Sunday Writing Discussion #7: Conflict– The Fuel of Fiction

Stories need certain elements in them to make them complete. A story must have characters, a setting, a plot, central ideas or a theme, and conflict. If there are characters, but nothing else, it isn’t really a story. It might be a character sketch. A plot without conflict is boring.

Conflicts can be of two main types– internal conflicts or external conflicts. Internal conflicts are conflicts that occur in the psyche of one of the characters. It could be something like wrestling with the guilt of murdering another person as in Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. External conflicts occur outside of the mind of a character. External conflicts can be a disagreement between two characters, a struggle against a situation, a fight against an organization, etc.

Often in stories there both of these two types of conflict and they are intertwined. There is a conflict that is internal to the main character and an external conflict that the main character is caught up in. To give you an example, in the Iliad Achilles’ internal conflict was whether or not to give his allegiance to Agamemnon and to fight in the Trojan War. If he fought in the war he would achieve glory, which was what he wanted, but he would die. If he avoided the war, he would never achieve fame but he would be happy and live a long life. The internal conflict erupted into external disagreements with Agamemnon that resulted in Patroclus donning Achilles’ armor and being killed. The conflict then evolved into an external conflict with Hector that was central to the war and Achilles’ fame was achieved as well as his eventual death as prophesied. His internal conflict was resolved with a meshing of interests with the external conflict of the story. This kind of intertwining of conflicts is desirable because it illustrates characters’ motivations and resulting actions that move the plot forward.

There are types of conflict problems that can arise in stories. A problem can be something like the characters involvement with the conflict doesn’t seem logical, but this is really more a problem with the characterization of the characters. Typically stories are lackluster if there is just not enough conflict. Sometimes when an author is creating a story they begin to like the characters that they have created. The author writes the quintessential sympathetic character and begins to have empathy for their creation. But this does not work! If the conflict is just plain old lame and has a really easy resolution that leaves readers wondering why the main character didn’t just figure this out right away and not put themselves through the drama, the fiction falls flat. Writing fiction means that you really have to put the screws to your character and when things get bad for your main character, you have to make them worse. A formula in regards to plot and conflict for a three act story is as follows:
1. the characters and conflict are introduced and the plot gets slightly worse (hopefully because of the actions of the main character);
2. the main character tries to problem solve and resolve their conflict and things get even worse;
3. the main character again works to problem solve the conflict, things get very dark and even more terrible, and the climax occurs;
4. the conflict is resolved.

There is no room for easing off the tension!

Another type of conflict problem has to do with the intensity of the central conflicts as well. The second type of intensity conflict problem is the insurmountable, overwhelming conflict. A challenging conflict is a good thing. It should be a challenge and worthy of writing a story about, but if it is too insurmountable it often leads to an ending that is flat because the writer has to resort to fiction magic, i.e. deus ex machina. This is infuriating for many readers.

Another type of conflict to be wary of while writing fiction is “Issues” with a capital “I.” Issues are big problems that the characters encounter such as drug addiction, domestic violence, rape, and incest. Yes, these are big conflicts and worthy of stories, but if an author is going to take one of these issues and make it part of their story, the issue should not be incidental. These issues are not good things to play with lightly in the hope of making a character’s motivations immediately understood or to make the character sympathetic. If you are going to write about one of these issues, know what you are talking about and give it the serious treatment that it deserves. Do not use these issues in an attempt to elevate your fiction, the only things that will improve your fiction is thought and good writing. Using these types of serious issues simply for dramatic effect and not giving them the respect they deserve actual cheapens your writing and makes the faults jump out.

How can you fuel the fire of your story and turn up the heat? Conflict! Use it well!