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Conflict in Stories

It's funny that I haven't made a post that spoke specifically about conflict in a story (as far as I can tell), and yet, for me, conflict drives the plot.  Whether I think of plot as a war, a birth, a Freytag pyramid, or a daisy, conflict makes it all go.  Conflict may not be what I start with when I write a story, but you can be sure that it is what makes everything possible once I get going.

It wasn't until I really got a handle on conflict that I started to write real stories, I think.

Here's why I was messed up originally.  When I took English classes in school, the teachers told us all about conflict, and then had us identify it in the story.  The choices were "Man vs. Man," "Man vs. Society," "Man vs. Nature," and/or "Man vs. Himself."  There were probably a few other "Man vs. . . ." constructions out there, but you get the gist of it.  Here's a fairly standard example of conflict the way I learned it.  So, when I started trying to understand stories, and other authors suggested that every story had to have a conflict, I thought I knew what one was. 

Silly me.

Here's the definition of conflict that I eventually arrived at that helped me to write stories.  It has three parts:
  • Somebody wants something
  • Something stands in the way
  • Something of value is to be lost or gained
A lot of my prewriting or early drafting when I working on a story is about my search for the specifics to those three statements. 

What does my character really want?  To answer that question is to establish the borders of the story.  When I know what the character wants, then I can have the character act.  Sometimes I'll be explicit with this desire in the text itself.  It could be the very first sentence in the story, an announcement of the desire.  But sometimes I write stories where the character doesn't know what she/he wants.  The desire could be subconscious, and that desire may not be revealed until the very end, when the reader and the character see it fulfilled or unfulfilled.  Either way, it doesn't matter to me as the writer.  I have to know what the character wants or needs, eventually, to write it.  Oh, and it's entirely possible that the desire can evolve through the course of the story.  Think of the Meg Ryan film, French Kiss, where what she wants in the beginning is to get her fiancee back, but very near the end of the story she realizes she doesn't want him anymore.

What stands in the way.  This is really just about plotting on one level.  I can't make it easy on my character to get what he wants.  If I do, the story is uninteresting.  I mean, I'd like to have a day where everything in my life works, but it wouldn't make an interesting story for anyone else.  Whatever gene it is within us that likes stories, seems to like them to be about people who are miserable and unhappy for the longest time before they get relief (or lose).  It's in the "what stands in the way" element that my English teachers come into play.  The opposition can be man, or society, or nature, or himself, (or machine, or alien, or whatever) or some combination.

The something of value is to be lost or gained is often a question of character for me.  What is particular about this character that the goal is so important to her?  I can't answer that until I know more about the character.  Even stories where what of value is to be gained or lost is as obvious as life or death, I still want to know what in particular that this character has to lose if she dies.

I have to admit that I do not feel like a very subtle writer.  Certainly not one who has a zillion narrative tricks up his sleeve.  Between defining conflict the way I have here, and thinking about how plots are a daisy, is about 90% of what I think about when I'm writing.

There, I've done it.  I have no secrets left.

Here are three examples of beginnings that establish conflict early.  I could have picked randomly from my bookshelf and come up with a hundred others.  It's remarkable how early conflict shows up in many stories.

From "Her First Ball," by Katherine Mansfield 

Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.  Perhaps her first real partner was the cab.  It did not matter that she shared the cab with the Sheridan girls and their brother.  She sat back in her own little corner of it, and the bolster on which her hand rested felt like the sleeve of an unknown young man's dress suit; and away they bowled, past waltzing lamp-posts and houses and fences and trees.

"Have you really never been to a ball before, Leila?  But, my child, how too weird--" cried the Sheridan girls.

"Our nearest neighbor was fifteen miles, "said Leila softly, gently opening and shutting her fan.

Oh, dear, how hard it was to be indifferent like the others!

From "A Poetics for Bullies," by Stanley Elkin 

I'm Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants--and cripples, especially cripples.  Nobody loved I love.

From "Shark Attack: A Love Story," by James Van Pelt 

Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard's desk.  Lost in his dream, Willard didn't look up from the stack of forms he was filling out mechanically.  Bustle and commotion were standard fare at The First North American Trust Title Company, and the boy's silent waving of arms wasn't enough to distract Willard.  Then the boy screeched.




( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 28th, 2008 06:29 am (UTC)
yea, that man vs the universe never worked well for me, either.

the way you defined conflict for yourself is very similar to what Jack Bickham was shooting for in his book Scene and Structure.

except he was more longwinded and flat-out boring in his repetitive descriptions of it.
Mar. 28th, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)
I did a bunch of cruising around in my texts and on the web while I was doing this post, and I didn't think anyone was particularly clear on the concept. I've heard some great insights about it while listening to some authors talk about it, though.

