if they have had one of these conflicts this week.

  1. A conflict with a parent or guardian over what time to get up.
  2. A conflict with a parent or guardian over what to eat.
  3. A conflict over money.
  4. A conflict with a friend.
  5. A conflict with a teacher.
  6. How many of you were generally happy about the way your conflicts ended?
  7. How many had some conflicts you wish had ended differently.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you define conflict?
  2. How frequently would you say that the average person has a conflict?
  3. What are some causes of conflict?
  4. Is conflict good or bad? What are some useful roles that conflict plays. (It is important for students to understand that conflict is not bad and that having conflicts is not a sign that you are a bad person. Conflict is essential to growth and change and does not have to lead to violence or unpleasantness.)

2. Conflict in Literature Bingo

  1. Put the class into small groups and give each group a “bingo” sheet. (see below). Students can use books, stories, poems, fairy tales, fables, or other forms of literature that they have studied in class this year or in previous years or on their own or heard as a child. They can only use each work once.
  2. The group or individual that completes the whole sheet first wins.


How frequent is conflict in literature? Could anyone think of a short story or novel that did not involve a conflict. (Debate whether such a story is possible.)

Activity 3: Active Listening Training

  1. Explain that one of the basic skills for effective literature discussions as well as for interpersonal conflict management is listening to another person in ways that encourage them to speak clearly and in ways that help you to understand what they are thinking.
  2. Explain that you are going to do a demonstration of bad listening and then of good listening. Ask a student with a lot of self-confidence who is usually a fluent talker to help you with the demonstration. Tell the rest of the students to note down everything you do in the first part that shows bad listening and everything you do the second time that shows good listening.
  3. Ask the student who is demonstrating with you to talk about a movie or TV show he or she has seen that demonstrates conflicts.
  4. For the first demonstration, as soon as the student begins talking, start demonstrating bad listening. Be distracted. Ask irrelevant questions. Talk about yourself etc. Stop the demonstration before the student becomes too frustrated.
  5. For the second demonstration, ask the student to continue talking. This time show good listening. Show body language that indicates attention. Ask questions to encourage him or her to go into more detail. Summarize to check your comprehension.
  6. Ask students to make a list of characteristics of bad and good listening. Point out that a good listener is an encourager who encourages the speaker to express himself well.
  7. Hand out the scorecard for listeners and have students compare their list with the list on the scorecard.
  8. Divide students into groups of three. The person whose birthday comes first in the year will be the first talker. The person whose birthday is second will be the listener, and the third person will be the scorekeeper. The talker will talk about a book, movie or television program with a conflict. The listener will try to learn as much about it by listening and encouraging the speaker.
  9. The scorekeeper will mark each time the speaker does something on the scorecard. After two or three minutes, the scorekeeper will report to the listener, and then the students will change roles.

Writing Suggestions

Encourage students to keep a conflict journal in which every day they list and briefly describe the conflicts in which they were involved or in which they list and describe the conflicts of characters in the literature in which they are using. They will use this information as data for analyzing their own conflict styles and for more extended writing assignments.

The personal conflict journal suggestions in this unit can be a powerful tool for dealing with conflicts. However, intense, personal journaling is not appropriate for everyone at all times in their life. Some students and some parents object to doing or sharing personal writing. Students should always have the right to choose a less personal assignment such as analyzing literary conflicts or to keep confidential a piece of writing that is too personal to share.

If you follow the suggestions of this unit, students will draw from their conflict journal to write more extended paragraphs, essays or narratives, and will choose three of these extended pieces to revise and turn in for grades. The teacher will simply note that the remaining assignments have been completed.


1. Think of a work of literature that fits one of the squares. Write the title and your initials on it. Then ask your classmates to fill in the other squares. Each person can contribute one title.

The main character defeated his/her opponentThe main character was defeated by his/her opponentEveryone ended up happy.Everyone ended up dead or unhappy.
The main character liked to fight.The main character was afraid to stand up for his/her rights.The main character solved conflicts skillfully.The main character really messed up.
The story made me want to cry.The story made me angry.The story made me happy.The story bored me.
A short story

or novel that does not have a conflict.

There was a conflict between people and nature.There was a conflict between two people.A character had an inner conflict.


Note on your score sheet each of the following that you see the person doing.

1. Eye contact
2. Lean forward
3. Encouraging questions–tell me more
4. Restating or reflecting–So you are saying that….
5. Summarizing–Let me put this all together
6. “I’m listening noises,” “uh-huh, Ok, Yeah…..
7. Look away
8. Fiddling or doing something else
9. Attacking or challenging or making judgments
10. Interrupting
11. Stating own opinion–Taking the floor away from the speaker
Other good
Other bad


Share the scores with the listener. If possible, be specific about the comments and behaviors you marked.


After you get your scorecard, set goals for how you will improve your listening in the next activity.


