Conflict: An Overview

If the heart of good storytelling is conflict (which I’m going to take as given for the moment), it may be a sensible idea to look at the different ways conflict presents itself.
Almost every story will have conflict on multiple levels: meta conflict (things happening on a grand scale, to everybody); interpersonal conflict (the nature of the connections between the set of characters as a whole); relationship conflict (John and George, Mary and Inez, brother and sister, husband and wife); internal conflict.

Let’s start with meta conflict. You can think about the global conflicts in a given story, the ones in the wider world that impact on all the individuals. The greater conflict can be (and often is) a war: Revolutionary, 1812, Civil, world wars, thirty-years war, the Japanese invasion of China, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of… well. Let’s stop there.

Other kind of meta conflicts that may impact your characters might be things like natural disasters on a larger or smaller scale (tornados, earthquakes, thunderstorms, the snowstorm that shuts down the airport, an epidemic). A person is often the focus of a meta-conflict. Fonzie comes back to Pleasantville and turns everybody’s life upside down. A new principal who doesn’t believe in evolution at the high school. A long lost aunt leaves a fortune to a squabbling set of sisters. In fact, a stranger or old friend arriving in town is one of the most standard ways of getting a story moving.

Usually stories are hatched at the opposite end of the scale.

internal conflict …relationship conflict… interpersonal conflict…. meta conflict
Using a movie most people are familiar with is a good way to take apart the layers. It’s a Wonderful Life is in fact quite a dark movie (though people don’t seem to ever look at it closely enough to see that) about a man so desperately unhappy that he is driven to the brink of suicide. George Bailey has always wanted one set of things for himself (to be a world traveler, a man of wide experience) and has always been disappointed because he can’t put aside what he sees as basic responsibilities to family and town.
This leads, of course, to relationship conflict. His father dies leaving him to save the family business; his bumbling uncle, dependent on him, makes his work more difficult. He falls in love and is angry at the woman and at himself, because this is another brick in the wall between him and his dreams. But George is not the kind of man who acts on his anger, or who even admits it to himself, so there’s lots of pressure building up. Classic relationship conflicts, which also play out at the community level.

People have expectations: George will help, fix, support, be there. George helps, fixes, supports, and is always there. George is a model for those who have lost their way (the good girl gone bad), and a thorn in the side of the really bad guy (Mr. Potter, the banker with no heart or scruples). The meta conflict, of course, is the second world war, which makes many demands on George and seals his fate once and for all.

Now, is this a story? Not yet. Because in spite of all these points of conflict in George’s life, nothing has happened yet to set off the crisis that will be at the heart of the story. When it does happen, it evokes each of the subsidiary conflicts and brings them, almost simultaneously, to the flash point.

So you might say that writing this story would be just stringing the reader along from conflict to conflict, some little, some big. Some subtle and some so loud and obvious they are impossible to overlook.

I’ll try to approach this in a methodological way. How do you show your readers George’s internal conflicts? What kind of scenes, interactions, observations? What about his relationship with his uncle, his brother, his wife? How about the way the war makes itself felt in his life, not in terms of food stamps, but old hurts and disappointments? Tomorrow I’ll see what I can tease out.

» Layers of Conflict from Greg Writes
Rosina Lippi, who writes as Sara Donati, has posted some insights into conflict, which is the engine that drives every good book. Rosina sees conflict on different levels: internal conflict …relationship conflict… interpersonal conflict…. meta co…

Tracked on January 9, 2005 11:36 AM

[title size=”12″]Comments[/title]Comments

Well, I voted for storytelling for BoB literary for this very reason: I think entries like this are cool, almost like hearing you talk to yourself “out loud.”

This blog is kind of like taiji class, during which my instructor keeps up this kind of stream-of-consciousness talk about the movements, and the breathing — it’s not one-on-one instruction, but listening to him produces this almost-hypnotic quality that improves my practice if I just go with the flow.

So — thanks, sincerely. I hope you keep the blog up for a very long time. I always find something helpful or intriguing here (I’m in the middle of a second-draft revision of magnificent proportions), and visits here help keep me focused on the work.

Posted by: wordlover at January 4, 2005 12:11 PM

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