Monday, October 7, 2013

Writing Tips - Conflict Makes Your Story

Which would you rather read: a novel with a story about a man and woman who meet, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after or a story about a man who meets a woman, falls in love, only to lose her to a gang of terrorists demanding a large ransom or they will kill her?

A good story needs conflict. A conflict is the characters struggling to overcome a problem. There is two kinds of conflict: internal and external. External conflict can be a struggle of character against character, or a character against circumstances or events. Internal conflict can be a character's struggle with himself in some way. Just remember, a story without any struggle is no story at all. 

Conflict creates an immediacy or urgency in your story. Action pulls readers into your story. 

What do you need to do to create conflict?

Straightforward Narrative
This creates a visual image of the character in the reader's imagination. When you put your character to the test, forcing him to make a decision and act, only then does this breathe life into your character. 

James Frey writes, "A character's response to obstacles, barriers, and conflict individualize him, proves his characterization, and makes him real and distinct in the reader's mind."

With no conflict, your characters become flat, dull, and lifeless. Two characters just talking to each other is not dialogue. It doesn't show a conflict or struggle between the characters. 

It's important to keep the reader interested. A story must involve struggle. How a character reacts to struggle shows the reader who the character is. Readers identify with the character. So, it's character which keeps the reader interested. 

Insistence vs. Resistance
Conflict between characters always takes the form of insistence versus resistance. Conflict occurs when characters have different goals and insist on reaching them. 

Equal Sides of Conflict
In order to have good, believable conflict, the sides must be evenly matched. No one wants to see Batman beat up on a helpless homeless person. And, would the Hulk look even more menacing if he punched a Prius rather than a huge semi truck? No, and that's why you should make sure that your heroes in your story have equally matched competition to keep them on their toes.

In How to Write a Play (1983), Raymond Hull explains opposition in terms of a formula:

"M + G + O = C. Main Character + His Goal + Opposition = Conflict"
According to James Frey, "Good opposition requires that the antagonist counter each of the protagonist's attempts to solve his problems with as much force and cunning as the protagonist exhibits."

When creating conflict in your story, your opposition doesn't necessarily have to be a villain. The antagonist can be a hero as well. In order to have good opposition, you must make sure your characters are well-motivated, rounded, non-stereotyped characters.

In creating your opposition, ensure they have points of view that are logical and reasonable. The reader can understand and even sympathize with these characters. As Raymond Hull put it, "The strength of the conflict is not just a product of the protagonist's strength" but is a product of the "strength of the opposition."

Keeping Your Characters in the Furnace
Think of it this way: the furnace holds the characters together as things heat up. It's a bond that keeps them in conflict with one another.

The conflict must be strong enough to motivate the character to continue rather than run away. When you create your characters, think of them as bonded together. Strong enough to continue their fight to resolve their problems to the final resolution.

Without the furnace to contain your characters, there can be no conflict. Without conflict, there is no drama. In short, there is no story.

Necessary Inner Conflict
Your character needs to suffer inner conflict like those of real people. Guilt, fears, misgivings, doubts, second thoughts, and such are all examples of inner conflict. Using inner conflicts makes your character more interesting and memorable to the reader. The reader can empathize with your character; creating a connection with your character.

As James Frey puts it, "Inner conflict confirms that the characters are involved, that something is at risk for them."

In order to have inner conflict, the opposing forces don't need to be great or out of this world. They only need to be great in your character's mind.

Impaling Your Character on the Horns of a Dilemma
When you do this, you've put your character in a position where they must have or must do something - for a very powerful reason - yet they can't have or can't do something for equally powerful reasons. These powerful forces pull your character into two different directions.

Dramatic Patterns of Conflict
Struggle in a conflict is action. Action has various dramatic patterns within the story. For instance, conflict which fails to rise is called "static" while conflict that rises too quickly is called "jumping." Another term is "slowly rising conflict" which is what you, the storyteller wants.

So, how do you figure out if your conflict is one other other?

Static Conflict
Any kind of dramatic conflict that is unchanging. With static conflict, your characters stop developing.

Jumping Conflict
Conflict leaps from one level of intensity to another without adequate motivation or transitional stages. Characters are tender one moment and raging with anger the next.

Slowly Rising Conflict
Conflicts rise slowly. Conflict proves character. Using this method, you show more character's development by how they react to different stages of conflict. You can put your character through various emotional stages.

I've given you a lot of information about creating conflict and what it means in your story. Writing a great story requires you, the writer, to keep the reader reading. To do so, that means using slowly rising conflict.

How do you do this?

Plan your novel with slowly rising conflict in the forefront of your mind. Your characters must meet ever increasing obstacles; their problems multiplying; pressures growing.

Remember, when your conflict rises, your character shows development. The character changes.

The best way to make sure you have rising conflict is to look at your character's emotional level. Look at the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene. Your character's development should be visible. A change should occur in their emotional level from hateful to loving, or spiteful to compassionate. However, make sure this change is done a little at a time. This ensure the conflict is rising slowly.

You can take what you've learned here and apply it to your writing.

Happy Writing!

Image credit: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

Resources: Wring to Sell by Scott Meredith, The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey 

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