According to one of my #WDC17 sessions, story CONFLICT is the engine that powers storytelling, from your inciting incident to your satisfying conclusion. Without conflict, characters can’t change or grow, and readers can’t experience emotion.
What is Conflict?
Story conflict is anything that prevents your protagonist from reaching their goals. It can be internal (flaws, habits, fears) or external (roadblocks, attackers, etc).
The 4 Types of Conflict:
- Internal Character Conflict. This includes flaws and weaknesses, of which the character may or may not be aware.
- Chronic/Underlying Conflict. This includes ongoing problems of the character, such as money troubles or a bad marriage. (A series needs more chronic conflict than your average standalone.)
- Transient Conflict. This includes everyday frustrations, such as weather and traffic.
- Central Story Conflict. This is the major conflict of the book, the challenge which must be overcome.
For example, my character Nso suffers from an inability to trust and from a deeply-ingrained sense of self-hate (internal conflict). During her adventure in Darkness Rising, she has to keep in mind that she is all that remains of the leadership of an entire kingdom, and the weight of that rests on her shoulders (chronic conflict). Her main goal is to find out what caused the illness that swept the world while she was in cryo-sleep and turned the female population into monsters (central conflict), but it’s not always easy to progress during firstvoid, the time of day when the world goes pitch black (transient conflict).
Conflict on the Micro (Per Scene) Level:
Conflict must occur constantly, and it can be as tiny as it can be large. You can go over a scene’s conflict with a fine-tooth comb by utilizing this method:
- Define what the character wants in the scene.
- Define its connection to the story-level goal (it must have some connection).
- Make sure every line is related to these goals (consider cutting dialogue and other lines that don’t relate).
- Provide opposition to the goals in the scene.
- Try to have 2 or 3 types of opposition per scene; variety is good. Keep in mind:
- A lack of response can be conflict.
- Inner dialogue can be a source of conflict.
- As-yet unidentified lies and misdirection can be conflict.
Personally, I don’t do this before writing a scene, as it saps the organic feel out of the act of writing for me. However, it’s really useful to look at your scenes through this lens after you write them, to help you identify where changes need to be made – especially in scenes that aren’t really working.
A story needs to act as a rollercoaster, both on a scene level as well as a plot level. Make sure the conflict is strong, and that nothing’s too easy, and you’ll be laying the tracks for your own theme park ride.
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