Greetings Campers, this month we’re going to talk about conflict, which is necessary in stories and scenes, and inevitable in life. Since the last installment of this column, I have experienced all three types of conflict that we’ll talk about below. I’ve come face-to-face with consequences of past decisions, faced off against an evil I didn’t see coming, and struggled with the idea that good doesn’t always win.
I once judged a contest for Romance Writers of America, in which the two entries I judged didn't have enough conflict to carry them into novel-length fiction. They might have had enough for a short story, but little more, I was sorry to say.
Whenever I talk about conflict, my mind immediately goes to the old TNT “We know Drama” commercials. The truth is that conflict is a slippery topic. It’s hard to capture, but we sure as shootin’ know when it’s not there. We stop reading.
Conflict is so intricately woven in and around character creation that it’s difficult to separate them. In the germination stage of a story, we begin with a character and wonder what we can do to torture him.
Robert McKee, in Story, talks about three kinds of conflict (as opposed to the two we are used to - internal and external.)
1. Inner conflict. This is man against himself. This is when we as the authors pit one tightly held value within our character against another tightly held value. The book I just finished features a hero who will not lie. He won’t even fudge on the truth. His para-rescue teammates make fun of him and call him Honest Gabe. So what’s the worst thing I can do to him? Put him in a position where he’d be forced to lie, right? Naturally. And what would make him lie? Well, Gabe is not only honest, he’s loyal to a fault. Enter a situation where we pit his loyalty against his truthfulness. Beyond that, we’ll test every relationship he has within that framework.
2. Personal Conflict. Man vs. Man. In Gabe’s story, we will put him in conflict with his attorney and with each of his teammates.
3. Extra-Personal Conflict. This is Man vs. Environment. This comes in the form of Man against Nature, Society, the System, Time, the Supernatural, etc. For Gabe, it’s him against the legal system, when he’s arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.
McKee believes that a good story uses all three and, by extension, so does a good scene. Now, for sure, you won’t have all three in each and every scene, but you can go a long way by, at least, thinking along those lines.
Sol Stein (Stein on Writing) puts his characters into the “crucible.” The Crucible is when “the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.” Or it’s when they can’t run away. So, it’s our job in each scene to make sure there is no way for our characters to simply run away.
Conflict comes when your character wants something or is trying to avoid something and an obstacle stands in his way. The problem with one of the contest entries I read was that both the hero and heroine wanted the same thing and little stood in their way. Note: If the only thing keeping characters at odds with each other is something that can be resolved with a simple conversation, then you likely don’t have enough conflict.
There are two ways that we authors kill conflict in our work. One is by presenting bickering instead of real conflict. Unless they force a change in our characters, arguments and quarrels are simply static and not real conflict. Jumping conflict is another problem. This is where a character goes from scoundrel to hero in one big leap. It’s important to show the steps. More often than not, character growth is more a two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of thing, which is not to be confused with a character who is simply wishy-washy and doesn’t know what he wants from one moment to the next.
So what if we find that our conflict is weak?
Well, our protagonists are only as good as the antagonist they face, whether internal, personal, or extra-personal. Beef up your antagonist and you automatically beef up your conflict - and your hero will respond in kind. Also, look for areas where you, as author, have pulled your punches. Sometimes we let our heroes off too easily because the emotion is too high for us to deal with. Because of this, we miss the opportunity for high drama. Remember, the reader is there to experience emotions - good or bad. Don’t pull back; let them have it.
Before ending, I want to touch very briefly on villains. Remember, villains (antagonists) are motivated to do what they do because it’s right in their minds to do it. Often, our antagonists aren’t the bad guys who push over little old ladies or kick dogs. Think about Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) in The Fugitive. He was certainly the antagonist, but not the bad guy. And even Hannibal Lector thought he was a good guy.
I have a conflict RIGHT NOW. . .There’s not nearly enough room here to do a good job on conflict. All I can do is call your attention to the importance of conflict in each scene. Start by asking yourself what your character wants NOW, why he wants it, and what’s standing in his way. Then, go forth, you authors, and torture your characters.
Until next month, when we take a look at set dressing, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.