Conflict Must Matter
We all know that all good stories have Conflict. A good definition of Conflict is: a Protagonist faces Obstacles in achieving their Goals. The inability to succeed is the conflict that drives the story forward. So on an intrinsic level we can divide Conflict into Protagonist, Goal, and Obstacles.
It’s pretty easy to identify Conflict in these examples:
- Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection. Protagonist: Bob. Goal: Marriage. Obstacles: Sue’s unpredictable response, Bob’s sense of self-worth.
- I felt a tug on the line. Protagonist: 1st person Narrator. Goals: catch a fish, to eat, to achieve a skill. Obstacle: Reeling in a fish is hard.
- It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start. Protagonist: 1st person Narrator. Goal: Successful 1st date. Obstacle: faulty car.
- It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie. Protagonist: Fred. Goal: Satisfy wife’s last wish. Obstacle: The world is ending.*
Or in these examples, where is the conflict?
- It was raining outside. Protagonist: ? Goal: ? Obstacle: Too much rain?
- I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and pink-trimmed control cabinets. Protagonist: 1st Person Narrator. Goal: Learning about the ship? Obstacle: ?
As you can see from the examples above, conflict is fairly straightforward. The problem is—are any of these examples stories? No. Although conflict is necessary for a story, it’s not sufficient. There has to be something else. The question you want to ask yourself is “So What?” So Bob was afraid of rejection. What happens?
- Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection.
He went to work the next day and ate a donut.
- I felt a tug on the line.
I dropped the pole and started passing out beer.
NO! That’s still not a story. Tell me what happens! Or worse:
- It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start.
I shrugged, since I don’t want a date anyways.
- It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie.
It was okay.
- It was raining outside.
I took a nap.
- I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and a fetching pink-trimmed control cabinets.
Magical mecho-fae cleaned the lightfloors with bubblewax.
Um, hello? What’s the point? Here I’m using the word “SO” to show what to do with the conflict. Show my why the conflict matters.
- Bob wanted to ask Sue to marry him but was afraid of rejection, SO he started blowing off their dates, unable to face the prospect of learning the truth.
- I felt a tug on the line, SO I started yelling to everyone while I reeled in the struggling fish.
- It’s the night of my first date, and the car won’t start, SO I run through the falling snow all the way into the city.
- It was the End of the World and Fred’s wife begged him to go out and buy her a cookie, SO Fred fought his way through the panicked rioters to the only Starbucks still open.
Do these now start sounding like a story? Or to fix the two non-conflict examples:
- It was raining[Obstacle] outside on the first day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and we[Protagonist] couldn’t get in our practice runs[Goal], SO we were forced to go to a gym and run extensive endurance drills[Why it Matters].
- I noticed that the spaceship featured megaglow burstthrusters, supercharged atomizers, and pink-trimmed control cabinets[Obstacle]. I[Protagonist] had ordered green[Goal], SO I had to delay the mission while the magical Mecho-fae repainted the trim[Why It Matters].
The question is, how does the Protagonist handle the obstacle? What are the consequences? Ask yourself, “does my conflict matter?” Is it changing the course of the story, or is it just there to annoy people? If the conflict doesn’t change anything, then it’s not really conflict, it’s just inconvenience…to your readers. Make every conflict count.
Do you check your writing to make sure every conflict is there for a reason?
* I actually had this plot as a dream.