Well, for starters, it is both a noun and a verb. Both versions have a myriad of definitions. For today’s post we will be examining two definitions and how they relate to writing stories.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines conflict (n) as “an encounter with arms; a fight, battle” and conflict (v) as “To fight, contend, do battle.” Both definitions conjure up images of war and all the horrors therein. The first is the event — the fist fight in the cafeteria, the mass shooting at public schools, the bombing of Hiroshima. The second is the act of causing the event — the throwing of the first punch, the pull of a trigger, the press of a button.
At its core, both definitions are describing two or more opposing forces colliding together. One force alone does not make a conflict.
Rule#1: it cannot happen in a vacuum.
Imagine a rock being thrown in an infinite vacuum. There is nothing stopping it; there is nothing preventing it from continuing on forever. It might as well not exist for it does not effect the universe around it nor does the universe at on this rock.
Now, what if we add a wall in front of this rock? What happens?
Depending on many factors, that did not matter before because there was nothing in the rock’s way, multiple things can happen. The rock can crumble, the rock can bounce, the rock can sprout legs and dance vertically on the walls surface… the options are endless.
All because the wall is now in the rock’s way.
Is the introduction of any obstacle all there is needed for conflict then?
But it does help, so let’s add this to our list of rules.
Rule #2: obstacles are necessary for conflict.
An obstacle is what stops or hinders the forward motion of the main character and/or plot. It is the dragon preventing the prince from saving the princess, the wicked witch poisoning the apple, the teacher who won’t let you pass Chemistry because you smell of elderberries.
It is the wall.
Yet, a wall does not make for a good story. Rock hits wall, the end is not a story. Why? Mostly because we humans are curious little space orcs and tend to ask questions like why. Or How? Or When? Or Where? Or What?
Which leads to the next rule.
Rule #3: Conflicts happen in a setting and the setting is effected by the conflict and the conflict is effected by the setting.
Setting is not just the place and time.
YES, I HEAR YOU ENGLISH TEACHERS SCREAMING, CALM DOWN AND DRINK DECAF TEA FOR ONCE!
Setting and context are one and the same and require a whole other blog post. For now, just know that the setting/context answers some if not all of the why, when, who, what, where, and how of the story.
Back to the rock.
What is it? A rock. What is it made out of? Stone. Can we be more specific? Let’s say it is made multiple elements found in the periodic table of elements. And it is hard. And rough. And because I want to, it has a name. The rock is named… Benjamin.
This is my conflict in miniature I get to name it whatever I want.
Anyway, the rock that is named Benjamin is an average earth rock and it likes traveling through the air as if being thrown by a curious hairless space orc. But there are no space orcs (because that would complicate this analogy further) so Benjamin can propel itself just fine.
Yes, itself. Pronoun conflicts happen outside this one.
Now, Benjamin (Who) was happily zooming across an empty parking lot (Where) at noon (When). It was in a hurry and wanted to head home quickly because there was a yummy bento box waiting at home (Why). So, Benjamin was cutting through the parking lot to its house which was just across the street (How).
Now pause. Here we have a crucial element within the setting that highlights another key rule of conflict: desire/motivation.
Rule #4: All conflict is caused by desire/motivation. Something/someone wants X. The X is important.
What does Benjamin want? It wants to get home.
Now time to add an obstacle to its desires.
Mr. Wally McWallington, the Third, (the wall) is Benjamin’s obstacle. Wally is large and doesn’t care about nothing but themselves. A real jerk. I hate Wally. Benjamin hates Wally.
Especially because Wally is in Benjamin’s way.
Is that it?
Wally never gets home because Wally is in the way?
That would be a boring sad story. Wally should do something about this obstacle.
Rule#5: The characters in conflict should always have AN ACTION.
Action moves the story forward, makes characters engaging, keeps readers reading and writers writing. Conflict needs action the way the desert needs the rain.
So what does Benjamin, the rock do?
It throws itself against Wally with all its mixed mineral heart!
Benjamin ricochets off of Wally’s brick exterior and lands bottoms-up onto the pavement.
He tries again.
Wally yawns as they watch Benjamin bounce off them again and again.
Wally is getting bored.
Rule 8: Action must continuously rise or boredom sets in.
