Essential Literary Elements for Better Storytelling: Conflict
These are key conflict details that affect our writing and how the story will progress. It is through conflict that the reader even connects with the character. It’s through conflict that the reader stays interested in the story as it progresses. You need at least one of the below to really develop and define the conflict of your story.
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Life really sucks sometimes.
Well, hold on. It is true, life sucks. But, on the other hand, that suckage doesn’t usually last our whole lives. Actually, if we work at it, the conflicts that we face in life eventually bleed into awesomeness later–if we’re patient enough. The same goes for our characters. Some of them start in the suckage and others enter it by the rising action. In any case, when they make that critical decision or do that pertinent action during the climax, it’s coasting down the hill toward a better place at the bottom of the mountain.
Think about Of Mice & Men. The constant conflicts that Lenny faced as a someone mentally-challenged is what helped him to see the world in the end. Even though he lived a rough life, he seemed to enjoy it and actually died happy. That conflict drove his progression as a person who learned more and more. Yeah, it sucked at times, but the change, the obstacle, that’s what made his life better.
That’s what I’m going to hit on: how important conflict is to a story when trying to get your character and plot to progress. It’s more than having a bunch of events happen; those events have to mean something and come from something. Otherwise, your work has no real substance that helps the reader live a new life during those pages.
Now, you’ve probably learned that conflict can be internal or external, and it is either man vs. society, man, self, or nature. While this is true, this is only scratching the surface. We’re going to hit how conflict arises in a story. What drives the conflict, the gasoline that keeps it coasting until your character reaches his/her destination.
Your characters superficial, immediate, and long-term wants and goals.
In Of Mice & Men, Lenny and George live by the ever-possible dream that if they work hard and save, they can have their little property with rabbits, where they can “live off the fat of the land”.
Understanding the character’s wants and goals can really put into perspective why (s)he does what she does. We do things to get what we want in life, let alone what we need. In a story, the character isn’t given what (s)he wants right off the bat. (S)he has to work for it, and that’s what keeps the story going.
If George never had this desire, he would be a wasted wreck like the rest of the hired hands with which he worked. The only thing that kept him on the straight and narrow was the prospect that he could be independent one day and own something like so few others. That goal is also what helped to discipline and entice Lenny, as well. In the same way, the idea of living with George and petting rabbits for the rest of his life is what kept Lenny on his best. Without it, he’s big enough to do what he wants. Who is George or anyone else to tell him no?
The concrete blockage or challenge that keeps your character from progressing toward his/her desires. This can be internal or external.
George had goals and desires and he surely worked hard to reach them. However, working for money wasn’t the problem for him. The real obstacle in the story was trying to find a place where he and Lenny could be “anonymous” if you will. Lenny stayed in trouble, so it was hard to keep a job long enough to save the money they needed.
External obstacles are typically the most common conflicts presented in stories. This kind of conflict includes that man vs. man, nature, and society. Life is going on all normal when something on the outside calls the character to action. That’s when the rising action kicks in. Internal obstacles, like self-esteem, mental illness, and other “intangible” issues can hinder a character, as well. Either way, having an obstacle creates an obvious conflict in the character’s life and forces him/her to make a decision that will send him/her on a journey of change and understanding–for the characters and readers.
If Lenny didn’t stay in trouble, the story would be pretty boring. You’d basically have two guys working hard every day and complaining about why life sucks. That’s about it. Eventually, they’d save up the money and they’d live independently. Yay? It’s because they have to keep on the run, find a new start, and spend their hard earned money to survive that keeps putting them back at square one.
When they get sent back in their plans, it makes Lenny’s adventures and actions that much more tense, because we know this can possibly do it again. We feel a connection with Lenny because he doesn’t mean harm, and we connect with George because he seems justified in his anger; who wouldn’t be mad that they work so hard and keep ending back at the beginning for something he didn’t do? That challenge to their goals makes the story interesting because we root for the characters to make it.
Find out how to do this with my Pixarian article on “Finding Ideas with Opposites”.
A character’s need for a change in order to progress toward a desire.
George had spent years with Lenny and took on much of the trouble on his shoulders because he knew Lenny didn’t understand. Despite how much he tried to protect his companion, he also knew that if they really wanted to reach their goal, Lenny needed to change. This need to change is what dominated their interactions. Whenever they seemed to talk to one another, it was so George could remind Lenny to “behave” (changing how he usually behaved).
Some characters flat out need to change. Their belief systems, their behaviors, their goals, something just needs to go if they want to make it anywhere. In stories like that, the whole conflict is getting that character to change. The obstacle can be posed externally or internally, but, essentially, if the story is to progress, the character has to start changing in some manner. Otherwise, the story is stunted in the character’s obstinance in day-to-day life.
Lenny is such a sweetheart, and his mental challenge does really give him the mentality of a child. However, considering his size, he has to make a change. On some level, he is aware of it, but not as much as George, who suffers the consequences of that reality more. Part of the story is George working to try and create a persona for Lenny that forces him to change who he is. In some ways, he lets him continue his habits, and in other ways, he has to be completely different. Because Lenny is unable to change, however, the story has no choice but to end as it did if we want anything close to a “happy ending”.
Check out more about this with my Pixarian article on “Driving Conflict with Values”.
If you notice, each of these conflicts depends on one another.
Ultimately, a character has to change in order to overcome an obstacle to reach a desire.
So, which one is better to use in a story?
Really, a good story will have all three. Every conflict in life will have internal and external components that challenge us. No matter which one you emphasize, the other two will naturally develop, as well. But, remember, any good conflict is one that makes the character’s life hard and eventually makes him/her decide or act on something that focuses him/her to change. Whether this is to kill a loved one or to put down the second donut.
Now knowing what you know, are you feeling any more confident about developing a strong story? Do you recommend anything when it comes to conflicts and how to embed it in a story?
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