Still doing conflict. Two weeks ago was the Why and the What. Last week was How much and How to add it. Today is How to optimize conflict and What conflict isn’t.
Here we go . . .
Conflict works best when:
It’s presented on stage . . .
“Conflict is a fight at some level, and it takes two onstage to have it,” says Jack M. Bickham.
. . . between people . . .
“[A]s soon as a scene goal is formed, stated, or acted upon, an opponent should oppose it,” says Deborah Chester. “Conflict within scenes should be between people or sentient entities.”
“Once the viewpoint character’s goal has been stated, someone has to come along at once and say, in effect, ‘Huh-uh. You’re not getting that, and I’m here to stop you,’ ” says Mr. Bickham.
Even your allies will have conflict. Such conflict is often “in effect, ‘I’m trying to help you reach your goal, but the way you’re doing it is wrong,’ ” says John Truby.
“Conflict will be different for each character, depending on how you create him,” says Cheryl St.John.
. . . of equal formidability . . .
“Scenes work best . . . When conflict equals the objective,” says Will Dunne.
“There can be no contest, no struggle, no story without evenly matched contestants,” says James N. Frey. “In a powerful drama the protagonist and antagonist are equally well motivated and evenly matched.”
“[T]he greater the want, the greater the obstacle to satisfying it. Drama is interesting only when opposing forces appear evenly matched,” says Jack Hart.
“Conflict should be two forces in opposition, but they be at least somewhat equal when seen from the point-of-view of the main character,” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, “In fact, the hero of a story is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition she has to overcome.”
“If the problem is too small or too large, we predict the outcome and lose interest in the story because we’re way ahead of the character,” says Mr. Dunne.
. . . who are all motivated . . .
“What is required for good opposition are well-motivated . . . characters,” says Mr. Frey.
“Conflict must be an intolerable state of affairs; it must be derived from problems or situations that your characters cannot ignore or explain away. Your character should do something to remedy his situation,” says Ms. St.John.
“This antagonist, too, is strongly motivated because he sees how this scene fits into his struggle against the hero–how the outcome of this confrontation fits into his game plan. And so a struggle starts,” says Mr. Bickham.
“Make sure you have provided enough background for the opposition character–or have him state enough motivation at the outset–to justify his opposition to the lead character in the scene,” says Mr. Bickham, “Don’t just have someone be antagonistic on general principles!”
“Make sure your opposing character clearly states his opposition early in the scene, and never lets up,” says Mr. Bickham.
How do you know what the characters’ respective motivations are?
“[M]otivation is a series of reasons, from your protagonist’s personal history to his mood, which accounts for some rationale of why he plans to take action,” says Jordan Rosenfeld.
Debra Dixon says, “Motivation is usually expressed in a sentence containing the word ‘because.’ ”
In other words, Character wants [goal] because ______.
Or, to put this all together, Character wants [goal] because [motivation] but [conflict].
. . . to champion conflicting goals.
“While conflict most certainly exists between the protagonist’s goals and the antagonist’s goal, conflict can (and should) also exist between allies, lovers, and friends even when they are ostensibly getting along,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. This can be achieved with “disagreements, resistance to new ideas, plans not going as desired, and scheduling issues.”
“Sometimes a scene features the story’s protagonist versus the central villain. Sometimes a scene’s conflict happens between the protagonist and a friend or sidekick. Friends can disagree on how to achieve a common goal. And not everyone on the same side likes each other or can get along,” says Ms. Chester.
“In other words,” says Mr. Frey, “when you create your opposition, give them points of view that are logical and reasonable, that the reader can understand, even sympathize with.”
“Unrelenting conflict or throwing ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ at the character can numb the reader,” says Ms. Dixon.
“While complications build anticipation and drama, you should not make things difficult on characters ‘just because.’ Complications have to reveal character and push your plot forward,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.
“The moment the conflict in the scene turns so far from the stated scene goal that relevance is no longer imaginable, the reader will throw your story against the wall in irritated confusion,” says Mr. Bickham.
