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!