Conflict – The Secret Ingredient to Adding Spice to Your Story

By Linda Kleczkowski, In Print Newsletter Editor/Website Administrator

The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict.  — James Frey

When I started writing this post, I thought I would approach it in a very academic way, going through all my books on writing, googling conflict, and trying to come up a different way of discussing something that I realized has been covered ad nauseum in dozens of other writing tomes. It is an aspect of writing that I and many writers struggle with so I asked myself, what works for me? The answer to that is, examples. Below I have taken three story ideas and presented them in two different ways, A and B, to try to get my point across.

Storyline #1

A – Pretty kitty wakes from her morning nap and stretches. She is hungry so she saunters over to her food bowl, sniffs the dried pellets and heads to the back door to find something more savory for breakfast. Kitty slinks through the pet door out into the garden. It isn’t long before she spies a tasty little cardinal sitting in a tree at the other end of the garden. Kitty silently creeps to within range of the bird, crouches and with a twitch of her tail pounces on the unsuspecting bird. Dinner is served kitty thinks.

B – Pretty kitty wakes from her morning nap and stretches. She is hungry so she saunters over to her food bowl, sniffs the dried pellets and heads to the back door to find something more savory for breakfast. Kitty slinks through the pet door out into the garden. It isn’t long before she spies a tasty little cardinal sitting in a tree at the other end of the garden. Kitty begins to creep down the row when she hears something coming toward her. Not knowing what it is she dashes to a nearby tree and scampers up the trunk. Once up there kitty sees that the noise she heard was nothing more than the neighbor dog but now the bird is gone. Kitty looks around and sees another bird sitting on a branch just slightly above her so she starts to quietly move up the tree and along the branch.

Storyline #2 (The Hunger Games)

A – Katniss Everdeen lives in an oppressive world where every year the government forces two teenagers from each of the 12 districts to participate in a combat game to the death. This year Katniss’s younger sister is chosen. Katniss is distraught. At the sound of her sister’s name she collapses into a heap, curls up into a fetal position, and never speaks a word again.

B – Katniss Everdeen lives in an oppressive world where every year the government forces two teenagers from each of the 12 districts to participate in a combat game to the death. This year Katniss’s younger sister is chosen. Driven by her need to protect her younger sister, Katniss volunteers to take her sisters place in the games.

Storyline #3

A – Winnie the Pooh feels a rumbling in his tummy. “Hmmmmmm, I think my tummy wants some honey,” says Pooh. So he goes to his honey pot and eats until he is full.

B – Winnie the Pooh feels a rumbling in his tummy. “Hmmmmmm, I think my tummy wants some honey,” says Pooh. So he goes to his honey pot but finds that it is empty. “Oh bother,” he says. “I wonder if Piglet has any honey,” as his tummy rumbles again. Once at Piglet’s house he finds that Piglet isn’t home.

So, which storyline, A or B, would you be more interested in reading in each of these examples? Were I to take a vote I think it would be pretty unanimous that the Bs would win. But why? Because there is more going on in the B renditions, there is more potential, there is CONFLICT.

Conflict Creates Story Energy

Conflict in a scene represents the motivating cause that sets a series of events in motion (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson). According to Techniques of the Selling Writer, conflict is the centerpiece of scene structure a. Goal, b. Conflict, c. Disaster. The opposing factor (conflict) to your character reaching his or her goal causes tension, interest, and energy. For example, John applies for a promotion at his work. Now if John were to simply receive the promotion without any opposition the energy flow in your story would die right there. But what if John finds out that Shane has also applied for the same promotion? Now you have tension and your readers will start asking questions; What is John going to do now? What will Shane do?

Types of Conflict

Conflict comes in many different forms:

  • External
    • Antagonist (villain or enemy)
    • Environment (nature, the world around us)
    • Society (expectations, norms, restrictions)
  • Internal
    • Fears
    • Inadequacies
    • Unfulfilled desires

Not All Conflict Is Equal

Does any kind of conflict work? Well let’s look at this example:

A young boxer steps into the arena at Madison Square Gardens for the first time. On the other side of the world Hurricane Hector slams into the coast of Japan.

Make sense? It could but at first read the two aren’t related. In order to keep your story moving the conflict you introduce has to matter to your protagonist. A more relatable scenario for our protagonist might be:

A young boxer steps into the arena at Madison Square Gardens for the first time. On the other side of the ring is a mountain of a man known as Hurricane Hector.

Conflict + Reaction = Character Development

Now that we have a character and a situation ripe with relevant conflict, is that all there is? Not quite. If our young boxer in the example above took one look at Hurricane Hector and just stood there we wouldn’t have much of a story would we? In order to keep your readers interested they have to identify with your protagonist and care what happens to him or her.

A young boxer (YB) steps into the arena at Madison Square Gardens for the first time. On the other side of the ring is a mountain of a man known as Hurricane Hector. YB instinctively takes a step back at the site of his monstrous opponent. He feels his heart race as his legs begin to buckle underneath him. Panic threatens to overtake YB as his coach crams a mouth guard into his mouth.

“It’s do or die time kid,” says his coach as the starting bell clangs.

“But I don’t wanna die!” YB mumbles.

“Then don’t,” as his coach shoves him into the middle of the ring.

Better, right? Why? Because there is energy, your protagonist has some depth, and your readers are now invested in the outcome of the fight.

Have Fun With It

In nearly all good fiction, the basic – all but inescapable – plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw. ~ John Gardner

Every good story is about a journey whether to a physical place or a trek within a character’s psyche. Either way, your protagonist will need to encounter opposition and conflict if the voyage is to be an interesting one for your readers. Explore what your characters are made of by adding some conflict to their literary lives and in the process you will spice up your writing as well.

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