In a previous investigation I talked about what a story is and I defined thirteen potentially essential elements of a story; that is, thirteen things that every story must have. But there was something missing, a driving force that may not exist in the most mundane story, but should be present in any good story. That force is conflict.
Conflicts drive a narrative forward; they are the challenges that must be overcome, the trials that reveal who a character is and how they have changed, the motivation behind all the actions that shape a story. I want to share with you a diagram I’ve been working on that breaks conflict down into its parts. This diagram should aid in the purposeful creation of conflict in your stories.
Before I explain the diagram, take a minute to look it over:
In my diagram, conflict begins with a desire — the feeling of wanting to have something or wishing that something will happen — then an opposing force is introduced — which can be internal or external — and together they create conflict.
Here’s a handy little equation to remember what conflict is:
Desire + Opposition = Conflict
We must begin with desire, because without desire, there can be no opposition, since there is nothing to oppose, and so there could be no conflict. Desire is always internal, it is a movement of the brain (and soul if you like) and is by its very nature personal and internal.
Next we introduce the opposition. Desire alone does not create conflict. Conflict arises when there is opposition to attaining a desire. Opposition comes in two types: internal and external. The simpler of the two is internal, so let’s start there with the opposing desire.
Opposing desire is the conflict between two or more desires that are, or seem to be, mutually exclusive; that is, the character’s desire becomes impossible if one of the opposing desires is fulfilled.
An example of an opposing desire could be: A character wants to save her drowning son, but she also wants to save her helpless daughter being mauled by a bear. Another example: A character wants to solve the murder, but he also wants to get out of the dangerous P.I. business. Yet another: A character wants to get married, but she also wants to have the freedom to go where she wants, when she wants.
NOTE: What about fears? Are not fears internal opposition? Yes. But fears fit under opposing desires. If I’m afraid to die, then I want to live; If I’m afraid to go outside, then I want to stay inside. So if a character wants to stop a bad guy from shooting a woman, but he is afraid to die, then the conflicting desires are to save the woman, and to stay alive.
NOTE: Conflict does not arise simply from the prospect of not satisfying a desire. If I have the desire to write a book, there is not conflict because I worry I might not write a book. That is not conflict. Conflict would be: I want to write a book, but I don’t want to take the necessary time away from my family.
External opposition is the conflict between desire and any force external to desire. I classified these forces as opposing circumstances. Exposing circumstances are of three types: personal, interpersonal, and environmental.
Personal opposing circumstance is the opposition to a character’s desire by some physical problem related to that character.
An example of a personal opposing circumstance could be: A character wants to attend a concert, but they are too ill to leave their bed. Another example: A character wants to give an eloquent speech, but they suffer from Parkinson’s disease and their speech is slurred. Yet another example: A character wants to save her drowning son, but she can’t swim.
NOTE: Not being able to swim is a physical problem. It is not something you can overcome by any internal process.
Interpersonal opposing circumstance is the opposition to a character’s desire by other characters (human or otherwise) who have the ability to communicate and reason.
An example of an interpersonal opposing circumstance could be: A character wants to get into a club, but the bouncer refuses them entry. Another example: A character wants to cross a bridge, but another character won’t let him cross without a fight. Yet another example: A character wants to win the girl, but another character thwarts his attempts.
NOTE: While interpersonal conflict is motivated by conflicting desires between two or more characters, the thing that actually causes the conflict is the physical action of the opposing character(s).
Environmental opposing circumstance is the opposition to a character’s desire by anything in the outside world, excluding other characters. This includes natural disasters, weather, technology, animals, time and space, etc.
An example of an environmental opposing circumstance could be: A character wants to get home, but is confronted by a pack of wolves. Another example: A character wants to save the world, but he is stuck in a cave on the face of a cliff. Yet another example: A character wants to finish his book, but he is old and he doesn’t have much time left to live.
That’s all I have time for today, but I will be returning to this conflict diagram in future entries. I hope this diagram helped you gain a better understanding of what conflict is and that it becomes a useful tool for your creative writing.
As always, if you have any comments, please use the form below or post to my Facebook. Thanks for reading, and keep writing!