Conflict is the tool that fills up the vast majority of your story and provides the bumps that are the journey the reader takes from the opening character-with-a-goal to the closing character-who’s-achieved-(or not)-her-goal. So . . .
What is Conflict?
Half a dozen masters put conflict this way: two dogs, one bone.
“The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no,” says Gary Provost. “Throughout a story, something or someone is saying no to your characters. And they’re saying no in the scenes and throughout the story.”
“Conflict is whatever stands in the way of a character achieving her motivation,” says Michael Hauge. “It is the sum of all the obstacles and hurdles that the character must try to overcome in order to reach her objective.”
Karl Iglesias agrees: “conflict [is] the obstacles that prevent the character from reaching the goal.”
As does Larry Brooks: Conflict is “something that opposes the goal you’ve given to your protagonist.”
“To put it mathematically,” says The New York Writer’s Workshop, “objective + obstacles = conflict.”
“There’s a third element which makes the conflict more dramatic,” says Mr. Iglesias, “the unwillingness to compromise.”
James N. Frey agrees: “Conflict between characters always takes the form of insistence versus resistance.”
Types of Conflict
1. Person v. Person
“Your protagonist has a goal or a desire to be fulfilled, and there isn another person who is standing in the way,” says Robert Kernen.
To that end, “don’t ever waste a minor character,” says James Scott Bell. “They can do many things for your novel–add spice, extra beats, comic relief…. And suspense.”
“The more frequently you put one [character’s] agenda in direct opposition to another’s, the higher your novel’s conflict quotient,” says Chris Roerden.
2. Person vs. Self
This could include, courtesy of Lisa Cron:
- What the protagonist believes is true versus what is actually true
- What the protagonist wants versus was the protagonist actually has
- What the protagonist wants versus what is expected of her
- The protagonist’s inner goal versus the protagonist’s external goal
- The protagonist’s fear versus the protagonist’s goal (external, internal or both)
3. Person vs. Society
“It is not so easy to turn one’s back on a group, especially if entrenched,” says Noah Lukeman. “The collective approval, identity, and way of life of a group can make it harder to go against than a family.”
4. Person vs. Nature
Such as fog that limits visibility, icy roads that put you in the ditch, water that floods your basement and ruins the costume you’ve been working on for months.
5. Person vs. Fate or God
As they say, man makes plans and God laughs. Perhaps God’s got a destiny for your character that he just. can’t. shake. Damn it!
6. Person vs. Paranormal
Vampires, werewolves, fairies, ghosts, angels, zombies, etc.
7. Person vs. Technology
This can be as simple and “local” as your cellphone dying or as complicated and all-encompassing as the computer that develops free will and decides to destroy mankind, as in Robopocalypse.
8. The Combo Platter: Four-Corner Opposition
John Truby says, “In average or simple stories, the hero comes into conflict with only one opponent. This standard opposition has the virtue of clarity, but it doesn’t let you develop a deep or powerful sequence of conflict, and it doesn’t allow the audience to see a hero acting within a larger society. . . . Better stories go beyond a simple opposition between hero and main opponent and use a technique I call four-corner opposition. In this technique, you create a hero and a main opponent plus at least two secondary opponents. (You can have even more if the added opponents serve an important story function.) Think of each of the characters–hero and three opponents–as taking a corner of the box, meaning that each is as different from the others as possible. . . . There are five rules to keep in mind to make best use of the key features of four-corner opposition.
- Each oppponent should use a different way of attacking the hero’s great weakness [or great flaw]. . . .
- Try to place each character in conflict, not only with the hero but also with every character. . . .
- Put the values of all four characters in conflict. Great storytelling isn’t just conflict between characters. It’s conflict between characters and their values. . . .
- Push the characters to the corners. . . . In other words, make each character as different as possible from the other three. . . .
- Extend the four-corner pattern to every level of the story.”
Which Type of Conflict should I use?
As James N. Frey says, “In every dramatic story there is a ‘core’ conflict.” If you’re not sure what type of conflict your story needs, there are a few places to look for clarity or inspiration.
Your Story’s Premise
“[T]he magic in commercial concept-driven [storytelling] is the methodical exploitation of a very narrow what-if premise. The concept of your story encompasses the main elements that demand preeminence and will function as your main source of inspiration for the majority of your dialogue, situations, and scenes. Your concept is the creative but specific cauldron in which you cook up your ideas,” says Jim Mercurio.
