Learning To Love Conflict


Back in the early nineties, when I was shopping around my first book manuscript, one of my strategies for landing a contract—and the one that eventually did the trick—was to attend conferences hosted by Romance Writers of America chapters, during which I always signed up for the group pitch sessions. A group pitch is when an editor, or sometimes an agent, sits at a big, round table with eight or ten sweaty-palmed aspiring novelists who take turns presenting brief oral book proposals one by one. If the editor thinks a particular book seems promising, he or she requests a formal proposal of synopsis and chapters.

I used to marvel at the patience of these editors as they listened with attitudes of polite interest to one muddled, rambling presentation after another. “Um, so the book opens with my heroine waking up to the sound of glass breaking, so she gets up and goes downstairs, and… Well, first she grabs a baseball bat from the bedroom of the dead son of the guy that owns the house—she’s just house-sitting for the summer—only the son isn’t really dead, just, like, estranged from the father, and he’s actually the guy that just broke into the house, but she doesn’t know that, so she goes downstairs, ’cause the only phone in the house is down there and she wants to call 911, and this tall, kind of scruffy but hot guy is sitting at the piano in the solarium…”

Oh. My. God. Pitch after pitch like that, with the presenter seemingly oblivious to the glazed eyes and ossified half-smile of the editor, who, when he’s heard enough already, will interrupt with, “What’s your conflict?” All too often, this cut-to-the-chase, make-or-break question is received with blinking confoundment and a reply like, “Um… conflict? I’m not sure about that, but anyway, the guy is playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ which is like her favorite piece of music, and…”

It goes without saying that even if the editor does request the manuscript in question, either to avoid authorial sulkiness or because he’s issuing a blanket invitation to the entire table, it’s destined for the reject pile. A writer who doesn’t know that stories are built around conflicts would have a hard time crafting a novel worth reading. Its conflict, if it exists at all, would likely come off as weak, ill-defined, or shaky. Stories are about conflict, and if the author doesn’t know what her story is really about, how can the reader?

In Story, Robert McKee defines his “Law of Conflict”: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict….The Law of Conflict is more than an aesthetic principle; it is the soul of story….Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music.

If what you’re writing contains no central conflict, I would be hard-pressed to call it an actual story. It may be a character study, a fictional essay, a slice of life, whatever. It’s not a story because it lacks the dynamism and emotional friction that provide the entertainment value in a story. Conflict and your characters’ reactions to it are what keep your reader engaged in the unfolding events of the world you’ve created.

Some years ago, an aspiring romance novelist—an intelligent and sophisticated woman with a background in journalism—said to me, “I don’t see why there has to be some big issue keeping the hero and heroine apart. Why can’t there be a romance where they just meet, date, fall in love, and get engaged?”

Um… Because no one would read it?

Conflict is essential. It doesn’t have to involve danger, physical confrontation, or anger. It can be as subtle as you need it to be, but it must be there. Lisabet Sarai, author of Raw Silk and Exposure, puts it this way. “In narrative, a ‘conflict’ is a discrepancy, a gap between some aspect of the current situation and the ideal or desired situation. The discrepancy can exist within a character, between characters, or in the material world. In any case, this gap introduces tension into the narrative—a sense that there is something to be decided, resolved, fixed, or otherwise dealt with. The tension propels the narrative forward. Events and/or internal changes occur in reaction to the tension, usually (though not always) in the direction of resolving the tension.”

This “gap between some aspect of the current situation and the ideal or desired situation” is the difference between the world your protagonist lives in and the world as he or she would like it to be. He wants something—to see justice done, to get the girl, to exact revenge, to find a treasure, to overcome his grief, to come of age, to find his place in the world, to change, to stay the same… The thing your protagonist wants provides the story goal. There’s a reason he wants it—his motivation—and in a good piece of fiction, that reason will be revealed sooner or later, often in the form of backstory. There’s also an impediment to achieving that goal, something he grapples with either successfully (in most heroic fiction) or unsuccessfully (in much, if not most naturalist, or literary fiction). And that impediment is, of course, your conflict.

By the way, that blather about the house sitter and the guy at the piano actually describes (poorly) the opening of my book The Return of the Black Sheep, which I pitched to my targeted editor with a single, excruciatingly well-rehearsed sentence: “My heroine is an MBA candidate whose longing for a conservative, straight-and-narrow life [her goal], a reaction to her squalid upbringing [her motivation], is jeopardized when she falls for a freewheeling Alaskan bush pilot with a dark secret in his past [the conflict].” The editor bought the book; it was my first published novel. (For more on crafting these succinct and highly effective through-line pitches, see my article on Pitching to Agents and Editors.)

