Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

Common Writing Mistakes: Lack of Conflict

So I lied, Squiders, and found one more common writing mistake.

Today we’re going to talk about conflict. Conflict in the writing sense is when something stands in your protagonist’s way of getting what he/she/it wants.

(NOTE: The protagonist of a scene may be different than the protagonist in the book.)

Conflict breaks down into external (forces outside the protagonist standing in the way) and internal (forces inside the protagonist standing in the way).

In elementary school, you probably learned a conflict breakdown that included Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, etc. That’s just a further breakdown of external conflict, for the most part.

Stories need conflict to be interesting. The tendency for some beginning authors is to think that means they need exciting things, like battles and car chases and gunfights, etc. While these things can all be good in the right circumstance, without an emotional tie to the plot, they fall flat.

A conflict does not need to be big, but it does need to be present. This is why scenes where the character brushes their teeth or takes a shower so often fail. Now, if they’re taking a shower to wash off the blood, or if they notice their canine teeth don’t look quite right…

Kit! I hear you shout. But what about slice of life stories? Or literary stories? Those don’t have conflict.

Sure they do. They might not have “Evil shall descend on the land and destroy all life” levels of conflict, but they have it.

The best book I read last year was A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It was originally published in Swedish and was translated into English in 2013. The main conflict is that Ove wants to die, and things (mostly people and cats) keep getting in his way. It’s a lovely book and I highly recommend it if you have not read it.

Is this an earth-shattering conflict? No. Does it matter to anyone except Ove? No. But it is there.

A story needs an overarching conflict that drives the plot, but each scene also needs some form of conflict. These can be directly related to plot, or they can be related to characterization or a subplot. And, as I noted above, the protagonist of a scene (the one who has a conflict thrown in his way) does not have to be the protagonist of the book. In some cases, the book’s protagonist can be the antagonist in a scene.

There can be the urge to include scenes just because they’re fun, or they’re exciting, or they’ve got the coolest bit of worldbuilding in them. But ask yourself two questions:

  • Is this scene telling me anything about my character?
  • Is this scene driving the story forward?

If the answer to both is no, the scene’s doing nothing, and it either needs to be removed, or it needs to be reworked.

Thoughts on conflict, squiders? Tips on making sure you’ve got the right amount/the right type of conflict?

What is Conflict?

We talked about conflict on Tuesday at Storycraft, and I put together an info sheet on the topic, which I thought you guys might like to see. It’s pretty basic–conflict is a wide and varied monstrosity, and you could really talk about it forever. Aside from this info sheet, we also talked about the main basis of a good conflict, which I’ll stick after the info sheet, and also about ways to add suspense to your conflict.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is what stands between your protagonist and their goals. It can be internal, external, relationship-based, etc.

How often should your story have conflict?

All the time. Allllll the tiiiiime.

That seems stressful.

It’s not, not really. The issue is that when people hear “conflict,” they think gunfights. Car chases. Explosions, jumping out of windows, planets being torn apart. Those aren’t really conflict, and you don’t need to have something like that happening that often.

So, if those things aren’t conflict, what is conflict?

Conflict is really two different things—there’s “story” conflict, or the conflict(s) that drive the plot/subplots, and there’s “scene” conflict, or the conflict happening in any particular scene. Often the scene conflict is based on the story conflict.

Elaborate, please.

All right, let’s say your main plot “conflict” is that your main character’s brother has been kidnapped by demons, and she’s trying to get him back. That’s your story conflict, your main plot. Every story needs a main plot, of course. Scene-level conflict for above plot might be your main character getting lost in the woods, or confronting a demon only to find it’s not the right kind, or losing the trail.

Above you mentioned internal, external, relationship-based, etc.?

There’s different types of conflict, and it’s good to mix them up so your story has variety. But let’s go over the basic ones. The most common ones are internal, external, and inter-relational.

