Conflict is very hard. It is the thing that gives life to those murky middles, it defines your characters, and it helps form the plot.
So let’s break this down. What exactly is conflict?
Merriam-Webster gives us some great definitions, one particular for writing:
“the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction”
Or, for just looking at conflict in general:
“competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)”
In short, there are two things that are inherently mutually exclusive.
The strongest stories that have become classics and resonate the deepest with readers are those that establish some sort of status quo that the protagonist is trying to push against—I refer to it as the status quo rather than merely the antagonist because sometimes this force isn’t negative in nature, as the word antagonist suggests. This status quo has to be strongly established early on in the story. For Star Wars, we see Darth Vader attack the ship right at the start, and he is clearly established as an antagonistic force, but even the prologue itself explains what the status quo is (the Empire) and those who are fighting against it (the Rebels).
Generally, when it comes to conflict, there are three options:
- main character vs. self (man vs. self)
- main character vs. individuals/society (man vs. man),
- or main character vs. nature (man vs. nature)
In any given story, one of these will be the focus, or the main character can be going against all three.
Man vs. Self: Hamlet
Man vs. Man: Star Wars
Man vs. Nature: The Martian
You then want to bring out that conflict between those two factors in every scene where your main character actively pushes against the status quo.
And at the end of the book, the reader will see if the main character ultimately wins or loses this battle.
How to Establish Your Conflict
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer the term status quo because whatever/whomever the main character is in conflict with doesn’t have to be the classic black-and-white evil found in Sauron in Lord of the Rings or the Empire in Star Wars.
In Pride and Prejudice, the status quo that is established is that time period’s Society that has a strict class system—and Elizabeth spends the whole book defying the role that Society has set on her (first by refusing the convention of seeking after a husband, and later by convincing Darcy to also reject class restrictions by marrying her).
When establishing the status quo for your main character to push against, the more your audience can identify with that status quo, the less black and white your book and antagonist will feel. The important thing is that these two worlds cannot co-exist—they have to live in conflict. That’s where the conflict in your story will come out, especially at the scene level.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s very nature goes against the status quo of society. First, she rejects normal conventions for a woman. And later, she repeatedly recalls the ideals of the now-dead South as she actively breaks those ideals to survive. In every scene, the conflict comes as Scarlett actively tries to push against society and the status quo around her.
First, identify what type of conflict your character faces. Is it self, man, or nature (or a combined force of all three)?
Second, create your items of conflict. What does that status quo represent? Are there philosophical ideals? Are there customs and societal standards?
Third, find a way to present those items of conflict within each scene. This goes beyond micro-tensions or stresses of a normal scene to actually creating conflict between the two opposing forces.
I’ll be writing a series of posts to go further in-depth on conflict for the rest of the month. You can find the links here (once the posts go live):
Conflict: Make it Big and Loud
Conflict: Micro-tensions and Stresses Within Each Scene
Using Conflict to Refine Your Character (Character Arc)
Conflict and the Main Character’s Primary Goal
Analysis: Gone with the Wind (conflict on the page and audience integration)
Analysis: Charlotte’s Web (conflict on page 1 and establishing the status quo)