Using conflict to power your story

This is another article written for the now-defunct Beverley Guardian, recreated here for your delectation and delight.

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Conflict is the thing that powers your story. Your protagonist has a problem, they are trying to fix it, but there are things in the way, so they can’t solve their problem as easily as they’d hoped. So what are they going to do now? This tension, the wanting to know what happens next, is what keeps the reader turning the paged. The source of that tension is conflict.

Conflict is caused by the gap between the expected outcome and the actual outcome. The bigger the gap, the better the conflict.

Imagine you’re chatting to a friend. You start telling them about how you had a problem with your phone line. The simple outcome would be that you got in touch with tech support, they fixed it. This is a pretty boring story. However, if you called tech support, they couldn’t/wouldn’t fix the problem, then you missed an important telephone call from the hospital, which means you missed an unexpected appointment to have some sort of pain relieving treatment and now you’re doomed to be in pain for weeks until another slot opens up. And your phone still isn’t fixed. So, you did X…and then Y… and then…

The second version is a much more interesting story. The gap between the simple outcome you’d hoped for and the hoops you had to jump through to achieve the outcome in reality is what makes the story worth listening to.

So, how do you achieve this in fiction? First, look at your protagonist’s main problem. What do they have to do to solve it? Pick one of those things and work out what would happen to make that step more difficult.

You could use another character as antagonist – A lot of stories have a baddie who provides the obstacles. Hero wants X, Antagonist will do anything to stop him from getting it. Or better still, they compete to get to X first and antagonist lays traps for the hero. This is the main conflict in many an action movie.

It is possible to have nature as the antagonist. It could be nature at her most malevolent – which is the staple of disaster movies. Or it could be more subtle: A man is stranded on Mars. He needs to survive until the next mission lands and he intends to survive on the potatoes he grows in poo. There’s a storm. His potatoes are destroyed, along with any hope of growing more. His chances are looking even worse now…

Add a ticking clock. The heroine must reach a certain goal before some terrible thing happens. This ticking clock could be anything from lightening striking a clock tower or the object of her affection getting married to the wrong person.

At the start of the story establish why it is important for the protagonist to achieve their goal, make it something that is important to them. Then, if possible, make the stakes even higher. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy wants to get into the temple because he wants the sacred stones. He’s a tomb raider and it’s a challenge for him, but it’s not life and death. Soon after his adventure begins, he meets the villagers who tell him that their children are being stolen and taken into the mountain and he says he’ll help them. Suddenly the quest is more than about some nice artefacts. There are kids involved. And THEN his friends get caught up in it. Not only is it life and death… it’s now the life or death of people he cares about.

Individual scenes need conflict and tension too. Again, the conflict comes from the gap between expectation and what actually happens. If one of your scenes feels like it’s not working (chances are, you’ll know it’s not working even if you don’t know why), then look at the core point of the scene. Why is it there? What needs to happen in that scene to move the story along to the next beat? Work out what the protagonist of that scene wants and why they want it. Then figure out what’s stopping them getting it until the end of the scene. This is often called ‘goal, motivation, conflict’. A good scene will have all there embedded in it, so it will ‘feel’ right.  

Conflict doesn’t always have to be big, explosive stuff. It can be subtle. Set up the expectation and subvert it. It can be as subtle as someone you’d expect to stop and say hello looking awkward and crossing the street to avoid you. Or a wife forgetting to kiss her husband goodbye one morning. It just needs to be something that indicates that everything isn’t as perfect as the protagonist would like.

These obstacles not only make it harder for the protagonist to reach their goal, they also give them the means to prove themselves. In order to keep going, they must find deep reserves of courage and perseverance. Avoid miraculous coincidences swooping in to their rescue and make then earn their story.  

You need at least three points of great difficulty. Each challenge will be harder to overcome than the last until at the eve of overcoming the last challenge, the protagonist feels all is lost. In romance, we call it the ‘black moment’ or ‘all is lost’. This is often the point where the physical plot and the emotional plot come together and the protagonist finds that last thing they needed to change.

This ramping up to tension is reflected in the reader’s feelings. They keep reading because they want to know what happens and because, if you’ve done your job, they are living through the protagonist’s journey. When it all works out and the hero returns home triumphant, or the hero and heroine get to their happy ending, the reader can give a sigh and feel a sense of satisfaction. This endorphin rush (there is an actual reaction in the brain) is what makes the reader close the book and say ‘that was good’. This is what you’re aiming for.

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