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Conflict in Storytelling and Novel Writing

Tip: read these articles in sequence starting with Conflict


Conflict is the essence of Drama 

Conflict is the essence of drama. Got none? Then you got none. It’s the primary ingredient that weaves together all the other elements of a novel.

You a Seinfeld fan? What do you immediately remember about the show? The characters of course. But what created those characters? Actually, no, not the jokes, although damn they were funny. The characters were instead put in relief by non-stop silver bullets flying among them. It wasn’t a show about nothing—it was about war.

Don’t believe me? Watch it (or any favorite) again with an objective eyeball. All good shows…all good drama…is boiling with conflict. Bubble, Bubble

But confusion abounds as to exactly what it is. And no wonder, for ‘conflict’ is a pretty watery word, drawing into it an entire spectrum of dramatic elements that inhabit both the width of a page and that of a book.

You can't write a good book without it

The terrible backlash of this confusion is that you really need to intuitively understand it in all its guises. The sweet dreams of many a would be writer have been muddled and lost in their lack of an essential feel for it. If you do grasp the full breadth of the watery word, then you, your publisher and your reader will be much happier with your book.

So let’s break em’ down and bag em’. Good news is it’s really not that hard. A few gritty examples so you believe (most examples are from film or televisionmore people know them and the principles illustrated are the same).  

Conflict—Wide Angle Internal (Character Growth)  

Internal conflict is the dilemma facing the character inside and its impact on that character. Writers typically choose internal conflicts that arouse a universal emotion in people, whether it's inner need, desire, belief, or turmoil. 

Like us, a novel's characters have little holes in their lives, bits of their tapestry somehow torn, experiences that scarred them. This is their vulnerability, and what they must confront as a direct result of what happens to them in the novel. The resolution of this confrontation, whether it's constructive, destructive, successful or not, allows us to see how a character has grown.

A strong internal conflict can make a good story great.

Conflict—Wide Angle External (Role of the Antagonist)  

Internal conflict adds meaning and complexity to the external conflict, but it's the external conflict that forces a character to make internal choices and changes. And the key to a story’s tension is that a character has choices to make. Which will it be? What will be the fallout? For readers to care about a story the choices and the resolution must have consequences for the main character

In the broad perspective, a novel's need of an antagonist is really the main character's need of something to force him or her to make choices. Characters, like ourselves, don't easily take difficult paths. No thank you. If we're not forced to, we simply don't. 

One of the best ways to force a character into choices is to develop an antagonist who will naturally jab into the root of a character's internal conflict and who's goal is opposite that of your hero (the hero, by the way, doesn't need to explicitly know their goal). The 'antagonist' doesn't have to be an evil outlaw with a sweaty hat, it can be a storm or society or a new job or a worm. 

Conflict—Medium Shot (Bumps rising toward a Climax)  

On the way toward your hero's goal a series of conflicts or obstacles occur that prevent him from reaching it. If you have a bad guy these often result from run ins with him or his minions. Each external mini-conflict or bump must drive down to the root of a character's internal conflict, slowly teaching the character a life lesson or giving them the option to change. 

In Finding Nemo, for example, Marlin's external goal is to, well...find his son, Nemo. Mini-bumps along the way include leaving the safety of the coral reef in the first place and later fighting sharks. These events tear away at Marlin's weakness: his lack of courage.   

An important component of suspense at each mini-climax is choice. If there's no doubt at all as to how a character will proceed at each junction then the plot is without suspense and the character without conflict. 

A character's decision must proceed from powerfully conflicting alternatives if we are to read with empathy instead of mere curiosity. We are fascinated by a character's actions largely in light of the actions rejected and the stresses endured as a result.

Conflict—Close Up of a Page (Spoken)

Try to instill emotion, tension and conflict into every conversation and on every page. Imagine what boring neighbors Jerry and Kramer would be if whenever they met everything was wonderfully smooth instead of eternally ripe with argument and banter. For Seinfeld these little battles are either starting points or nuances of the episode's big 'battle', and you'll have a difficult time locating a full minute without them. Perhaps more importantly they put Jerry, Kramer and the rest in stark relief and in doing give us the opportunity to (kind of) love them.

Take a closer look at any good book, film or TV show and you'll be shocked at just how much page to page or minute to minute conflict you'll find. 

Conflict—Close Up of a Page (Subtext)

Whenever we deal with people with whom we have conflict, whether love or hate, how much of what we think and feel do we really say? Usually not everything, for one reason or another. But our feelings get through in subtle ways—off handed remarks, body language, and through the very mood of our actions. 

These subtextual motions are an underlying dialogue in themselves and usually more compelling and effective to use in your story than having a character blather out exactly what they're thinking at every particular moment. Situations in stories, like in life, are far more complicated. In Casablanca, for example, Rick and Renault's entire relationship is subtextual (rent the classic and see for yourself).

Conflict—the Buddha’s Perspective

We're not attracted to stories without conflict simply because we can't learn anything from them. They are empty of the seeds that might nurture our own growth, in whatever direction that might be. Of course we love to read happy stuff in books too, but only after the hero has traveled his or her difficult path of personal growth and finally reached the reward for their journey. 

>> Find out more with The Hero's Journey in the Good Links Section

The best books about building drama and conflict.


>> See More Books about Writing a Novel or Film Script


  On to article about how Characters drive Conflict