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Conflict—Beyond Arguments and Fist Fights

June 15, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 15, 2011

A writer and I were recently speaking about conflict. She was trying to add more, to vary the types of conflict in her manuscript, and feeling frustrated. Other than obnoxious arguments and physical fights, what kinds of fictional conflict are there? I threw out a couple of ideas, just to get her started. And then, the more we talked, the more options we came up with.

Simply defined, conflict is a lack of agreement.

Simply defined, maybe. But not necessarily a simple concept. Especially for writers who want a depth to the drama of their projects.

There are just too many options and variables for conflict to be simple.

There’s no single kind of conflict, no one level, no foolproof approach. Instead, the kinds of conflict and the sources of conflict and the approach to conflict are many and varied.

And not only are there a number of types or styles, but there are a variety of intensities, levels, of story conflict.

The degree of conflict can fall anywhere along a range from absent (or not felt) to overwhelming.

Low conflict might arise when a couple can’t decide on what type of food they want for dinner. If the couple is newly in love, the dinner conflict might be minor and resolved in an instant when one partner gives in.

In a low-level conflict of short duration, there’s little escalation, little discomfort for characters or readers. The conflict may come across as simply a normal event from everyday life.

Yet, if a couple has been together for years and neither wants to give in on the dinner choice, conflict may be longer lasting and more deeply felt.

Thus, story needs will dictate level and duration of conflict as well as the type. And the type and level and duration will in turn influence the story and propel it forward.

Conflict can set characters in motion, forcing them to do what, without the conflict, they would never have imagined doing. And this, this acting out of character, can increase tension, which can lead to more conflict. Characters at odds with themselves may lash out, may be forced into a reaction to either set themselves back on the right course or jump onto paths they’d never envisioned stepping into.

Strong conflict can raise the tension level in both characters and readers. Escalating conflicts, disagreements that build, that lead to regrettable words and actions with tragic consequences, are the life of your fiction.

While many people search for ways to get along with others, to bring peace into at least some areas of their lives, characters go out of their way to exacerbate conflict. They always say or do something that they shouldn’t and then they’re off, tearing into one another verbally or pulling one another apart physically.

Conflict drives your story, powers it. You need motivation to steer the plot, to give it direction, but conflict is the propulsion.

You don’t have much of a story if everyone gets along and all get what they want and there’s not one moment of contrariness.

That’s not story, those pretty words strung together without conflict. That’s a greeting card.

You don’t want flowers and rainbows and beautiful music for your characters, at least not to start. And your readers certainly won’t want those elements.

Characters need disagreements. Readers come to story for conflict. Both readers and characters need to feel conflict and tension (the emotion that rises out of conflict) in order to be satisfied at story’s end. Conflict gives both character and reader investment in story. When something’s at stake, when conflict is real, the resolution that arises after the conflict is played out is sweet (or bittersweet) and rewarding. The story—and its resolution—has value if it costs something to finish it.

For characters, that cost is overcoming conflict and challenges to secure the prize (goal). For readers, it’s experiencing every emotion the characters face and rejoicing with them (or doing whatever’s appropriate for the plot) at story’s end.

Conflict shows the cracks, the imperfections, in a character’s life. Conflict develops when the puzzle pieces don’t fit, when the seams don’t match, when the balance is off.

When a character’s life is not placid and easygoing and fluid.

Whether one character must come out ahead of another or he must face and defeat his own inner demons, story must have this sense of being out of sync, out of agreement, out of balance.

As creator of a story, you have to plan the conflicts that push your story forward, toward a climactic showdown. Your characters can’t always work and play well together, for the simple reason that you’ll bore your readers into putting down your book.

Vary the intensity of conflict from scene to scene; every disagreement doesn’t have to end with a gun in someone’s hand or the police being called to a scene of domestic violence. One character could even face a number of low-level disagreements with good grace, only to blow up with a major confrontation when she couldn’t take being forced to compromise any longer.

Intensity should increase as the plot approaches the dark moment and climax. Don’t hold back the conflict. Let characters say words they’ll regret, that sound mean or twisted or devastating. Make characters go beyond a common or civilized response. Push characters beyond their limits and then show what that does to them.

This pushing of character into conflict will drive your story tension higher, out of the range of bland and almost there and into a satisfying position of engagement for the reader.

Readers are drawn to what a character values and focuses on. Show readers that characters value something. Engage them, your readers, by making them care about your characters and your characters’ concerns.

