Using Conflict to Create Drama
Presented by Louise Bergmann DuMont
At the NJCWG – 08/22/05
Q: Do I really need conflict? Can't my characters all just get along?
Without conflict there is no story. Life without conflict is not 'real.'
Q: I have lots of action in my novel but I was told that there isn't enough conflict. Aren't conflict and action the same thing?
New writers often mistake the two. Conflict is not action but conflict is the reason most action occurs. Meaningless action scenes are not enough to carry a story.
Imagine a scene where one car chases another up and down the narrow San Francisco streets … but you (the reader) have no idea why they are doing this or who is in the two cars. Do you care about the chase? Now imagine a scene where a young child has been kidnapped. The father sees the child being abducted and initiates a chase through the same streets. All through the chase he must balance keeping up with the evasive car in front of him, with the safety of pedestrians, the safety of other drivers on the road, and the safety of the car that holds the kidnappers (because his child inside that car).
An action scene has no point and holds no interest without the insertion of conflict.
Q: If conflict is not the same as action, what IS conflict?
Conflict is when two forces are in opposition to each other. These forces can be emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, sociological, or elemental
Q: I've heard of Internal Conflict and Personal Conflict, but what are they and are there other kinds of conflict?
There are many kinds of conflict and they can be called many things. Below are a few kinds of conflict that have been grouped for the sake of explanation:
Conflict with oneself. Inner turmoil. Moral dilemmas. Overcoming trauma. Psychological problems. Internal Conflict is not with other characters, though it can affect other characters. Internal Conflict comes across best when the reader feels they are in the mind of the character. This is because the reader can visualize the situation and they feel as if it was occurring to them..
This is about inter-personal relations - conflict between two or more individuals. It is often between the hero and his friends or the hero and his lover(s). It does not involve larger issues like peer pressure or the rules of society, but rather, the problems the characters have relating one to another.
Note: this is the conflict of choice.
Social Conflict can be between a parent and a child, between a doctor and a patient, between a hero and society, etc. Social Conflict occurs when you are dealing with issues that are larger than one-on-one relationships. Stories that deal with concepts like authority, injustice, persecution and assimilation are in the domain of the Social Conflict.
Elemental Conflict is between man and his environment. The hero deals with a non-personal, elemental force of nature. It could be anything from a long dormant volcano (now spewing lava) threatening a troop of hiking boy scouts to a pack of run-amuck butterflies overtaking a mid-western state.
Q: What is the nature of conflict? Isn't a story about the characters?
Conflict is impersonal but a story's characters should not be. For example, people understand the concept of war, but they don’t see what it has to do with them unless your main characters convey their feelings and situation to the reader. That is when it becomes tangible.
Your reader must "feel" something when they read a scene. Lets take that war story scenario. People may be dying on every page of your manuscript but the war will seem abstract to your reader. All that changes when the reader "sees" the war through the eyes of the main character. When they watch a child die in the arms of the hero (as seen through the eyes of his fiancée) the reader is touched. They fee the pain the woman feels, they see the remorse she sees in the eyes of her hero, and they share the conflict that occurs when the nurse's peaceful ideals and the hero's duty to his country collide. Conflict becomes real when our characters bring us into the story's world through their conflicts.
Conflict needs meaning to be powerful. So the issues of the conflict must be important to the characters. When the characters are emotionally involved, the reader is emotionally involved. This happens if (and only if) the reader cares about the characters. How does an author make the reader care? By using universal truths to touch the reader.
When you’re writing a story about personal and/or social conflicts, you’re really pitting the will of your characters against each other. And through that use of will, the reader learns who they are and what they’re made of. In an internal conflict, the character's will is pitted against his or her innate nature. They may have a fear of heights and yet they go to the 81st floor of a building for job interview that will allow them to feed their family after being out of work for more than a year. In this case, the character battles their own nature to do something for the greater good.
Lack of internal conflict limits a character’s dimension. Single minded individuals are only common in bad fiction -- not in life. If you are human, you have conflict. According to scientists, reason and emotion are completely intertwined. When someone suffers brain damage to the emotion centers of the brain, they lose the ability to make logical decisions. We learn by our mistakes. If we did not fear negative repercussions, we would have no reason to restrain or re-train ourselves.
Q: So how do I do this? How do I create "good" conflict? Conflict where the reader cares about the characters?
To write a good story you need to know your character's fears, their needs and desires. Discover their emotional hot buttons and use other characters to push those conflict buttons. Conflict does not necessarily mean a grumbling hero, a glowering child or a defiant teen. Real conflict meant taking the hero’s (or heroine’s) worst fear, twisting it around, and then throwing it back at them at the worst possible moment and saying, “Think fast!”
Make your characters face their flaws and fears. Toss out pages filled with quiet stay-at-home evenings, long candle lit dinners, shopping, and sweet kisses. Fill your pages their worst fears come true and how they over came those fears. Confront your characters with hard choices - make them chose between good and evil. And for the sake of your reader, have them mess up occasionally before they triumph over the "big bad."