Wednesday, June 01, 2011


After taking a week off, I'm back with another writing topic. This one came to mind as I was revising a book and realized one of the things I need to work on.

Conflict is at the heart of fiction. Without conflict, your story isn't going to be very interesting. You need conflict to have something for your characters to overcome. Would you want to read a story about someone who wanted something and then went out and got it without any struggle or without overcoming any obstacles? Conflict also creates tension, and tension is what keeps people turning pages.

Conflict in a fictional sense doesn't necessarily mean fighting. It just means that two forces in a story or scene are in opposition. I remember from high school English class that they talked about the various forms of conflict. There was man vs. man, man vs. God (or the supernatural), man vs. nature (or the environment) and man vs. himself. The conflict can be on the story level, where the source of conflict is the enemy or antagonist. But then within the story there can be micro conflicts that may exist for just a moment. Every scene needs some kind of conflict in it, even if that conflict isn't tied directly to the major story conflict.

A scene could involve a confrontation with the forces of the enemy. But it could also involve a struggle against other forces to accomplish a step toward achieving the story goal -- that's where your man vs. nature or the environment conflict could come in. There can be conflict between allies who have different opinions of what should be done to reach the story goal or there can be personality conflicts between people who agree on what to do.

Then there's internal conflict, the man vs. himself conflict. The hero can be torn about what he should do. He can have mixed feelings about the story goal, where he knows what he needs to do but isn't crazy about having to do it or about what it will take to achieve his goal. He can have self doubt, where he suspects he doesn't have what it takes to get the job done. He can be uncertain about his allies without actually saying or doing anything to bring himself into conflict with them. These doubts and conflicts can be momentary, where he maybe has a rough night or a bad day and then overcomes it to move forward.

All these micro conflicts help keep the tension high and move the story forward, even when things are going well at the macro level. The hero may achieve a step toward the story goal, but at the same time, he may feel internal doubts or come into conflict with his allies.

For examples, I'll turn to my usual source: Star Wars. The big-picture story conflict is between the rebel forces, with whom our hero Luke becomes involved, and the forces of the Empire. That's how the movie starts, with a battle between an Imperial ship and a Rebel ship. That conflict gets personalized in a confrontation between Darth Vader and Princess Leia. R2-D2 and C-3PO fight over what they should do when they escape the battle, before they get captured by the Jawas (who might fall into the category of environmental conflict). Meanwhile, Luke is disagreeing with his uncle about his future and his chores for the day, then he can't get R2-D2 to cooperate and give him the full message from the princess. He gets into a fight with the Sand People, then has some internal conflict when he learns that his father isn't who he thought he was and Obi-Wan wants him to go with him on his mission. There's conflict with Stormtroopers, people in the bar and Han Solo. Luke even gets some supernatural conflict when he can't seem to make the Force work for him. Later, there's conflict with the trash compactor and the monster who lives there, some disagreement between Han and the princess on how to do things, and more conflict with Imperial forces, with yet more conflict with Han. All this is before the big, final confrontation with the Death Star. Most of the conflict and tension in the story isn't directly between our heroes and the enemy. A lot of it is tension among the good guys. There's also internal conflict as Luke struggles to come to terms with what he's learning about himself and with the decisions he has to make about his life, plus Han being torn between his need to take care of his own problems and the urges from his deeply buried better nature to get involved in the cause.

If conflict is a problem, it may help to analyze each scene to determine what the scene protagonist's goal for that scene is -- and the scene protagonist may not necessarily be the book's hero, and the scene goal may not necessarily be related to the story goal. Then figure out what opposes the scene protagonist, what gets in the way of him achieving the scene goal -- and something should, or the scene won't be very interesting. That something can be internal, if the scene protagonist maybe doesn't really want to do the thing he knows he has to do or if he has doubts about it. If there's something in the scene that's essential for the plot but there's no conflict, then maybe that event or discovery should happen in another scene that has conflict. That's generally a better solution that creating a conflict out of thin air just to have conflict in the scene.

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