December 22, 2014

Creating Conflict in a Story

Although I've written four novels and countless short stories now, I still have trouble with conflict in my stories.  Sometimes, the struggle is to find the conflict in the story.  Others, it's to make that conflict believable enough to propel the story, or big enough to challenge the character.  Conflict is a key element in any story.  Getting it wrong imperils the story.  Getting it right makes the story.  How do you do get it right?  Here are some of the things I've learned.

Conflict doesn't have to be an epic battle between two people.  It can be one character trying desperately to hold on to a secret while another whittles away at them, trying to learn that secret.

Conflict can be internal or external, or both.  Internal conflict happens when a character has to grapple with a mental or emotional issue that is affecting their ability to function in a situation.  The conflict happens within the character.  External conflict happens outside the character, such as having to win a cake baking contest or rescuing a dog from an abusive home.  Internal and external conflict can be combined in a story.  A character struggling with a fear of heights finds that he must cross a wire suspended between two buildings in order to save the life of a loved one.  This character is facing the internal conflict of the fear of heights, while also struggling to safely cross a wire between two buildings (not easy to do).

Conflict should always be meaningful.  It isn't enough just to have your character battling someone or something throughout the book.  That conflict has to be meaningful in the context of the story.  Does the struggle give the character a resource needed later?  Does it highlight a weakness that will prove fatal later on?  Does it move the story arc forward, advancing the plot? If not, consider eliminating or revising it so that it does accomplish one or more of these things.

Conflict drives everything in your book, and should start early on in the story.  It happens whenever two characters (or a character and some force) are in opposition.  It should build over the course of the story, starting small and ramping up as the story goes along.  The two most important parts of the conflict can be summed up in two questions:
  • What are the stakes here?
  • Why should the reader care?
One of the functions of conflict is to show us a character's true nature.  She may seem meek and mild, but when her children are threatened, she becomes a ruthless predator.  The conflict draws out her inner nature.

In a conflict, it's fine for your characters to make bad choices because of elements of their personality, because of bad experiences they've had in the past, or simply a lack of knowledge or skill.  These choices will help make the character come alive for the reader, increasing the drama and tension in the story.  In general, though, you shouldn't show characters making bad decisions or big mistakes in areas where they would be expected to have expertise.  For instance, a firearms expert isn't likely to have trouble loading a clip of ammunition into a gun, even in a tense situation.  A schoolteacher who has only shot a gun once, however, might find reloading the gun to be difficult at first.

Ultimately, conflict is about characters taking the minimum amount of action necessary to solve a problem that stands between them and something they want.  How much effort they'll make and how much risk they will endure is directly proportional to how badly they want that "something".
When it comes to conflict, realize that characters will act logically and realistically.  If there's an obvious, easy solution to their problem, they'll try it.  If it fails, they'll look for the next-easiest solution and try that.  Just like anyone else, characters will do the things that makes sense for them, given their skills, experience, mental makeup, situation, etc.

To inject conflict into a situation, first ask "What does the character want in this scene?" Then, repeatedly ask the questions "What's the worst thing that could happen to prevent the character from getting what they want?" and "How might that believably happen in this situation?"  Eventually, you should find a believable obstacle that gets in the character's way and challenges that character sufficiently.

How do you build and inject conflict into your stories?  Please share in the comments.

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