KA-POW! Understanding Conflict In Your Fiction

Monday, February 22, 2010

**[Author's note: If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home. In other words, I am off the grid. As soon as I am able, I'll make the full go 'round and respond to comments and check out any new followers. As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I'll see you all in a few days.]**

A quick reminder:  Don't forget to sign up for the "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest--a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy's Day!  Get all the details here.


When I was a kid, my mom used to say to me--like millions of other moms said to their kids: "Be good or Santa won't bring you any presents."  Sounds simple enough right?  What could be easier.

The trouble was, at least for me, that there was no playbook or DIY guide on how to be "good."  It was as if everyone knew what "good" looked like, and how to "do" it, but me.

I certainly was a terrible troublemaker as a kid--I want to avoid painting myself in an overly rosy light--and did plenty of things that I knew were bad, but there were also many occasions where I was doing something I thought was fine when I got some variation of the "good or no presents" threat.

As writers I think we often find ourselves in a similar dilemma.  There are plenty of great rules out there to help us improve our craft--"write what you know" or "show don't tell" are two--but we often spend more time talking about the rule than we do understanding how the rule works.

So let's take a closer look at one of these rules: Conflict equals fiction.  It is often said that without conflict, you don't have a story.  I can agree with that.  But what is conflict?  How do we make sure we have conflict in our stories?  How do we play with it, modulate it, make sure that all elements are in place to really make that conflict pop? 

I contend that when we say a writer must understand their characters, what we really mean is that a writer must understand the conflict in his or her story.  Conflict affects every element of your piece, whether it is a scene, short story, or full length novel.  It may influence how the story begins, and most importantly, the primary conflict in your story decides how the story should end.

In general, story conflicts can be divided into three categories (doubtless you've heard this before, but bear with me):  Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. NatureSome folks have concluded there are as many as seven conflict types, but I think they can all be boiled down to the three I mention here.

Here's a question: which of these three categories fits the conflict in your current WIP?  You may say "Oh, that's easy, it's clearly Man vs. Man."  But have you considered what affect that choice has had on the telling of your story, and on that ending you've been struggling to get right?

Let's consider a scene.  Two boxers are in the ring, slugging it out.  I mean, they are really going at it.  Is this a story?  Does the fact that the two of them are trying to beat each other's brains out make it a story?  It looks like there's conflict, right?  And you'll probably call it Man vs. Man, right?  But let's look a little closer.

Sure you need conflict for a good story, but having conflict doesn't guarantee it's a story.  Another important story element is meaning.  No meaning, no story.  What is important about the events--the conflict--portrayed in the narrative?  Based on the scant information so far, the boxer scene is simply an event.  If the reader--and especially we the writer--don't understand the meaning behind why the boxers fight, then the words on the page are like a news report, and do not rise to the level of fiction.  Depending on the meaning we assign, the scene of the two boxers could in fact fall into any of the three conflict categories.  Let me illustrate:

Man vs. Himself: Man vs. Himself conflicts derive from the MC wanting two contradictory things at once.  Basically he can't decide what he wants to do, and it is that tension and conflict which keeps the story moving forward.  That means the plot of your story is basically internally driven from the MC's motivations.  In fact, this kind of story is virtually impossible to do without showing the MC's thoughts and feelings.  Events occur, circumstances change, but the only reason why any of these events are important (or should be shown for that matter) is because of their impact on that central question: What should the MC do?

Let's say the scene is a boxing match between our MC and another boxer.  The MC is trying to decide to keep fighting and beat his opponent, or take a fall and collect the hush money the crooked promoter has promised him--money he needs to pay for his kid's operation.  You can see that this sounds like an external struggle because there is a lot of external pressure on the MC, but at the end of the day the story really focuses on a decision the boxer must make: should he be dishonest or not? 

Notice that the main conflict in the story is about the MC's honesty, not on who wins the fight.  You could conceivable have a very satisfying ending to that story where the results of the fight are never disclosed, because the action of the fight and the MC's internal conflict do not coincide.

