Seven Conflict Basics

by Al Kalar

A good story requires conflict. Without it, you don’t have much to offer the reader. Perhaps a fictional travelogue can get by without conflict, but any good yarn is pretty boring without it.

I ran across a good checklist for conflict written by our old friend, Ben Bova. The list is his, the comments are mine.

  1. A story is a narrative description of a character struggling to solve a problem. More often than not, your “hero” is the person with the problem. Also, most often, your Point Of View (POV) character is your hero. However, many a good yarn has been told from the viewpoint of a sidekick or an “opposer”.  The “problem” can be be more than one issue (in fact multiple problems work best as we’ll see).
  2. In fiction, conflict almost always involves a mental or moral struggle between characters caused by incompatible desires and aims. Good vs evil. Two people who desire the same member of the opposite sex. Two opposing politicians squabble over new development for their town vs keeping the “small town” atmosphere. Control of territory or people.Each person may think he is doing what’s best for either the general welfare, for himself, or for his family or social group.
  3. Physical action is not necessarily conflict.As much as I love action stories, the other forms of conflict can be just as effective and sometimes even more so.  Even “action” yarns need some other forms of conflict to round them out and make them truly believable and entertaining.For instance, Bruce CoverDavis’ award-winning That Which is Human features a lot of really good action scenes, but his protagonist is also fighting an internal battle against an addiction. And just to make his life more complicated, his wife is leaving him.  The enemy must be fought physically, but they also need to be understood to find the best way to save the human race.
  4. The conflict in a story should be rooted in the mind of the protagonist; it is the protagonist’s inner turmoil that drives the narrative. The protagonist’s conflict does not have to mirror reality. She may think she has a problem that doesn’t actually exist. A POV character with paranoia can be the center of a fine story as she stumbles through the lives of those around her, creating even more conflict as she goes.  In fact, her paranoia may end up producing the very problem she thought she had.
  5. The protagonist’s inner struggle should be mirrored and amplified by an exterior conflict with an antagonist. The antagonist may be a character, nature, or the society in which the protagonist exists. A soldier who is terrified of dying comes into conflict with his hard-driving sergeant. If he allows anyone to see his cowardice, he’ll earn the scorn of his entire platoon, the top-kick, and perhaps the rest of his company. A man who fears wild (or even tame) animals is stalked by a rogue bear or mountain lion.
  6. Eschew villains! The antagonist should believe that he is the hero of the tale. I don’t always agree with this maxim. Anyone who has enjoyed a villain played by Alan Rickman knows that a villain who knows he’s a bad guy can be quite entertaining. But the truth of the matter is that most people who do bad things, often do them for what they see as an excusable reason. A man who’s out of work may steal to feed his family. Often people delude themselves into thinking that its okay to steal or rape because the victim “has it coming”. The old maxim of “the end justifies the means” often comes into play here.
  7. Be a troublemaker! Create excruciating problems for your protagonist. And never solve one problem until you have raised at least two more – until the story’s conclusion. What can I say? Al Philipson mentioned this same maxim in his post on Conflict. This is one way to keep the reader turning pages and reluctant to put the book down. If you can do this well, you’ll build a fan base that can’t wait for your next book to come out.
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