“The conflict within each scene should be focused on that scene’s goal. If you allow the conflict to ramble off course, the scene will crumble,” says Deborah Chester.
How do you make sure it stays relevant?
“Have the character state his intention before the scene begins, remind readers what he wants during the scene, and then, after the scene concludes, evaluate the implications of not getting what he wants. This will keep the scene on track, ground readers, and move the story logically forward,” says Steven James.
“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 Mr. 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.”
It leads to action
“Scenes work best . . . When conflict leads to action, not inaction,” says Mr. Dunne, “Dramatic characters, particularly main characters of stories, know what they want and these characters take new and often unexpected courses of action. To keep us emotionally engaged, dramatic characters do not compromise or give up their objectives. They do not become passive–at least not for long. The most interesting person in the story is usually the one who is most active.”
“The conflict has to be on the outside. If you remember [that conflict should be] something which could be put on the theater stage, you will not forget this principle,” says Mr. Bickham.
“Don’t, please, succumb to the temptation of being ‘subtle’ and having all the conflict only inside your character if you can possibly avoid it,” says Mr. Bickham, “It is enormously more difficult to interest your reader that way.”
It doesn’t repeat effects
Jack M. Bickham says, “you can’t write [your scene conflict] in a repetitious, circular, ‘Did so!–Did not!’ fashion and hold reader interest.” says mr. Bickham. In other words, don’t repeat effects.
“Conflict, when misunderstood or undirected, can become circular and pointless,” says Ms. Chester, “You should understand the motivations of your two oppositional characters when writing a scene. Why does achieving the scene goal matter so much to the protagonist? How does thwarting this goal fit into the antagonist’s game plan? When you understand why the stakes matter so much to each of them, you can write strong conflict.”
“Static conflict is any kind of dramatic conflict that is unchanging. . . . it remains at the same level. Bickering and nagging are static forms of conflict. . . . Characters in the midst of static conflict . . . stop developing. . . . Nothing bores a reader as much as static conflict except no conflict at all,” says Mr. Frey.
“Scenes tend to work best . . . When conflict generates a variety of behavior. It is often conflict that forces a character’s strategies to change,” says Mr. Dunne, “Conflict becomes static when characters stay too long with a strategy that clearly doesn’t work. Obstacles give characters a reason to keep changing strategies, and this creates different units of action. In combination with the scenic objective, conflict creates beats, or units of action, of the scene.”
“Scenes work best . . . When conflict slowly rises rather than leaps to a crisis,” says Mr. Dunne.
“Actions must be clear and must rise in intensity,” says Sandra Scofield, “The reader has a sense that something is happening and, furthermore, that something more is going to happen.”
Again, more on escalation in a later post.
It has stakes
Cheryl S.John says, “In order for the conflict to matter, we have to care.”
It moves the story forward
“To wit: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict,” says Robert McKee.
Cheryl St.John says, “Conflict becomes motivation for the character’s next decision and his new goal.
Conflict requires a decision; otherwise, the story doesn’t go anywhere. When a character changes his goals, this prevents the middle of the book from sagging. The story will become static if we don’t elevate the conflict and force the character to reevaluate his goal,” says Ms. St. John. “Conflict can be in the form of information. New information changes the character’s goals and moves the story forward.”
What Conflict Isn’t
Conflict isn’t Adversity
“It’s important to know the difference between scene conflict and adversity, and the effect each has on your story,” says Ms. Chester, “Scene conflict can be defined as two characters in opposition over a clear, specific goal. Adversity is random bad luck. Scene conflict advances the story, creates more change in the protagonist’s situation, raises the stakes, makes the story outcome less certain, and heightens suspense.”
Mr. Bickham agrees: “conflict is not the same as adversity. Adversity is bad luck. It’s fate. It’s blind. . . . Adversity may build sympathy, but it will never build admiration or concern. . . . [Character] can’t fight adversity. He has no chance. Adversity is blind, and will come or go by luck, no matter what [Character] does or doesn’t do. In a universe of adversity, nothing makes sense–nothing [Character] does will make any difference. . . . The story may be exciting in places, but it tends to be meaningless. On the other hand, if you give [Character] a goal, and have someone else oppose him, the reader can take sides and care. . . . Whatever happens will happen in part as a result of [Character’s] own actions.“
Conflict isn’t Bickering
“[T]he conflict shouldn’t be aimless bickering. Instead, let the scene antagonist work in direct opposition to the scene protagonist,” says Ms. Chester.