Man vs. Man:  This is the more traditional mano-a-mano kind of story.  Man vs. Man applies to a story where two different characters want the same thing, or want two different things that put them into direct conflict.  In this case, it really is about the MC going at it with another guy, and the central question of the story really is: who will win the fight? 

Our boxing match could very easily be Man vs. Man.  You could conceivably tell the entire story, the setup, middle and who wins at the end without a shred of internal monologue (the opposite of Man vs. Himself).  Of course some internal glimpses now and then add to the excitement, but even without it, the reader would understand what is important to these two characters, and the ramifications of the story's setup and ending.

This is not to say that the internal ideas of the MC and everyone else aren't important.  Those actions will still drive the story forward, but the climax and denouement must be based on the original external question.  For Man vs. Man to work, a satisfying ending results only from the resolution of external actions and events, not internal decisions or struggles.

So back to our boxing scene.  If the writer sets the story as a true Man vs. Man conflict, fully painting both a protagonist and an antagonist, and showed how they are both after winning that boxing championship, would it make any sense at all for the MC to then up and quit in the middle of the fight?  The MC wimps out because he remembered his girlfriend didn't want him to box anymore and walks, leaving your antagonist standing around going "What the heck?"  The boxer's decision to quit has nothing to do with the antagonist.  Since the ending isn't externally driven, it doesn't make sense with the rest of the piece, and the reader will pick up on it. 

This is why it is common for beginning writers to start a story as a Man vs. Man and then, as they realize the end doesn't work, go back and add in a ton of internal dialogue for the MC, which pushes it into Man vs. Himself territory.

Observe also the impact the choice of conflict has on the main events in the story and how the writer chooses to reveal those events.  Man vs. Man is more external (description, more dialogue, characters other than MC are more well-rounded), and lends itself to third person.  Man vs. Himself is more internal (internal monologue, thoughts, feelings, more backstory needed) and lends itself to first person.  These tendencies are certainly not rules that must always be followed, but a skillful writer will understand how they work and consider them as they structure their piece.

Man vs. Nature:  Finally, we have Man vs. Nature.  This category basically has two subsets: 1) The story pits the MC against something truly external, like bad weather, or an avalanche, or 2) The story pits the MC against society or societal norms.

The first variety of Man vs. Nature story is much rarer than it used to be.  Jack London's "To Build A Fire" is a good example of this kind of story.  There were some Man vs. Nature elements in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."  The hallmark of this kind of story is physical conflict and interaction with natural elements.

The second variety of Man vs. Nature conflict is more common.  In these stories, a character or group of characters who oppose the MC conducts themselves in accordance with the ideals and morals of larger society, and is understood to represent that larger group.  If the MC is beaten, then it is assumed that society has won.  This kind of story is really like a war between ideas or ideals, and is thus a conflict between the internal feelings and ideas of the MC and the external morals and pressures of society--and tends to not based as much in purely physical conflict.  George Orwell's "1984" is a great example, where the MC's nemesis, O'Brien, is understood to represent the repressive regime under which Winston Smith lives.

Going back to our two boxers, if they were simply having a fistfight over which one of them gets the girl, while nearby the volcano is about to erupt and level the town where they live, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the first variety.  Note then that the boxing is not part of the main action, but a node in the subplot at the scene level.

On the other hand, if this fight were staged on TV for a world-wide audience, and the boxer the MC was facing was being sponsored by the corporation who wrongly imprisoned the MC's father and has taken over the U.S. Government, and the winner of the fight will be the next head gladiator, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the second variety, since it's understood that if the MC beats his opponent, he's beating the corporation.  As you can imagine, the set up for this type of story would be very different from the others.

Note that Man vs. Nature requires the writer to work both sides of the fence, using all the tools to describe the MC's internal motivations and ideals (inner monologue, thoughts, feelings, backstory) while also utilizing the usual tricks to show a detailed and well-developed external world (description, heavy reliance on dialogue, well rounded characters).  For this reason, it's my feeling that Man vs. Nature stories are the most difficult to pull off, because if the writer does not excel in all these areas, then the narrative feels odd and one-sided.