Action rise due to the interaction of two opposing forces OR due to Dues Ex Machina (but that’s another topic).
Here Wally is doing nothing. So let’s help the action rise shall we?
Wally bends their great mass to look at Benjamin. “What do you want small fry?”
Benjamin sits up. “I WANT YOU OUT OF MY WAY! My bento is getting cold.” It says the last bit quietly to itself.
Wally laughs and kicks Benjamin away. “Fat chance, small fry. I like it here.”
Benjamin resumes throwing itself at Wally, as the wall laughs and laughs.
The wall occasionally kicks Benjamin away, further and further. It takes Benjamin longer to get back to the wall. Yet, it doesn’t give up and slowly notices a dent forming in the wall’s brick surface.
This can continue escalating indefinitely until a resolution is reach. . . if one ever happens.
Rule 7: Resolution?
Resolutions are a separate topic. They are part of a whole story and their presence, or lack thereof, helps to define the story. As in life, there are times when conflict ends with a resolution and then there are times when it continues onward, passing onto the next generation like a really ugly lamp from ye olde days. Resolutions spell the end of a conflict in a story, generally.
Will Benjamin and Wally resolve their conflict?
We may never know.
Or you might, dear reader. I’ll leave it up to you.
I traced my dusty fingers across the letters. PATER NOSTER. They formed the Cross at the “n,” just as I had planned. It had taken me the better part of an afternoon, carving away at the brick with father’s broken chisel, but it was done. No one may notice it unless they were looking closely at the bottom bricks of our hallway. But I would know it was there — a secret message between me and my maker — and that was all that mattered. Father had baptized me in his faith in the river with my older brothers, to the dismay of my mother. Her family had fled from the Persians years ago and had foregone baptizing in the open. Yet, that was before our house was built, before the fortification of our town, and before the hallways were extended. Now everything is hidden within.
A lot has happened since my last post here. A lot is still going on. Those that follow this blog may have noticed that there’s been no twitter rants either. I took a long break from twitter. And from Facebook. And from writing.
To be honest, I gave up writing for a while. I would write some ideas and sketch some other things here and there but these past few years I just haven’t had the heart of energy to write.
How do you write when so much is happening around you? Even the most quiet moments of my days felt so loud due to the fear that everything in life is built on a foundation of shifting sand. It isn’t so much the end I fear; if things ended that would honestly be a relief. Like a drawn out horror flick. End, cut, that’s a wrap. However, the suspense of modern life doesn’t end until death. And there is no relief in death. There’s nothing. No pain but also no relief. The complete lack of stimuli, positive or negative.
So how do you write when you are overwhelmed by responsibilities and life with all of its hectic anxious energy?
Some will tell you it is all about prioritizing your time; time management is key. Just get your ass in the chair and write.
But that is patronizing bullshit at best and a weird way of making a living through affiliate marketing at worst. No amount of bullet journals, therapy, time management software, or even a shock collar will get a human to write while their world is burning down and rebuilding and burning and rebuilding.
No. It all boils down to one thing: Is your desire to write greater than all other desires? Is it a constant nagging hunger that you somehow return to even when your world is plunged into chaos?
If yes, you are now cursed to be a writer. You will find yourself scribbling words down onto used tissue paper, on walls, on your skin. It is unavoidable.
I should clarify, then, what I mean when I say I gave up writing.
I gave up finishing pieces, editing them, polishing them. I gave up the hard work that comes with writing — the killing your darlings, the hustle of submitting, the seemingly endless arrays of making a living while not living.
I gave up on pursuing the business of writing.
Then, why am I back to posting on an old blog with barely enough followers to make a dent in the algorithmic landscape of Google and Web 2.0?
Because I began this blog for amateurs, for moms, for dads, for transgendered parents, for agender parents, for their kids, for that one kid whose hands are stained with ink, for those who can’t stop writing even when the eviction notices pile up, for those whose stories are so loud that a global pandemic, social unrest, the possible collapse of the US dollar, and countless endless wars doesn’t stop their hands from typing to the rhythm of song only they can hear.
I am back because of you dear readers. Because somehow there are still people checking in on this site.
I hope you will enjoy my unedited ramblings and flagrant disregard of English grammar.