Considerations for each conflict
When you write conflict, keep in mind the following elements. They’ll remind you to strive for variety in your story conflicts—

Intensity—conflict can be written at a level of intensity anywhere from none on the low end to extremely high

Duration—conflict can be short, a momentary disagreement; it can be as long as a scene or two and then resolved; or one conflict can last the length of a novel

Number—you can introduce as many conflicts as the story can hold and you can include several of one type or write different kinds each time

Resolution—each conflict may face its own resolution; you must decide whether the conflict is truly resolved or if it’s allowed to smolder, waiting for the next spark to make it flare anew

Timing—consider when to introduce the first conflict and decide how conflicts will be spaced throughout the story

Type—conflicts come in types and varieties; mix and match to best suit plot, character personalities, genre, and intended pacing. Types include: protagonist’s conflict with antagonist, with best friend or with secondary characters; conflict with rules or laws or society; conflict with circumstances, with expectation, with setting, with world (being out of place or time); or with self (character in conflict with personal limitations, dreams, morals, and vows to self)

Logic—conflict must make sense in terms of characters and events and setting and genre. Every story needs conflict, yet not all conflict fits every story. Make conflict logical in terms of the other story elements. You don’t want readers saying that the conflict feels forced or that it could be resolved in a moment with a single word or that the type of conflict doesn’t fit a character.

Conflict could produce a physical fight, one long and bloody or one short and humorous. Conflict could be so strong, such a driving force, that a character could blow something up to end the conflict—battle scenes, of any flavor, are a valid form of story conflict.

Yet, characters might not resort to the physical. They might scream at one another. And this type of conflict might be especially effective in a reserved character, one who never lets loose. A conflict that reaches the screaming banshee stage reveals much about the characters and the items of value to them.

Yet, beyond fights and screaming matches, how else can conflict be introduced or played out? What other ways can disagreements be approached and written in to story?

When you use these techniques, you’ll be introducing conflict. Your word choices and your characters’ actions and reactions will reveal the intensity level; a character’s personality will cause him to react differently to each kind of conflict and each new moment of conflict.

(Remember that each conflict will have an intensity range and a duration and must be logical, as I mentioned above.)

In dialogue, introduce or increase conflict

through miscommunication (a garbled message)

through pretended miscommunication (Oh, I thought you meant . . . )

when one character ignores another, speaks right over him or holds the other character in contempt and so gives no attention to his words

by having one character leave the room or hang up the phone, thus incensing the other

by having one character use hot-button words and pursue hot-button issues that set off the other character

by having one character goad another, just because he likes to see the reaction

by having one character use sarcasm

by having one character ignore another character’s warnings to back off

by having one character refuse to play the games another introduces

 
To introduce conflict in action

have one character take something from another (make conflict worse by showing that the first character doesn’t even care for the object or person he stole)

allow a minor verbal disagreement to escalate to the physical and violent

include spectators to the conflict so characters can’t back down without losing face

allow a bit of fun to go too far and lead to a true physical fight

prick a character’s ego so he has to defend himself

make a character have to defend another character or living being (kitten) or thing (reputation)

arrange for one character to set up two other characters—they won’t know they’ve been set up by a third party and so attack one another (the setup must be convincing)

use body language of one character to show contempt for another

make one character physically challenging—he gets in others’ faces, pushes fingers into chests, talks loudly, always offers an opposing opinion

introduce your main character to another character, but one with an opposing viewpoint or a different method for approaching problems, and make your main character begin to have doubts about his own approach because he can understand this new approach, one he might not have thought of before; give him a conflict between what he thinks he knows and what he’s learning from a wise counselor

give a character new facts to ponder, facts that add a twist
 

In general, to introduce and increase conflict

give characters opposing goals

give characters the same goals but different methods of achieving those goals

make one character a go-getter who acts before thinking and one a planner who thinks before acting

give characters vastly different backgrounds or outlooks based on upbringing so that what is important to one may mean nothing to the other

make characters face their fears

make characters rely on weaknesses rather than strengths

don’t resolve conflict too soon

deny a character what he wants and then deny him again and then deny someone else what he wants

give a character something worth fighting for

give readers conflict that satisfies by making your choice of conflict type fit character personalities, yet also surprise readers (and characters) with conflict they didn’t expect

put obstacles in a character’s path—make him stop to deal with problems on his way to his main goal

frustrate characters by making it hard to reach goals or distract them with necessary obligations that slow down their march toward their goals

introduce uncertainty—is a friend really a friend? will the next action lead to the one that will bring about the desired goal, or is a character on the wrong track?

stir a character’s emotions—make him care and then threaten what he cares about

pile on conflict so your protagonist feels isolated and under attack from both friends and enemies, and from even himself

______________________________

These are a few ideas for creating conflict in your fiction. Whichever route you take for writing conflict, do make sure that you include it. Conflict is a requirement of satisfying fiction.