“Not only does bickering fail as true conflict, it’s annoying to many readers. . . . to bicker is to engage in petty squabble,” says Ms. Dixon. “Another reason bickering doesn’t qualify as true conflict is that it never progresses beyond words. Words are vague. You want to move your conflict from the vague to the concrete. You want to build an inevitable crisis. Bickering won’t take you where you want to go.”
“Conflict is not anger, bickering, or foot stomping,” says Ms. St.John. “Getting mad and yelling at another character without reasonable, believable motivation only makes that character childish or just plain mean. This type of behavior is acceptable for antagonists because it characterizes them, but your protagonists must have more depth. If you have a scene or two of bickering in your story, take a harsh look at it. Have another reader take a look at it and give his honest opinion. Is the argument motivated? Are there deeply held beliefs and principles behind the words? Are the feelings behind the words emotional?”
“A stream of complaints may develop insight into the character, may even add to story background, but it’s not what a reader will find enticing in long doses,” says William Noble, “A careful writer might be able to sneak in a gem of plot enhancement among the complaints, but it requires subtlety and gentle-fingered control, something less experienced writers have difficulty with.”
Conflict isn’t Misunderstanding
“If your characters in rocky relationships can sit down and resolve some misunderstanding, then you don’t have conflict,” says Ms. Dixon.
“A disagreement that can be cleared up with a brief explanation or a civil discussion between the main characters is not conflict,” says Ms. St.John, “It’s merely a misunderstanding. Misunderstandings are fine and many of the novels we read start out that way, but misinterpretations between adults are easily discussed and cleared up. A story must have conflict beyond the initial misunderstanding, or that misunderstanding must be the catalyst for something more significant.”
The exceptions are (i) you’re writing a comedy and (ii) your characters’ flaws believably preclude them from resolving the misunderstanding.
Conflict isn’t Delay
“Now and then we use incidents to show frustration, to characterize, or to flesh out the story and make the situation realistic,” says Ms. St.John, “But even though these incidents are useful, they don’t complicate the situation or make it worse; therefore, they are not truly conflict.”
Conflict isn’t just a plot device
“Conflict is not a plot device—it’s your character. When developing your character, make sure to explore and reveal the things that make this person who she is today,” says Ms. StJohn, “People aren’t born as adults with personalities, likes and dislikes, phobias, and desires. Traits are created through years of life experiences, through childhood development, relationships with family and friends, and tests and trials. The fire of experience forges people into complex beings. Know your character before you put words on paper. Know what she wants and why. Then tell her no. If your character is getting what she wants, you don’t have a story.”
That’s it for conflict
Sort of. That’s it for conflict in general. We’ve got inner conflict to do and whatnot.
Top Books on Conflict
The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you. In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!
That’s it for me!
How about you? What makes the conflict of a scene really work for you, as a reader? Tell us in the comments!
If you found this post helpful, please . . .
1. Like it and share it! There are share buttons below . . .
2. Subscribe to the Blog to receive the Tools in your inbox as soon as they post:
3. Subscribe to the Newsletter. It’s a monthly-to-quarterly-ish (that’s still vastly overstating it) newsletter to share news and free worksheets and whatnot. Your welcome email will include the 19-page Character Development Workbook. You can subscribe here.
4. And if you found it particularly helpful . . .
Also, people have been hiring me to review their loglines with the kind of analysis seen here and here, and I’m enjoying it. So, if you think your logline (or something else!) might benefit from a looksie and want to hire me to review it, email me at writeswithtools @ gmail dot com.
Conflict is a fractal tool; it applies at the macro story level (the concept and plot level) as well as the scene level and others as well. So when working on your scene conflict, keep your macro conflict in mind.