Internal conflict is all thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In elementary school, you probably learned about Man vs. Himself. This is essentially the same thing. Something in your character’s personality or thoughts or beliefs is holding them back from their goal. This can be them not believing they’re worth love, or having a set belief that all what-have-yous are evil and yet needing to go to one for help, or not believing that they’re capable of what needs to be done.

External conflict is conflict coming from a source other than your main character. In elementary school, this was Man vs. Man and Man vs. Nature (though, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, Man vs. Nature is more of a combination of internal/external conflict). This is your explosions, your bad guys, your robot sharks, etc. These are physical, external forces working against your protagonist.

Inter-relational conflict is conflict that happens directly between two (or more) people. The partners that are having trouble working the case and need to put aside their differences to catch the bad guy. The married couple whose marriage has gone south and are trying to save it.

There are more types, or, rather, there are combinations of these types. Random internet searches give me Man vs. Fate, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Supernatural, and Man vs. Technology.

Some excellent writing advice that I once got is that you need all three types (external, internal, inter-relational) to have a story that keeps people interested.

Why can’t I just have explosions?

Let’s say we have Fred, walking down the street. Suddenly, a car that was parked across the street squeals out of its spot, turns, and comes after him. The windows roll down, and the men in sunglasses inside raise their guns and start shooting at poor Fred.

Exciting! But—why is this happening? What did Fred do to deserve this treatment? There’s no story here, just action, and without story, people won’t stay engaged, no matter how many things you blow up. This is part of the reason why the Transformers movies suck.

Okay, so how does conflict work when writing?

Well, you’ve got your main plot. Each scene needs some conflict that relates directly to the main plot, or to a major subplot. You can’t just have random things happen that don’t tie into the rest of the story just because they’re exciting. Things have to make sense and advance the story, one way or another.

What’s conflict resolution?

You’re getting ahead.

I am?

Before there’s resolution, everything story or subplot level conflict has a climax.

What’s a climax?

The climax of a conflict is the point where the stakes are the highest, where things are most intense. Where the protagonist needs to put everything they’ve learned, every new skill and new knowledge they’ve encountered on their journey, into play to fight their way to victory. Without a climax, your story has been for nothing.

How do I know what my climax is?

It depends on the promises you made to your reader, and on your main conflict. If you’ve set up a Big Bad, they’ll need to be fought. If your main character has been fighting some internal demon, those demons will need to be overcome. You can’t leave your main conflict dangling. Even if you’re doing a series, and you have an overarcing plot that goes on to the next book, you will have to have a book-specific conflict to wrap up.

Okay, now resolution.

Resolution means two things, actually. You have “conflict resolution”—i.e., how do you solve your conflict? And you have a plot step known as “resolution,” which is everything that happens after the conclusion of your climax. We’ll take about the latter first.

The resolution part of the plot is what happens after the climax. It’s normally pretty short, just a quick look at the results of the climax, at how life has returned to normal (or not), at the rewards the hero has earned.

And conflict resolution?

That’s such a broad topic. Different conflicts have different ways to solve them, and even the same type of conflict can be solved different ways, depending on your story, setting, etc. The important thing is that everything needed to solve the problem MUST be introduced before the climax, and that the resolution must make sense in a logical, rational sense.

So, what makes good conflict? Good conflict must be based on something your character cares about–their personal values. Searching for a lost brother has more weight if family means everything to your main character, for example. Alternately, if you base conflict on something against the character’s value–fighting against their better judgment–that can also be interesting.

Any more thoughts on conflict, Squiders?

The Importance of Antagonists

Someone on Twitter the other day was asking the Twitterverse at large whether or not their protagonists had antagonists.

Well, I certainly hope so.

What drives story? Conflict. And what causes conflict? Having obstacles that your main character/protagonist needs to overcome.

(Your main character and protagonist are usually, but not always, the same character. But that’s beside the point.)

An antagonist, from the Greek antagonistēs, is anyone or anything that acts in direct opposition to your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be someone doing something on purpose. It doesn’t even have to be a person. In fact, from scene to scene, the antagonist may change. Sure, the overall story will have a major antagonist, but in a small scene where your character can’t get the barista to understand their order, the barista is the antagonist.

