Writing Tip of the Week: The Importance of Conflict in Your Story

Most of us go about our daily lives determined to avoid conflict.  In the real world, it can be a real pain dealing with angry, disagreeable, and aggressive people, which can, in turn, negatively impact your day as a whole.  If we find ourselves involved in a conflict, our primary goal is to end it or get away from it as fast as possible.

Obviously, there are those in the world that thrive on conflict and cause trouble for others, but for the most part, people like to have a semblance of peace in their day-to-day lives.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, Conflict equals Drama, and it’s true. Conflict is a must-have in the fictional world of a novel, a TV show, or a movie.  Conflict helps drive the story forward, reveal character, and create an intense dialogue between those in conflict. 

Suppose a story lacks a conflict for your protagonist. In that case, it can drag, feel aimless, and even cause the reader or viewer to lose interest.  So, let’s talk about conflict and how to keep things alive in your story.

How Big Should the Conflict Be?

Not all conflict revolves around world-ending superhero movie stakes.  A conflict can be as simple as a disagreement between the main character and another character.  It can also be during the final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist.  It’s something that puts a wrench in the protagonist’s day, and it’s something they have to work to overcome to get to their sense of normalcy once again.

Let’s look at story conflict on a scale of 1 to 5.  One is the bare minimum.  Maybe it’s a couple who can’t agree where to go to dinner or siblings who can’t decide whether to get a cat or a dog.  Simple, low-stakes conflicts that will probably have an amicable resolution sooner than later.  

A five is a relentless assault on the main character that has no clear end in sight, and the antagonist has the upper hand from the start.  Horror movies are often a 10.  Superhero movies can be up in the 10s.  Disaster movies as well.  High-stakes and a lot to lose if the main character is defeated.

In the middle are stakes and conflicts that can mirror real life, raise stakes, and create consequences for the main character. They aren’t easy to resolve but have some kernel of hope of a win nesting inside them.  

Think about what you’re currently writing.  What are the main conflicts the protagonist faces?  Are they Ones?  Fives?  In the middle?  Then ask yourself if the conflict is big enough for your main character to fight to defeat whatever the conflict is.  Will the struggle?  Will they suffer in some way?  Have setbacks?  Will these conflicts help them grow as a character?

Don’t Fear Conflict

It’s okay for your main character to argue with someone.  It’s okay for the protagonist to disagree with other characters.  If your protagonist gets their way from chapter one to the final page, it’s going to be a dull and predictable story. 

Hallmark movies have conflict.  As you read this, Hallmark Channel has started airing Christmas movies 24/7. Never seen one?  Watch one and jot down the main conflicts that the main character faces throughout the story.  On our scale, they are probably 1s and 2s (if you want 3-level conflict, flip over to Lifetime), but there is still conflict present.

When we hear the word Conflict, we think of shootouts, explosions, fistfights, and screaming matches.  But conflict can take many forms rooted in a more realistic world than Batman versus The Joker.  

Sitcoms can create a conflict out of a minor situation and expand upon it for 22 minutes.  One of my favorite shows, Frasier, does this beautifully.  From minor disagreements, misunderstandings, past rivalries, and more, these smaller conflicts can be a well-spring of material that can be used that don’t have to result in Metropolis or Gotham City being destroyed.

And just because your main character argues with someone doesn’t make them unlikeable.  It makes them appear more human, which is a good thing.

External & Internal Conflict

What’s causing the conflict in the story?  If it’s something outside the main character’s control, it’s an External Conflict.  It disrupts the protagonist’s world that has to be resolved to return to their sense of normalcy.

Most stories revolve around External Conflicts. There’s a threat, a natural disaster, an antagonist creating chaos.  Whatever it is, it’s outside the main character.

Internal Conflicts can be a direct result of an External Conflict. Still, these are things the main character is struggling to overcome that are causing issues within.  

Maybe they were just served divorce papers.  The divorce is an External Conflict, but the feelings the main character has are an Internal Conflict.  The protagonist must resolve the External Conflict (why does the partner want a divorce?  Where are they?  How can we fix this problem?).  At the same time, they must deal with the Internal Conflict (what did I do to lead up to this moment?  How can I change and become better?  Is there something wrong with me as a partner?).

All characters, like real people, need to have an External and Internal life, which assists in creating the External and Internal Conflicts that serve the story and help the character grow and change within and without.

As you work on your story, think about how the external events are affecting the main character internally.  How are their thoughts, feelings, and fears impacting their ability to stop the External Conflict they’ve been thrown into?

Conflict as a Driving Force

Conflict creates problems for the protagonist.  In turn, the active protagonist sets out to resolve and end the conflict.  Other conflicts may pop up in the meantime that must be tamped down as the main character continues their pursuit toward their goal of ending the conflict.

The majority of main characters in mainstream entertainment want to end the conflict they’re dealing with and go back to their life before everything got out of control.  Of course, in working to stop and resolve the conflict, they will grow as a person and learn from their experiences, which creates their Character Arc.

Viewing for Conflict

Grab a couple of your favorite movies, a few episodes of your favorite TV shows, a novel you’ve read before, a notebook and a pen, and analyze the conflicts in each. Make a note about the main conflict, how the main character sets out to resolve it, and how they evolve throughout the story to end the conflict.  

Now, look at your story and see where conflict can be increased and the stakes raised for your main character.  What is your protagonist’s goal?  How do they initially plan to resolve the conflict that has presented itself and upturned their calm state of being?  How will they change as they work to resolve the conflict?  Will they become a better or worse person by the story’s end?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part One

Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.

Let’s get started.

Where Are We?  Location, Location, Location.

The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come.  Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances.  Is this a contemporary story?  Are we in Victorian England?  In a galaxy far, far away?  Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story.  Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time.  The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.

Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.

Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?

Whose journey are we following?  Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold.  What’s their name?  Their profession?  What relationships do they have?  What conflicts do they have in their lives?  What’s their personality?  

In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14).  These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:

•          Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)

•          An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)

•          Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)

•          Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)

•          Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)

•          In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)

•          Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)

•          Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)

•          Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)

These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:

Active or Passive Protagonist?

In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active.  This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal.  Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him.  Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him.  His actions move the story in a new direction.

Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery.  She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.

A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening.  Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others.  When you watch TwisterDante’s PeakSan Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.

What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues?  What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it?  They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.

Is It Really “The Beginning”?

A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element.  We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life. 

You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming.  We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.

A character’s story is on a continuum.  What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary.  Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…

What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.

Things are pretty normal for your main character.  They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse.  This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.

Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead.  Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth.  It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.

Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.

Homework

Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced.  How does the main character react when something new happens?  What’s the first thing they do?  How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward?  What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?

Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.