CONFLICT: Where’s the Meat?

CONFLICT: Where’s the Meat?
by Sylvie Kurtz

Conflict, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means to strike together; fight, battle, war; competitive or opposing action of incompatibles; antagonistic state or action; mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.

In other words, conflict shows up as anything but neat and comfortable.  In real life, most people seek to avoid conflict.  They don’t rub great-aunt Bertha’s buttons the wrong way and start familial World War III at the Thanksgiving table.  They don’t step between two strangers arguing in a parking lot.  They don’t set about solving the string of robberies at their local credit union.  Conflict raises fear and most people want to avoid feeling fear.

But in a story, we want to see characters embroiled in conflict.  We want to see clashes, collisions, opposition, disagreements, and contradictions.  These pique our interest.  Safely ensconced in our chair with our cup of tea, we want to rubberneck at the crash of interests, principles, and values unfolding on the pages.

If a character won’t willingly step into conflict, how do we get him there?  We push him.  We make the stakes personal.  We bombard him from every side until he can’t ignore the problem and is forced to take action.

There are three kinds of conflicts we can inflict on our characters:  external, relationship, internal.

External conflict happens outside the character in the story world.  That conflict appears in concrete and specific form–something the reader can physically see.  John needs a loan, but the bank, managed by his childhood nemesis, won’t grant him one.  The threat of losing the family’s ranch will cause John to feel an emotion, make a decision, and take an action.

Relationship conflict pits the character against other people in the story.  John and Jane don’t see eye to eye about how to save the family ranch.  John wants to preserve tradition for their unborn son.  Jane, raised in a nomad family, doesn’t understand his devotion to a piece of desert dirt.  Home, to her, is wherever they all are together.

Internal conflict happens inside the character, setting need at odds with want, creating a resistance.  John feels torn between the tradition he wants to preserve and the family he needs.  Fears, anxieties, and doubts eat at him, tugging him in opposing directions, but the external situation (drought, taxes, shrinking revenues) forces him to face those fears, anxieties, and doubts.

The more types of conflict appear in a story, the more dimension and depth it will have.

As John and Jane move through the story, the conflicts they experience make your reader worry.  And the worrying keeps her reading until she knows how the story ends.

Conflict will test John and Jane, test their marriage, test their desires.  These tests and obstacles force the characters to change or to stick by their resolve to earn their reward.  As they make decisions, as they take actions (or avoid acting) to deal with their troubles, as they win some points and lose others, the reader gets to know who they truly are.  As the main character acts and reacts, the reader identifies with him, starts to care about him–not just if he wins or loses, but what happens to him.

For the conflicts to hold our interest for hundreds of pages, they will have to matter a lot to the characters.  The reader has to understand why they’re willing to enter a situation where they risk getting hurt.  To hold that interest make the reader care about what happens to the character.  Weave conflicts that the character can’t easily resolve.  Give the conflicts a path that isn’t obvious.  Give him an opponent who wants the same thing with equal fervor or whose goal clashes with the main character’s.  Make the conflicts big, important, and surprising.  Make it difficult to solve.  Shrink the space.  Insert ticking clocks.  Show the conflict happening in real time and in 3-D color on the page.

Don’t let your reader wonder, “Where’s the meat?”  Instead have her finish the book with a sigh of contentment and a desire to share the wonderful journey she just experienced.  “You’ve got to read that book!”

©  2009