A story without an antagonist has no conflict, and a story with no conflict has no plot.

People will invariably point out their favorite one-man piece of literature as an example of something otherwise, but having a single character doesn’t mean there’s not an antagonist.

It may be a fish, an island, or his own mind.

Remember what they taught us back in high school English? There’s three main types of conflict: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself.

So any story worth anything had better have some sort of antagonist.

Otherwise it’s just someone sitting and twiddling their thumbs, and no one cares about that.

Disagree with me, Squiders? What/Who is your favorite antagonist?

No Happily Ever After

So, as has been mentioned previously, I’ve been making my way through Star Trek Deep Space Nine over the past few months. (I’m currently moving into the later part of Season 3. I am looking forward to Worf showing up next season.)

However, I’ve noticed something that’s really bothered me, and that’s that Chief O’Brien and his wife fight almost every scene they’re in. Maybe because I was just a kid when I watched DS9 the first time I didn’t notice, but Holy Sepulchre, Batman, they never stop. It’s unhealthy, really. It makes me uncomfortable.

That got me to thinking. In the whole of Trek, the O’Briens are one of the few married couples that 1) are main characters, 2) have both characters onscreen, and 3) one of them doesn’t die. With it being such a minority, why have them be so unhappy? Yes, yes, I know conflict = drama, but at this point I’m wondering why they just don’t get divorced because it seems like everybody would be happier.

Anyway, I was brainstorming other scifi, trying to think of happily married couples, and the best I’ve got is Han and Leia in the books, and I admittedly haven’t read a Star Wars novel since I was 14 so maybe I missed things there too. Everyone else I can think of seems to be more of background characters.

I can think of a single example in a fantasy novel, Dragonsbane, and even then, the relationship’s not…normal.

If a character has parents, they’re not safe either. So many main characters are missing a parent for some reason, whether they disappeared, were murdered, have been separated in order to keep the kingdom safe, etc.

I don’t know. It seems to me like you could keep the level of tension and drama pretty high and still let a character have a spouse. Not all aspects of life have to be terrible to keep a reader/watcher interested.

What do you think, Squiders? Can a married couple be happily married and still allow enough conflict? Do you have examples of where it’s done successfully? (Speculative examples, preferred.)

Why TPKs Suck

It’s Friday night D&D again, and we’re well on our way to all having our butts handed to us hardcore by some treants, which are essentially the D&D version of the Ents from LOTR. Our DM, a few sessions ago, decided he was annoyed at us always surviving the encounters, and has since tried his hardest to destroy us.

TPK stands for Total Party Kill. It is where the DM manages to kill each and every one of you. He just rolled two natural 2os. At the same time.


Anyway, I don’t have to tell you how frustrating it is to continuously fail in everything you try when going up against a powerful enemy. When you pull out your most powerful attacks, the ones that you can only do every once and awhile, and it just bounces off their hide while they laugh.

As much as it sucks in gaming, it sucks just as much in fiction. While conflict is essential to keeping a story moving, at some point it can become too much. While you want your interest kept, conflict after conflict after conflict without break can cause anxiety, and most people don’t read to feel anxious.

There’s another crit from the DM. Holy Batman.

Additionally, if the main characters come up against their big bad, if they give it their all, and it does nothing – that pisses readers off. Especially at the end of the story.

I mean, occasionally you can get away with an unhappy or ambiguous ending. But when you’ve walked with a character, sat with them through their hardships, cheered as they pulled themselves up – only to have them fail at the last minute – that hurts.

It hurts bad. Bad enough that, a lot of the time, readers will just give up. And sometimes there may be throwing of books across the room. (At least in their minds – most book lovers I know will not physically damage a book, no matter how upset they are at it.)

Anyway, we really are doomed. I think I shall name my new character exactly the same as the last and stick a number on the end, just like the cat in the Simpsons.