Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writing 101: Conflict

The last couple weeks have been extra busy for me, so I haven't had time to write a new blog post for today. So, I'm reposting this "class" I wrote for my personal blog last year. Enjoy! Next time I'm hoping to get back into the worldbuilding theme by tackling constructed languages.

What is conflict?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question, so don't take mine as the gospel truth. This is how I learned and understand the concept.

Broken down to its most basic definition, conflict has two parts.

1. Someone wants something.

2. They can't have it.

The possibilities for what and why are endless. Let's look at a few examples, all revolving around a character called Rachael. What are some things Rachael might want?

Rachael wants an apple.
Rachael wants to go for a jog.
Rachael wants to snag a position at her dream company.
Rachael wants to go on a date with Dan.
Rachael wants to save her dog's life.

And what are some reasons she can't have those things?

The apple is rotten.
She sprained her knee.
The director of human resources is sexist and will only hire men.
Dan already has a girlfriend.
The dog is being swept downriver, and Rachael doesn't know how to swim.

Simply having a character go out and do something does not make a story. There needs to be something that stands in their way.

You should have conflict on every page of your story.

"But Lauren," you say, "that's stupid. My story is pretty low-key. There isn't any dog-saving or love triangles. There isn't any kind of action. How can I have conflict on every single page?"

This is important to remember: conflict and action are not the same thing. Conflict can happen within a single person's thoughts. It all comes down to what type of conflict you're working with.

To demonstrate this, I'll show you different versions of conflict that could arise from this statement: Rachael wants an apple.

First is interpersonal conflict. In its most basic form, interpersonal conflict is where person A wants something, and person B wants something that, well, conflicts. Technically, they could be wanting the same thing, but it's how you phrase it: Person A wants to eat an apple, and Person B does not want them to eat the apple, because they want it for themselves.

Rachael eyed the shiny apple on the counter. She licked her lips and reached out for it.

"Don't touch that," Dan said. "It's for my lunch tomorrow."

Though not as common, interpersonal conflict can happen when one or more parties are not present. You can even have a scene with two characters who are not in conflict with each other, but with a third character offscreen.

Rachael checked the fridge and found no apples. "Dan, do you know where all the apples went?"

"They're not in the fridge?" Dan came to check for himself. "Rats! Atticus must have eaten them all."

"That pig!" Rachael said.

Next is external conflict. This is where some outside force stands in the way. I'll show two versions of it, one big and one small.

Rachael eyed the shiny apple on the counter. She licked her lips and reached out for it. Before her fingers made contact, a violent jerk shook the kitchen. Then another came. An earthquake!

Rachael eyed the shiny apple on the counter. She licked her lips and reached out, picked it up, and lifted it to her mouth. She took the first bite and saw with horror that a worm had already consumed most of the insides. She spat out the bite and ran to the sink to wash her mouth out.

Finally, internal conflict. A person wants something, and nothing stands in their way except themselves.

Rachael eyed the shiny apple on the counter. She licked her lips and reached out for it.

She stopped.
I shouldn't, she thought.

Why won't Rachael let herself eat the apple? For the purposes of this example, it doesn't even matter. Sometimes it's more intriguing if you don't immediately "give away" the reason for internal conflict.

And that's a good lesson in itself: just because you've got conflict on every page doesn't mean you must make it completely explicit. In fact, the wanting itself can merely be implied.

On an otherwise peaceful Tuesday afternoon, a boulder the size of a cow plummeted from the sky and landed with a crunch on Rachael's car.

I don't really need to tell you that Rachael most likely wants her car to be in tact.

Thus ends Conflict 101. Next time you're working on a scene that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, step back and ask: What does this character want? Why can't they have it? And if you don't have an answer for either or both of those questions, by all means, make one!


Marquita Hockaday said...

This is some awesome info. I'm going to try and see if my WIPs have conflict based on this method. Thanks for the tips :)

Pam Harris said...

Wow, very thorough--and helpful! :)

Michelle Julian said...

I like the way you explain conflict. I will keep these tips in mind when working on my WIP.

thebloodfiend said...

I read this two days ago before blogger screwed up and deleted all the comments.

I just wanted to say that your 101 posts are really helpful. I especially liked the one on religion and I look forward to the one on language.

Lauren Hunter said...

Aww, thank you! :) I'm glad you enjoy them!