As writers, we talk a lot about conflict when we’re crafting our stories. Your protagonist wants something, but obstacles prevent them (or delay them) from attaining it or achieving their goal. Then they have to take action to try to overcome those obstacles.
In the work of emerging writers, I will sometimes see protagonists who have no goal. Or protagonists who face no opposition. Or protagonists who take no action. The stories are often beautifully written but they have little momentum and little for the reader to wonder about.
Why conflict? A lot of writers tell me they don’t really like conflict and don’t want to bring it into their work. However, it is through facing challenges and figuring out how to surmount them that we grow and change. We can see it in our own lives; when everything is just humming along, you might grow a little complacent. But then a relationship change occurs, or we move, or lose our job, or get ill, and we have to find the resources within ourselves to meet that challenge.
Story is a record of change. We tell story to learn how to initiate, respond to or manage change. If everything is fine, you don’t really need a story about it. “How was your day?” someone might ask. “Oh, pretty good, I guess.” We have nothing to say. But if there’s been conflict, we have a story to tell, “I was standing in line at the bank, and this guy came in with a gun and tried to rob it!”
Even in the natural world, stresses in the environment spur evolution in plants and animals and ecosystems. So, too, we want our characters to evolve in our stories.
The four classic conflicts are:
Person vs. Person
Somebody doesn’t want your protagonist to get what they want. This antagonist may be well-meaning (a parent who fears if their kid goes to art school instead of law school, the kid won’t be able to earn a living) or of ill intent (the rival who wants the job your protagonist is up for.)
Person vs. Society
Your protagonist is an outsider in some way, not accepted by the family, the community, or the culture. This alienation stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their quest.
Person vs. Nature
There are forces you can’t argue with and Nature is one of them. The storm is going to come, the fire is spreading, the earth shakes open beneath your feet. How is your protagonist going to survive, and will they save others?
Person vs. Self
Many stories, including many memoirs, revolve around this conflict: how am I going to get over myself or get out of my own way? It may be defensive patterns, ignorance, or unhealed emotional wounds that are the obstacles to the protagonist getting what they want. In the course of the story they will either overcome this, or they will resign themselves to not achieving their goal.
In many cases, such internal conflict can be generated in the difference between what the protagonist expected and what actually happens. I was sure they were going to agree to publish my book but they didn’t. Or I thought I could get across town in 20 minutes but it took me 45 and I missed my court date. Some writers fear that conflict means they have to add fights or big action scenes, but not every story requires that. Internal tension can provide the conflict some stories need.
Even poetry can benefit from tension or conflict. These might come through a narrative element similar to those described above, but might also come from other techniques:
• putting words together that seem to conflict: “a harsh tenderness,” “the arid lake”;
• using words with dissonant sounds, a combination of soft and hard—“janky sweetness”;
• combining long lines and short lines or disrupting rhythmic patterns.
A reader may not be consciously aware of your use of these kind of non-narrative techniques, but it will lend the poem the friction you seek.
When conflict arises, we never quite know what’s going to happen, and this serves to engage the reading in wanting to find out.
Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada
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