Concept or Skills

Winning and losing are important concepts in conflict management. Most people confuse defeating an opponent with winning. Skilled conflict managers, however, look for ways in which both sides can win. Writers often ask questions about what it means to win.


As an assignment for this lesson, have students read a short story or narrative poem with a clear conflict between two people.

Materials (see the end of the lesson)

Handout–win/win, win/lose


1. Tell students that they are going to begin the class with an activity. Ask them to choose a partner and to sit at desks or a table facing the partner. Choose one student to demonstrate. Put your hands together in the position for arm wrestling. Tell students that the goal is to touch their partner’s arm to the desk as many times as possible in one minute.

Let them try the activity. Most students will see the “arm wrestling” position and will struggle against their opponents. A few may hear the instructions to get as many points as possible and realize that they can each get far more points by cooperating.

After a minute is up, ask how many got thirty points or more. Point out that it is easy to get thirty points and that anyone with less has lost badly. Tell students that those who failed can have two minutes to discuss their performance with their partner and look for another strategy. Then let them try again.

Discuss the activity. Why did people assume that the goal was to compete against their partner? How did they change their minds?

2. Look at the handout on win/win, win/lose. Explain to students that we usually assume that conflicts have two possible solutions. One or the other person can win. However, most conflicts can have at least four possible solutions. Both sides can lose or both sides can win. Have students give examples of several stories which illustrate each outcome. You may want to have them refer to the BINGO sheets which asked this question.

3. Lit discussion. Who won and who lost? Or did both win?

Review the story the students have been reading or a story they read recently. How would the story have been different if both had won or both lost? Can you retell the story making a different person the winner? Making both winners? Making both losers?

Would a different ending really be possible with these characters and this situation? What else would you have to change?

4. In games it’s easy to see the winner and loser, but in real life and in literature, sometimes a person wins by losing or loses by winning. Often the main message of a piece of literature is about what it means to win. What would you say that this piece of literature says winning is?


A conflict between two people can end in at least four different ways.

1. Person one can win and person two can lose.

2. Person two can win and person one can lose.

3. Both can win.

4. Both can lose.

Use the following chart to help you explore possible outcomes to a conflict.


Person one wins

Person two wins


Person one wins

Person two loses


Person one loses

Person two wins


Person one loses

Person two loses


Assignment: Assign students to read a work of literature which has a conflict between people and which follows a traditional plot pattern with a series of small choices that lead up to a climax.

Concepts and Skills:

The ability to follow a sequence of events or a chain of causes and effects is fundamental to both literature and conflict management. Most students master these skills in early elementary school, but some students, particularly students with attention deficit disorder, may still need work on these skills in high school.

A basic rule of conflict management is that the earlier you intervene in a chain of events, the more likely you are to reach a win-win solution. Identifying a conflict early and predicting problems is a basic skill of conflict management.

Recognizing choices, alternatives, and consequences is another core concept management skill.


Have students read a short story which the main character obviously makes a series of poor choices


1. Lead students through plotting the sequence of actions in a short story. Then explain the pattern of a plot and have students put their choice points on a plot line. (Use the handout that follows)

2. With more sophisticated students, you might want to point out that not all narratives follow this pattern. Some other cultures conceive life as a series of cycles where things seem to go in a circle. Modern writers sometimes deliberately distort this pattern for effect. More sophisticated students may enjoy looking for exceptions to this pattern.

3. . Guide the students through constructing a plot line, marking each of the decision points.

For each of the choice points, have students either brainstorm or role play all of the possible choices.

To role play the choice points, call up one student to play the main antagonist and four or five students to play the main character. Have the first pair play the scene as it happened in the story. Have each of the other students demonstrate a different way the main character could have acted. Let them try out all kinds of absurd solutions. Then have the class decide what the consequences of that choice would probably have been. Would they have led to win/win, win/lose, or lose/lose solutions?

4. Have students analyze one of their own conflicts from their conflict journal showing all of the small choices that led up to a major choice.

5. Have students read aloud “A Short Story” and analyze the plot sequence. For a writing assignment, have students work in groups. As a group they will write the beginning of a short story about a two characters their age who face a typical conflict for students their age. Then group members will complete the story leading to either a tragic (lose/lose)while others complete the story with a happy (win/win) ending.


Literature Choice Points.

Draw a timeline or make a list showing all of the choices that the character in your story made that related to the main conflict in the order in which they happened.


The plot of a story or novel is the sequence or events or actions.

The plot of a typical American story follows the following pattern.

1. Action is introduced by the exposition in which the situation is presented.

2. A characters make a series of choices or actions called the rising action which lead to a final decision called the climax.

3. The resolution of the conflict becomes clear in the denoument or ending.

Show the plot of a short story on the following plot line.

Exposition Rising action with choice points climax denoument


Copy your plot line below, but at each of the choice points, list three other choices the main character could have made.


1. Choose a conflict with another person from your journal that continued for more than one day. Draw a timeline or make a list showing all of the choices or actions that you have made related to that conflict.

Does this conflict follow the pattern of a short story plot?

2. At each of the choice points list three or more different ways you could have handled the conflict.

3. Write a narrative telling what you think would have happened if you had chosen a different way to behave at one of the choice points.


Concepts and Skills

People do not always make wise choices. Writers explore the character traits and the motives that make people choose one course or another. A good writer describes a character in such depth that the plot grows out of the character’s personal weaknesses and strengths.

Conflict management specialists focus on one dimension of character development, conflict management style. A person’s conflict management style is their preferred way of dealing with conflicts. It is a combination, perhaps, of an inborn temperament and learned behavior. Every culture teaches preferred ways of dealing with conflicts. In most cultures, males and females are taught different ways of dealing with conflict.


1. Give students the flight, fight, or think handout and lead them through the questions. Discuss the way your body feels when you are in a conflict. Point out that the body tends to prepare you to fight or flee by tensing muscles and moving blood to muscles instead of your brain. Have students discuss ways of relieving these tensions.

2. Role play several simple conflict situations with students showing fight, flight, and talk responses.

3. Have students fill out the “What is your conflict style” handout. Put the words “flight,” “fight,” and “think” at the top of columns on the blackboard. Have students put the responses into the three categories. (Note that some, such as argue, could fit under either fight or think.) Have students add up the number of responses of each type they have marked “frequently.” Note that no style is right or wrong, but that usually people with a balance of styles or with more in the “think” column are more successful than those with strong fight or flight styles.

4. Discuss the conflict management style of literary characters.

Have students role play the conflicts of the story with a character with a different conflict style. How does the story change? Note that plot and character are closely related.

Discuss whether the character in the story is capable of learning a new style? If not, why not? If so, why doesn’t the character change?


When two dogs have a conflict, they can either fight or one can run away. Human beings have those two choices, but they have a third choice which is to talk and think about a solution.

Fight and flight are instincts. When you are in a conflict, your body responds by getting you ready to fight or run. Sometimes those are the best choices, but usually they are not. Fight and flight never lead to a win-win solution. You have to learn other ways to deal with conflict if you want to reach win-win solutions.

Most people have one style of dealing with conflicts that they jump to automatically. A good conflict manager is able to choose the style that is most likely to work in that situation.

1. Brainstorm situations or think of examples from literature when fighting was the best choice.

2. Brainstorm situations or think of examples from literature when running away was the best choice.

3. Brainstorm situations when thinking and talking was the best choice.


If I have a conflict I: usually sometimes never

1. walk away
2. walk away and pout
3. make a rude comment
4. use a put down
5. hit the other person
6. attack with a weapon
7. let someone else solve it
8. compromise
9. stay firm on my position
10. give in to the other person
11. ignore the conflict
12. try to understand the other person’s point of view.
13. try to find a solution both of us will like.
14. talk it over with the other person
15. get someone else to help
16. avoid the other person
17. argue
18. try not to hurt the other person’s feelings.
19. make a bit deal of it and show off in front of my friends.

Writing suggestion: Go through your journal and mark each of your conflicts according to your response F=fight, R=run away, T=think or talk.

Write a paragraph describing your usual approach to conflict and how well it works for you.

Choose a character from a novel or short story. Write a character sketch focusing on the person’s conflict management style.


Concept and Skill

The concept that different people see things differently is critical to both literary analysis and to conflict management. It is a concept which few early adolescents have mastered.


1. Begin by illustrating physical point of view–that what a person sees from one physical position is different than what one sees from another place.

To illustrate this, arrange several objects on your desk so that some cannot be seen by all students. Ask students to write a list of the things on the desk. Then have them compare their lists. Introduce the term “point of view” and explain that what a person sees depends on where they are.

Use photographs to illustrate how the camera angle influences what the person sees.

2. Explain that even two people who are standing in the same place will see different things because they look differently. Ask questions such as the following and point out that some people notice such details and that others do not.

a. What colors was I wearing yesterday?

b. How many windows are in the front of the school building?

c. What was for lunch in the cafeteria yesterday?

d. What was the first announcement over the intercom yesterday?

3. Role reversal. Have students role play a conflict from literature. Halfway through, have them shift roles. At the end, have them describe how the conflict looked different from the point of view of each of the characters.

4. Explain that in literature, the author may tell the story from the point of view of one of the characters–leaving the reader to know only what that character knew. Or the author may use omniscient or “all-seeing” point of view in which the reader sees things that the characters do not. The author may use first person point of view in which the character tells the story, referring to himself as “I,” or third person point of view, in which the character is referred to as he or she (the third person pronoun.)

5. Explain that culture influences what people see in a situation.

Culture trains us to see what is important in a situation. For example, a hunter/gatherer culture trains children to notice plants, animals and the landscape. American culture trains people to keep one eye on the clock.

Writing assignment:

Choose a conflict from literature. Rewrite it from the point of view of a different character.