Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
July 3, 2014
When you first started reading, you probably noticed that most of the stories stop when the hero and heroine marry, when the dragon is slain, or when the bad guys are vanquished. For some reason the quieter parts of life -- the things that we do every day -- are not considered worth readers' precious time. I've often thought that there is something rather perverse in humanity in how we find dangerous, conflict-filled parts of life and stories engaging while the sweet calm parts make us yawn. Although people long to go home and to have things return to normal when they are in dangerous or exciting situations, once they survive and return, those exciting situations are frequently what they remember and discuss during the relatively dull days. Of course, there are exceptions, such as soldiers who do not want to recall their wartime experiences, but in general people relive the exciting times, even when they would rather not.
Our obsession with thrills has been with us for a long time. At least these days the movies we watch contain disclaimers assuring us that no animals were harmed during their making, unlike the Roman games in which both people and beasts died to entertain the crowds. Nevertheless, whether or not it reflects well on humanity, it is obvious that conflict-filled confrontations are critical to storytelling. Even if you tend to avoid conflict in your life, you should not in your stories. In this article we'll review sources of conflict and related issues that you can use to create tension in your story. The point of this is to have convincing conflict, so that the confrontations, when you create them, will feel right and earned to your readers.
Conflict With an Enemy. Some enemies are so evil that they deserve destruction. These enemies may be people or even monsters, and frequently involve life-or-death situations. The enemy may be trying to kill your main character, wipe out civilization, or do something extreme such as capture the protagonist and enslave him. Celebrated examples include slavers and Nazis, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings and Darth Vader in Star Wars.
The advantage to creating this type of conflict is that the stakes are incredibly high. There is usually little question in what needs to be done: generally a fight to the death, or at least to the utter defeat of the enemy. This type of conflict also allows confrontations in which the hero can fight and kill without feeling guilty. After all, feeling guilty about killing is not particularly enjoyable.
Conflict With Society. Perhaps the society in which your protagonist lives does not fit his character or nature. Generally the protagonist is someone with whom readers can identify, while the society is alien and strange and may even feel wrong.
One example is The Clan of the Cave Bear, in which Ayla, an idealized Cro-Magnon girl, is rescued and brought up by a group of Neanderthals. Ayla does not fit in because she is physically and mentally different than her adopted family. Another example is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne is shunned because she became pregnant by a man who clearly could not have been her husband.
Conflict With a Powerful Organization. Similar to setting up a conflict with society is creating a conflict with a powerful organization, such as the local government. As people say, "You can't fight City Hall." Of course, your protagonist can fight city hall, but this sort of battle is difficult. The organization can be a government or a corporation or a crime group or a powerful religion. A possible difference between the organization and society is that your hero may not be in conflict with everyone, just those in the organization.
On the other hand, an organization may be difficult to fight because it is hard to pin down. Your hero and your reader may not even be sure who belongs to the organization. The organization could have Prisoner-like, Kafkaesque or labyrinthine qualities to it. There is always the possibility that your protagonist's best friend is actually a double agent and belongs to the organization, or that your hero's mentor turns out to be an evil puppet master. A twist on this is when a protagonist belongs to an organization herself and turns against it, possibly because she has learned something about it that reveals it to be evil, as in the movie Salt.
Conflict With a Friend, a Lover, or an Ally. This sort of conflict can develop out of the characters not always wanting similar things. It is interesting because these two may theoretically be equals (although sometimes one character is more powerful than the other). Furthermore, it can be difficult, even heartbreaking, for the characters to find themselves in conflict with each other.
This sort of conflict can be rich because it may not be clear who will come out on top. A story with this sort of uncertainty has the potential for twists and turns.
Conflict Between a Parent and a Child. A conflict between a parent and child is complex because these people usually love each other and these relationships nearly always come with baggage. The relationship, too, evolves, which means that conflicts can develop as the relationship changes. Parents begin by having to do everything for the child, while the child (usually) begins by accepting everything that parents say as gospel. Eventually the parent has to let go and the child has to learn that parents are people too, which may mean that the parent may not always be right -- in fact may even be wrong or even evil.
Conflict With Self. At first this may seem like an illogical source of conflict, but a character's conflict with himself can create interesting tension within a story. Here are some examples of self-conflict:
More Than Two Sides. Conflict requires at least two opposing views, even if those views are inside the same person, and we tend to think of conflict as just being X versus Y. However, life tends to be more complicated, and your story can be as well. What happens to your conflict when you involve a reporter? Or a politician? Or a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a neighbor? All these people can enter your story with their own agendas, their own information -- which may be more or less than what the other characters have -- and their own personalities. This third or fourth influence on the conflict can send your story in an unexpected direction and so can be useful in entertaining the reader.
Convincing Conflict. Sometimes a conflict in a story is unconvincing. I recently read a novel in which the lovers quarreled and therefore separated for part of the story. Well, lovers often quarrel in books, but in this case their misunderstanding seemed silly. Of course, many misunderstandings in real life are silly, but the flimsiness of this particular quarrel detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Here are some issues to consider in the creation and development of your conflicts:
Is the conflict consistent with your characters' characters? One way to make it appear consistent is to build up to it, with hints of the conflict before. If the conflict is not consistent with your characters' characters, then you can change the characters' characters, or change the conflict, or live with the inconsistency.
Does the conflict matter? Even if your characters disagree about something, it may not really matter to them or to your readers. Perhaps it is consistent with your characters that X wants to eat beef and Y wants to eat chicken, but if they can just go to a restaurant and order different meals, the conflict may not be worth much energy. However, if you want the conflict to be more significant, then find reasons to make it more significant. Perhaps Y resists eating beef because she is a Hindu for whom cows are sacred. Perhaps Y believes that the beef is contaminated with growth hormone. Perhaps the character is concerned about climate change, and believes that the production of cattle is dangerous for society.
You don't need all the conflicts between your characters to be important. Minor conflicts can add depth and texture to your story and your characters. However, if you need a conflict to be important, then find reasons to make it important. Use your imagination -- have fun!
Conflict creates tension in the story. Furthermore, the conflict pulls along the plot by creating questions in the mind of the reader. The reader does not always know which way the conflict will be resolved, just as the Roman audience watching the fights in the arena did not always know who would win (although I have to believe that some of those fights were choreographed, rather like WWE fights today).
Now, in some genre fiction, the ends are "given." In romances the lovers get together, in many adventure stories the enemy is conquered, and in most detective stories the murderer is caught. How you resolve these conflicts is what entertains the reader.
In the next article we'll cover Confrontations, in which you show the key scenes of your conflict. Until next time!
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.