Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Story is Conflict

By Karen Albright Lin

Some folks walk around looking for a battle, but most of us try to avoid conflict in our real lives. We dread the “conversation” we have to have with our son who just got a full-face tattoo of a praying mantis eating its mate. We back out of the class 5 rapids in favor of class ½. We resist the urge to use a few choice words when the IRS threatens an audit. We are cavemen doing whatever we can to avoid the cougar that will inevitably stalk us.

Self-preservation is an instinct. So it can be a challenge setting aside our reputation-preserving, risk-averse, considerate and conscientious selves to create the most essential element of fiction—CONFLICT.

Conflict is about high stakes. It’s not simply disagreement about whether a shirt is gray-blue or blue-gray. Ho hum. True conflict requires consequences. That’s not to say that all conflict has to be bigger than life—like your antagonist holding your hero over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes the conflicts are quiet yet just as devastating, perhaps thwarting plans by placing obstacles between characters and their goals. Revolutionary Road by the great writer, Richard Yates, is a relationship book, with neuroses as obstacles.

We can think of a book as a series of conflicts, some solved along the way, some building to a giant black moment and a heart-pounding climax. Great books have external main goals and external obstacles as well as internal main goals and obstacles. The external goals are typically obvious. In Back to the Future, Marty needs to go back and manipulate the past to be sure his parents get together, assuring his own existence. His “spiritual” needs concern learning to ignore coward taunts and, more importantly, finding a way to understand and respect his father.

Ideally the external and internal arcs intersect. One resolution leads to the other. Often each reaches a climax at about the same time. Very soon after Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West, she realizes there’s no place like home. On a rare occasion the main conflict can be caused by something other than a human (V.I.K.I. in I, Robot), but usually the conflict is more easily relatable if there is a human face to the obstacle. In Jaws the antagonist isn’t as much the insentient shark as it is the mayor of Amity who refuses to shut down the beaches.

The theme of your story is derived from the character’s needs, what questions are posed, what’s at stake, what goal is thwarted, and what strength (or weakness) helps your hero prevail over the adversary. What are the greatest oppositions? The worst consequences if your seemingly impossible goal isn’t met? These are the keys to finding the greatest conflict in your story. And conflict is your story.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

1 comment:

  1. You're right, Karen. We gotta let 'em know exactly what the stakes are - then raise them even higher!


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