I find that having to teach a concept that I'm also struggling to master helps to clarify things for me.
Mar. 28th, 2008 06:11 pm (UTC)
Man vs. The Universe or...
...Man vs. God? It feels like I should be able to come up with a reference to a story where one guy just challenges the whole world. Maybe Jeremiah Johnson? Maybe Falling Down? I'm sure it's just as easy to call these Man vs. Himself stories, I suppose.

The problem with trying to categorize fiction plots like this is any method will be insufficient. The seven classifications of conflict are too generic, the 36 Dramatic Situations are too redundant, and still don't fit.

I suspect the real count is this: There is at least one story for every verb in the language.
Mar. 28th, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful analysis, Jim. It reminds me of one of my young adult workshops, when a middle-schooler said, "Do you HAVE to have conflict in a story?" I set the group to trying to think of a biography of any person who had a perfectly happy life. None came up, of course. Happy lives are boring, except to the happy person.

I love your plot daisy. When is your book on writing coming, to make life easier on the rest of us teachers?
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)
Hi, Louise. Tentatively we will put the book out in '09.

I had a college class ask me the same question about conflict. One of them said, "The Brady Bunch never has a conflict, and those are interesting stories."

So, I spent an afternoon watching Brady Bunch episodes (I'll do anything once *g*). Of course, every Brady Bunch episode is loaded with conflict. The reason the kid thought there was no conflict was because the stakes were relatively low (Marcia never came home with a serious crack habit, for example), and the conflicts were always resolved so amicably. Every story had a problem at the center of it, however. In fact, the sitcom formula lends itself to conflict analysis. The conflict is introduced before the first commercial. The plot complicates in the first 12 minutes. It further complicates and then is resolved in the second 12 minutes, and the denouement happens after the last commercial, sort of like an old Star Trek episode.
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)
What do you do if you find yourself without enough conflict to span the length of the work you contemplate? For instance, you're intending to work on a novel and you don't feel like you have enough conflict for the entire novel?
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
Well, the easy answer is that you don't have a novel then. But I don't believe that is necessarily true. Sometimes what looks like very minor conflicts can make a novel. What makes it novel length is how many incidents are necessary for the conflict to be resolved (and how thoroughly each incident is presented). A novel, although it will have an overriding story arc (that is the conflict that starts the book rolling and has to be resolved by the end) will often have multiple other conflicts going. Look at Lord of the Rings. The main conflict is that Frodo wants to destroy the ring (it takes quite a few words before we learn that is the main conflict), but there are a ton of smaller conflicts along the way. Some of them are fairly self-contained, like the Fellowship wants to get out of Khazud Dum, and some are spread out, like Aragorn's relationship with Arwen.

A novel is often a novel because there's a lot of plot threading (multiple stories playing themselves out at the same time). So Lord of the Rings isn't just Frodo's story. It's also the story of the war for Middle Earth, the story of Gollum, the story of the exodus of the Elves, the story of Sam, the story of Saruman and Wormtongue, the story of Boromir, etc.

On the other hand, the problem of "not enough conflict" may be a problem of not figuring out thoroughly enough what is at stake for your main character. If it isn't important enough, the novel will lag.

Hope that helps.

Edited at 2008-03-28 04:17 pm (UTC)
Mar. 28th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
I'm very much afraid that my problem is the latter - not knowing deeply enough what is at stake. I'm tired of novels where the protag has to save the world, and am deliberately aiming at a more personal-level overall plot arc, but have bogged down in the middle. Bah.

Mar. 28th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
How handy. I've always appreciated your comments on writing, since my understanding of writing also comes from a educators perspective. To really understand something myself, as I have no students, I create lesson plans.

I've been adapting your Seven Sentence Story to my own Basic Craft of Writing project, and I've been looking at Polti's 36 dramatic situations to discuss conflict and the functional roles of characters in plot.

I have had stories stall out because I didn't know what the character wanted, and I felt I was just writing events, one after another, like it mattered. It usually didn't.

Now I'm overcompensating by trying to put that desire right up front, and it sets up plot dominoes too close together to actually fall. I've been trying to understand how the character's goals change over the course of a story, or how to introduce that desire in a way that doesn't ruin the story.
Mar. 28th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
I SO agree with Louise on this... I look forward to the book on writing with GREAT anticipation. Another great post!

I'm very comfortable with the "keep it simple" method. I identify with your analysis because you've laid it out in such a straightforward manner. It seems too many of us try to make it harder than it has to be.

"Keep It Simple." What does your character want? What is the obstacle? What will be lost if the obstable is not negotiated? What will be gained if it is? Keep this cycle going through the story and you'll have a good start to something.

Great post, Jim!
Mar. 29th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC)
Another great writing post, just in time to help me think about what I'm writing. I often have difficulty setting up conflict, particularly in regards to the characters' goals. Thanks for the good thoughts.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )