Monday, April 12, 2010

Conflict - The Heart of the Plot

As a writer, I find myself working on various plot lines. Often, I have more ideas than I know what to do with. To make matters worse, I sometimes try to use too many ideas in one novel or series.

In order to combat my own ambitions, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on the random ideas, I decided to pursue more of the conflicts and less of the exact scene concepts and other mechanisms I enjoy working with.

This led to some interesting research. What, exactly, makes a good conflict?

No matter how many ideas that you have, all of them will be made worthless without a good conflict to make your story alive. You may have these excellent ideas on a character design. But, what good is a character without the conflict to make them grow?

In order to know if you have the necessary conflict, you must first know just what a conflict is.

There are several types of conflicts. Let us go into them:

Man versus Man
Man versus Himself
Man versus Environment

These are the basic types of conflicts. I am no expert on conflicts. This is the entire point of delving into this subject. As usual, this is my take on the subject. Do with it as you please. I will list some resources you can reference at the bottom of this post.

Man versus Man

This can be a lot of things. This can be society issues, wars, rivalries... anything where a man is pitted against another man. Political drama, for example, would fall as a man versus man conflict. This can also be physical struggles of a man versus another man.

Man versus Himself

This is the personal drama, the internal conflict. This is the hero who has to struggle with the morals of killing off an innocent in order to save the lives of man. Internal conflict is a very common type of conflict. In my opinion, it is almost necessary for a good story. Every novel that I have truly loved has had some form of man versus himself conflict.

Man versus environment

This can fit almost anything that doesn't fit himself or man. Be it fighting fate, fighting off natural disasters, or any circumstance that is outside of the control of man *or* himself would fit into this category. I tend to view fighting gods and fighting fate all a part of the man versus environment category.

Now that you have an idea of what the types of conflicts are, just what can you do with them?

I have made the error of writing stories without significant conflict. The stories were fun to write, but they really did not have any purpose. Conflict is what hooks a reader. A story with no conflict is a ship without water. It may be beautiful to look at, but it really would work a lot better if the ship had an ocean to sail on. Characters are the same as that ship.

I am going to use Harry Potter (JK Rowling) as an example of a story with conflict. No matter what critics may say about the writing style of these works, Harry Potter is full of conflict. This is a part of what draws so many people into reading these books.

Without spoiling the books for those who have not read the series, the conflict begins as man versus man. A boy with an unpleasant family. In this case, it is the boy versus his family. Then, it becomes a tale of a man versus himself versus man. He has to struggle with his own personal problems while dealing with his family *and* with the big bad guy of doom. This is dumbing it down as much as it can be, of course.

No matter which way Harry turns, Rowling throws problems at him. She throws him directly into problems. Whether he goes looking for conflict or not, it comes to him. Frequently. This keeps the story moving forward.

And, as she resolves one conflict, she naturally brings in another. Each conflict is a stepping stone towards the resolution of the major conflict. Best of all, the hero does not always win the battles.

Conflict should drive your stories. Ideas should not.

Some resources:

Short Story Elements

Literary Elements

Wikipedia on Conflict

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