One last thing to mention:  Taken at face value, you may conclude that any story must fit cleanly into one of these categories.  In fact, there may be more than one of these operating in the same story.  By way of example, in "A Separate Peace" (review Wednesday!!), there were actually two primary conflicts which worked side by side.  There was a Man vs. Man conflict between Gene and Finny (the two main characters) and there was a Man vs. Himself conflict operating for Gene, who was constantly motivated by thoughts on whether he was doing the right thing by Finny.  In this particular story, these two conflicts worked quite effectively to keep the reader engaged and keep the story moving forward.  So you can have more than one flavor of conflict in a story, but the writer--and the readers--should understand how those conflicts work together in a seamless way.  A writer should avoid at all costs starting a story with one kind of conflict and ending with another as this practically guarantees that the ending will not satisfy the reader.

In closing, I hope this post has gone a little way toward helping you understand the conflict in your WIP, to consider the way your story should begin, how best to reveal your characters, how to structure your scenes, and how the story ends.  That old saying "Conflict equals fiction" is true.  A writer's clear understanding of conflict is the key to writing fiction that makes your MC pop off the page, and keeps readers engaged.

What are your thoughts?  When it comes to conflict, what do you struggle with the most as a writer?  What is your favorite kind of conflict to write about?

8 bolts from the blue:

Claire Dawn said...

I love the boxing ring analogy!

I know my characters' conflicts, but I had never thought about conflict as a general concept. Thanks!

Be safe wherever you are, on or off the grid.

Claire Dawn

sarahjayne smythe said...

I think for myself I prefer reading and writing about a character's internal conflict, but I really believe that what works best for me is a blending of the two, i.e., a chacter's internal conflict playing out against a bigger backdrop of an external conflict.

So for me the challenge is finding a balance between the two when I write. I think Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a perfect example of this.

Thanks for the discussion, and be safe on your way home.

Paul Lamb said...

I think a lot of man vs. man stories really are man vs. nature stories, human nature.

Lydia Sharp said...

Um... you forgot Man vs. Food. For some of us, this is a daily conflict. Just sayin'.

Postman said...

Excellent discussion and delineation, once again, friend. Your ability to discourse effortlessly and clearly on these topics staggers me.

I believe I start out with Man vs. Nature in the beginning (one guy fighting the system), and then, after the apocalypse, it turns into Man vs. Man. Much more personal and direct, which is the point of the story. I have a real hard time with Man vs. Nature, though. Making it real and believable and not overdoing it is a challenge. I prefer Man vs. Man. Two guys, a common goal. Makes for some excellent badinage.

Laura said...

Very useful insight, Jon. Thank you for taking the time to write in such great detail.

(Right now I have a huge Me vs Me conflict that I need to solve before getting back to my characters. Sigh.)

Hope you have a safe and wonderful homecoming!

Lee Ee Leen said...

another analogy a literature teacher told us was to put your character in the dock and cross-examine your character

Jon Paul said...

Claire--thanks! I thought the boxing idea was a way to distinguish between character activities and the ideas that push a story forward--since they aren't always the same.

Sarahjayne--I think the Road is a good study of how to embed the conflict so naturally that even specific decisional events are far apart, the reader is still engaged. I think McCarty is a master of this; No Country For Old Men worked similarly.

Paul--I see what you are getting at, but at the end of the day, aren't they all human nature? Man vs. Himself is as much human nature as any other. I think the distinction is whether you the conflict is based in individual needs or group (society, world, etc.) needs.

Lydia--You are SO right! I could write volumes on JP vs. a rack of ribs.

Postie--Thanks brother. I tend to Man vs. Himself, for some reason, but I am still cracking the code on how to show the conflict in an active way. And nice gratuitous use of the term badinage.

Laura--Thanks. Good luck with your conflict.

Lee--I think that is a good technique. The danger--and one that I have constantly run up against in my own writing--is that the writer discovers a great character, but then drops him in the wrong story. At the end of the day, the character's primary need has to conflict with something else (himself, man, world) to make the story work. This may sound obvious but at least for me, I've discovered it is a mistake all too easy to make.

Thanks all for commenting and stopping by!

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