Writing Stories: Conflict

“English Bond” by Richard Croft is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What is conflict?

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?

No.

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.

What??

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.

Now what?

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!

Then what?

Benjamin ricochets off of Wally’s brick exterior and lands bottoms-up onto the pavement.

Then what?

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.

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