Make it a strong component of your stories.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

19 Responses to “Conflict—Beyond Arguments and Fist Fights”

  1. Kai says:

    This post came at a really great time.

    I am an aspiring writer currently working on my first novel. One of the underlying themes will involve racism/bigotry (primarily between the protagonist and antagonist from the get go). As you can imagine there will be conflict within the dialogue (amongst other things), yet one thing that really stood out in your post that I hadn’t fully realised was the significance of body language. Expressing a character’s emotions through body language (with or without dialogue) is a really fascinating point that I will definitely consider using throughout scenes.

    Thank you so much for this post- all very good reference material! :)

  2. Kai, body language certainly can convey a lot. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where someone’s posture or the roll of his eyes had us on edge, wanting to do something in response.

    I wish you a great writing experience with your first novel and hope you write many. Thank you for joining the conversation and letting me know you were here.

  3. Very interesting post. Bookmarked it. I like the more sophisticated types of conflict, beyond fighting and arguing >:)

  4. Rafael says:

    Brilliant post with a great breakdown of elements. A lot of things to keep in mind while I write.

  5. Heaven, I like the variety too. While fighting can be freeing for those who never fight, those other types of conflict work well too, especially to build conflict.

  6. Rafael, how-to info is good, but don’t let anything I suggest bog you down as you create. Write freely in your first drafts—you can always add more conflict or a different type of conflict on a rewrite.

    I’m glad you found The Editor’s Blog.

  7. Lovely post. It’s exactly, as I’ve commented in the past, what I needed to do in my R&R. The editors loved the writing, the voice, the concept, the characters, but it wasn’t enough: they wanted more conflict.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but I read that a writer will know if they’ve succeeded with conflict if what they’ve written isn’t comfortable for them, either — aka, get out of ones comfort zone. We want peace and comfort in real life, but novels aren’t real life.

    (Speaking of my R&R, my agent loved it! I’m officially back on sub as of yesterday. Hooray for conflict! : )

  8. Hooray indeed, Emily! Congratulations.

    I love how we seek conflict in the moments when we’re trying to relax and get away from real life. Maybe we like to see people overcome their problems and then hope those victories will translate to our own lives.

  9. Yup. Living vicariously through characters’ conflicts teaches us so much, without the real life blood. : ) I guess that makes us armchair adventurers.

    And thank you for the congratulations. It’s so exciting. I’m sailing my hopes on all the hard work. No matter how sub goes, I’ve learned so much and I’ve given it my all. I’m proud of that most of all. : )

  10. Emily, sometimes the joy of the writing and the education is worth much more than a sale. But here’s hoping you get to enjoy all three.

  11. “Life is melodrama; art is real.” –Andrew Lytle, deceased editor of the SEWANEE REVIEW
    “No conflict, no story.” –Brooks and Warren, UNDERSTANDING FICTION
    For some reason the concept of conflict seems to be problematic with writers. I think you said it best when you said above, “Characters at odds with themselves.”
    First, however, I’d recommend that anyone who wants to see conflict in action read Pat Conroy’s LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, which drips with it on every page.
    One of the problems is that conflict may have been over-analyzed by school marms. The traditional teaching is that the conflicts are 1) man against man, 2) man against Nature, 3) man against society or some aspect of society, 4) man against Fate (not used much these days since people feel they are in charge of their own destiny), and 5) man against himself.
    Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech said that the great stories are those of the human heart in conflict with itself. Those who can hear, realize that the first four conflicts are the backgrounds or situations that a character finds himself in when he must make a choice, usually between two Goods–two courses of action, both good but in the choosing of one makes the exclusion of the other horrible. Make no mistake: a story whose conflict is between good and evil is slight and depends on whether the reader/viewer prefers good or evil–and some people do prefer evil.

  12. I love the idea of the human heart in conflict with itself. With that scenario, characters have to make a decision that will cost them dearly. Great observations, Armstrong.

  13. Conflict that leads to serious actions can be difficult to write. I’ve written a small argument that eventually lead to character death. Oh I’m so evil…

  14. Your name… Up there was me. What is really fun to write is a charater killing someone/something in response to a simple comment. Crazy characters are the best characters.

    • Chistessa, we always hear about actors wanting to play the bad guy or someone who gets to act wild, with unpredictable actions and the mood swings to match. Venting all the stuff they’ve been forcing down is great for characters, though in real life there would be repercussions.

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