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

People generally do all they can to avoid Conflict in their everyday lives. We will often go to great lengths to stay out of situations that make us uncomfortable, make us confront an issue, or even deal with someone who makes us feel anything but peaceful. For the most part, humans prefer a sense of neutrality.

But not in fiction.  

Fiction requires Conflict as an essential ingredient to make a narrative move forward. There has to be something or someone driving the protagonist to act; to get them out of their neutral state and make them work toward a goal that looks impossible to achieve on the surface.

Let’s explore a little about Conflict and its role in fiction.

Conflict = Dramatic Tension

Your protagonist wants something. Another character wants something else. Only one of them can get what they want in the scene or chapter. And so, this Conflict creates Dramatic Tension between the two characters, and – hopefully – the Conflict and dramatic tension pique the audiences’ interest. Who will get what they want? How will they negotiate to get what they want? What are they willing to do or say to achieve their goal?  

Watch any film or TV show, and you will see this played out on either a small or a larger level. If you watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – or most procedurals – you can see this play out in almost every scene. There is a conflict between the detectives over how to interrogate a suspect. There’s Conflict between the suspect and the detectives interrogating them. There’s Conflict while a witness is being questioned. All of which creates Dramatic Tension and leaves the audience curious and wanting more.

Comedy is also rife with Conflict. Yes, Dramatic Tension does exist in sitcoms and comedy movies as well. It’s what helps keep the story moving forward and the audience engaged. On I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo wants to be in a TV commercial. Her husband, Ricky, says she can’t do it. A Conflict between the two characters has now been created. It then evolves into Dramatic Tension, which in this case is played for laughs.

Conflict Isn’t Always Good vs. Evil

When we picture Conflict, we think of Batman vs. The Joker or some other large-scale epic showdown between good and evil. But that is not the case. While this is a clear-cut example, conflicts are often between best friends, or kids and parents, or employees and employers.  

Maybe the characters just have a minor disagreement about how to punish their child for their bad behavior. Perhaps it’s a conflict between and father and son over what type of first job the son should apply for. Small conflicts between characters that aren’t an explosive battle of wills destroying Gotham City can be just as impactful, just as exciting, and just as engaging.

Conflict Should Be Organic

The source of the Conflict that occurs should have sense and logic to it within the story you are telling. Have you ever watched an action movie where a car chase or bar fight just happens for no reason? If there’s no reason for the Conflict to arise, it feels forced and out of place.

All characters want or need something. When your characters each want something different, a conflict is formed. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wants the Infinity Stones to achieve his goal. The Avengers have an opposing goal: stop Thanos from acquiring the Infinity Stones. It’s a basic conflict, but it makes sense and is logical within the confines of the story being told.

There should be a reason for Conflict to exist at that moment in the story. If there’s no conflict present, figure out why and what’s causing a lack of Conflict between the characters involved. At the same time, don’t force Conflict to happen. If you cut the scene or chapter, would it impact the story?  

Conflict Ups the Stakes for the Protagonist

Imagine a story where nothing goes wrong for the protagonist. No matter what, everything goes right. Now, take that same character on her way to a big job interview, when someone runs into her, shoves a device in her hand, and seconds later, the office building she was headed to explodes and collapses. As she comes back to the reality of the chaos around her, she discovers there’s a detonator in her hand. Her fingerprints are all over it. Someone notices the device in her hand and calls out. Panicked, she gets up and runs.

She’s now wrongly accused of blowing up a building that she was headed to, with her fingerprints on the detonator and people screaming that she caused the explosion.

Talk about Conflict and Upping the Stakes!

While this is an extreme example, giving the protagonist a – even to them – life and death situation to deal with gives them motivation to achieve a goal despite the odds. Katniss in The Hunger Games ups the stakes on herself when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. The stakes continue to mount as the games continue, and she must do all she can to survive—plenty of Conflict.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods wants to go to Harvard Law School. Based on what we know about Elle at this point in the film, even we think she’s creating stakes that seem impossible.  

Both The Hunger Games and Legally Blonde show us two strong protagonists actively putting themselves into situations where the stakes could not be higher for either one of them. The stakes up the Conflict, which increases the Dramatic Tension, which keeps the audience engaged.

Internal and External Conflict

Characters can have inner conflicts, wants, needs, desires, and motivations. These can help add dimension to a character and help lead to their growth and arc through the narrative.  

External conflicts are opposing forces outside the inner life of the character.  

In Lethal Weapon (1987), Sergeant Martin Riggs is depressed and suicidal (Internal Conflict) after the death of his wife (External Conflict). His new partner, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, is melancholy about his age and retiring from the LAPD (Internal Conflict). He is not very happy to be saddled with a new partner who’s a live wire (External Conflict). Two characters with conflicting internal and external conflicts then have to face a conflict even larger than them. No wonder the movie was such a hit!

Giving your characters Internal Conflicts that must be dealt with during their External Conflicts is an excellent way to up the Stakes and add to the overall Dramatic Tension.

Creating Conflict between characters in your writing is a fun way to see how your protagonist and others respond to someone entering their space and destabilizing the neutral world they – like all of us in the real world – so desperately desire. Take a few of your characters and write a couple pages of Conflict between them and see if you discover anything new about them.

And, the next time you watch a movie, a TV show, or read a novel, observe what the Conflict is in each scene, what the stakes are, and how those conflicts and stakes lead to the dramatic tension in both the scene and the narrative as a whole.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

Keeping Your Characters Off-Balance

Should your main characters ever feel comfortable?  Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine?  Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO.  Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.

In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives.  Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge.  With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain.  It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.

The old adage is that Conflict = Drama.  And drama is what drives the story forward.  Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm.  But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers.  Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.

This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play.  Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters.  Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.

Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down.  That’s fine.  It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride. 

Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible.  Don’t let them get there.  And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.

They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began.  And that’s a good thing.  They have grown as a character.  They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.

It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors.  It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance.  It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!

The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.