In other words, If you’ve worked on your concept and premise, you’ve probably already identified your core conflict. It’s the conflict that encompasses all the little, medium, and tent-pole conflicts the character counters between embracing and achieving (or not) his goal.
Your Story’s Genre
Know your genre. Know its master works and its conventions, which often includes a core conflict. You don’t necessarily have to do what everyone else has done. But if you don’t know what your conflict is . . . you might want to start with what’s tried and true.
Your Character’s Goal
Mr. Truby says, “To figure out the central conflict, ask yourself ‘Who fights whom over what?’ and answer the question in one succinct line. The answer to that is what your story is really about, because all conflict in the story will essentially boil down to this one issue.”
Your Character’s Irreconcilable Self / Flaw
The conflict you choose should test the character. In particular, it should test his flaw, so that he can grow and change it (or succumb to it).
“The more you build the conflict into your character, the easier the story is to write,” says Cheryl St.John. Why? Because: “The most effective conflict is drawn directly from your story people. The conflict should be based on your characters’ goals, backstories, and motivations. It should represent opposing forces that come from within the characters themselves.”
“Use your character’s dilemma to explore his or her inner thoughts and emotional states to create appropriate conflict,” says Mr. Mercurio. The conflict you choose should provoke the protagonist by “embody[ing] the competing sides of the dilemma.”
Your Story’s Theme
Mr. Truby says, “Great drama is not the product of two individuals butting heads; it is the product of the values and ideas of the individuals going into battle.”
“Conflict tied to theme is the best kind of conflict, the kind that really moves the reader,” says Paula Munier.
“The real reason to set up the roadblocks and barriers on your protagonist’s journey is to make him face and overcome fears that will teach him the lessons he needs to learn,” says Will Dunne. “We cannot just obstruct his progress for the sake of obstructing his progress. We have to have an important lesson in mind. Not only that, but the lesson learned has to enable him to go to the next level on his quest. The primary reason to set up the roadblock is to challenge him morally and spiritually. The secondary reason is to challenge him physically. The primary reason for him to overcome the roadblock is to gain emotional and spiritual strength. This is the story’s reason. The secondary reason for him to succeed is to advance the plot.”
How do I build the core conflict?
“Once you set up a hero and an opponent competing for the same goal, you must build the conflict steadily until the final battle,” says Mr. Truby. “Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change. The way you build conflict and put pressure on your hero depends primarily on how you distribute the attacks on the hero.”
“Writers,” says Sol Stein, “can sometimes benefit by preparing a list of every obstacle they plan to use in their plot. They then can ask themselves, … Do the obstacles build? That means as each obstacle is faced and overcome by the protagonist, an even greater obstacle has to present itself.”
One way to approach building conflict is to “think of the outcome of a conflict. There are three possible ways a conflict can proceed,” says Mr. Iglesias. “A character wins or loses, but tension disappears; the characters compromise, and as you just read, it’s a not an option if you want to maintain interest; or the conflict is aggravated. The latter is what keeps readers glued to the page, wondering how it will all turn out in the end.”
Lajos Egri discusses another great way to brainstorm building conflict. He calls the technique Transitions. Basically, in a story, in each act, in each sequence, and in each scene, the character changes from one, usually emotional, position or pole to another position or opposite pole. But the character doesn’t make this change immediately. Instead, he moves through a progression of stages or transitions. Here are Mr. Egri’s examples:
There are two main poles in every life: birth and death. In between there is transition:
Birth – Childhood; Childhood – adolescence; adolescence – youth; youth – manhood; manhood – middle age; middle age – old age; old age – death.
Now let us see the transition between friendship and murder:
friendship – disappointment; disappointment – annoyance; annoyance – irritation; irritation – anger; anger – assault; assault – threat (to greater harm); threat – premeditation; premeditation – murder.
Between ‘friendship’ and ‘disappointment,’ for instance, as between the others, there are still other small poles with their own transitions. If your [story] will go from love to hate, you have to find all the steps leading up to hate.
Each transition should arise from and result in another conflict.
When building conflict, “be careful not to repeat the same conflicts,” warns Mr. Iglesias. “You must have a constant flow of new information, new conflicts, and new twists and turns. You want your script to move, each conflict leading to another without repetition, forcing the character to take new actions and overcome more difficult challenges.”
Top Books on Conflict
That’s it for Part 1
But I still have suspense to do, including a bunch of techniques for creating it–about 26 of them. Come back tomorrow for Part 2!
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