The Big Five. Story conflicts generally fall into one of these basic categories:

  1. Man against fate. The protagonist is presented with a problem over which he has seemingly little control or influence. Elizabeth Berg’s Range of Motion, in which our heroine’s beloved husband is in a coma from having been struck on the head by falling ice, is an example of this type of story. Will he ever wake up? There’s no way of knowing. His wife must deal with the situation as best she can.
  2. Man against man. Two or more characters are at odds with each other. Examples abound. Think of the good guy vs. the bad guy in any mystery or suspense. You don’t even need an actual human antagonist for a man vs. man conflict, since two protagonists might find themselves on opposite sides of an issue.
  3. Man against nature. The antagonists in these stories—storms, fires, wild beasts—are powerful and capricious, and must be fought on their own terms. Melville’s Moby Dick comes immediately to mind. Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, while non-fiction, are gripping, conflict-rich tales of humankind’s age-old struggle against the volatile forces of nature.
  4. Man against society. These are stories in which a character, usually the protagonist, faces pressure to go along with the crowd, take a certain course of action, conform—or reform, like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Peter Benchley’s Jaws, like the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People, involves a man in a resort town who, recognizing a danger in the environment, stands firm against townspeople willing to expose outsiders to that danger in order to reap their tourist dollars. Another classic stand-up guy determined to do the right thing regardless of what his neighbors think is Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  5. Man against himself. The protagonist must deal with his own conflicting urges, desires, or needs. In Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, ex-con Marcus is caught between the law-abiding, ethical life he’s carved out for himself and his hunger for revenge against his daughter’s murderer.

Of course, there are novels in which the conflict incorporates more than one of these Big Five. In both John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a previously blameless 19th-century gentleman engaged to a conventional young lady of his own class becomes enthralled with a disgraced mystery woman. He’s torn not only between the two women in his life (man against himself), but between the upper-crust Victorian mores represented by the fiancée vs. the seductive freedom represented by the other woman (man against society).

Internal and External Conflict.Whatever the conflict, it will usually involve either an internal struggle within the protagonist himself or one against an external force or antagonist. The former is usually the primary conflict—sometimes the only conflict—in most romance and many literary novels, but the majority of fully developed novels incorporate both. Often, in popular fiction—mainstream, mystery, suspense, SF, fantasy, westerns, horror, etc.—the internal conflict is the secondary conflict, subservient to the battle with the external forces.

The conflict I cited from Mystic River—Marcus’ dueling urges—is his internal conflict. Each of the major characters in that book has his own distinct internal conflict, but there is, as there should be, just one external conflict: the search for the daughter’s murderer. These two types of conflict feed on and enhance each other, providing richness and complexity to this brilliant novel.

Examples of internal conflict include:

  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of commitment
  • The inability to trust
  • Emotional detachment
  • A scar from some past trauma
  • A secret that can’t be revealed
  • A lie that stands between people
  • The inability to forgive
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • A feeling that one doesn’t fit in
  • Any kind of vulnerability
  • A sense of entitlement

There are many possible internal conflicts; these are just a few. Mistrust of the opposite sex, the in­ability to love or admit love, and fear of commitment are classic internal conflicts in love stories and the love story subplots that enrich so many other types of novels.

Another example of the deft meshing of internal and external conflicts is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Vibrant, impetuous, spoiled Scarlett thinks she loves stick-in-the-mud Ashley, but he won’t have her. Ashley loves Scarlett, but it’s in his tradition-loving character to marry the woman he’s been expected to marry all his life. Bad boy Rhett sees Scarlett as a kindred spirit and loves her for who she is, warts and all, but she’s pining for Ashley. The love triangle that provides the foundation of this novel from the first page to the last is comprised of these internal conflicts, all of which have credible motivations. The personal romantic lives of these three characters progress in rhythm and in concert with the one big external conflict: the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Ideally, a novel should weave these two together seamlessly.

The internal conflict is a conflict of character, the external a conflict of circumstance. Your external conflict, assuming your story, like most, has one, might come in the form of a criminal, a wild animal, a supernatural being, a natural disaster, a terrible accident or illness, an abusive family member, an unethical corporation—any problem that comes from without rather than from within, and with which your characters must deal during the course of the story. As I mentioned, your protagonists might very well have conflicting story goals for at least part of the book, causing them to take opposing stands as regards the external conflict, or they might be working all along toward the same goal as they try to resolve the same problem.

Avoid shifting conflicts, which is to say, don’t start off with one, then move to another, and another. Although you may have as many internal conflicts as you have characters (or not), each novel has one and only one external conflict that spans the length of the book. Any mini-conflicts should be complications of that one single overriding external conflict. Think of your main conflict as a tree trunk and any mini-conflicts as branches that spring from it but remain an integral part of it.

Since conflict is, to paraphrase Robert McKee, the sound in the music of your story, it’s best to establish your internal and external conflicts as early in the story as possible and resolve them as close to the end as you can. Remember, once your conflict is over, your story is over. All that’s left is to bring the curtain down, and if you dawdle over that, your reader is likely to grow bored and irritated—not the feeling you want to leave him with as he closes your book.

When crafting the resolution of your novel, the common wisdom is to resolve your internal and external conflicts in reverse order of importance. Let’s say you’ve written a romantic suspense that’s primarily a crime novel, meant to be shelved in the mystery and suspense section of the bookstore. If possible, you want to wrap up the less important love story before the crime is resolved. Conversely, if your romantic suspense is meant to be marketed as a genre romance, you would try to conclude the crime first, then the love story. That said, it isn’t always possible, within the parameters of a particular story, to manage this.

As always, remember my mantra: Writing is an art, not a science. If it works, do it. Of course, as with music, painting, or any artistic pursuit, it behooves you to have a working knowledge of classical technique so that if you choose to diverge from it, you know what you’re diverging from. With that in mind, I invite you to join me next month, same time, same place, as I explore traditional story structure.

Louisa Burton
April 2009

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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