The uncomfort zone
I know I have promised a lot of posts in my past posts… about scenes, creature building, priorities, writer’s block… and I will get to them. But as I was writing about the scene, I realize how much information about storytelling needs to be understood just to grasp the notions I am trying to put forward. So here is the first in a series on posts that will prepare you for understanding my future post about the scene. And it’s about conflict.
Conflict is essential in a story; it is what drives a story forward. Without conflict, there is nothing interesting or emotional about the story. Have you ever read a story where nothing is missing, where everyone is nice, where the characters have nothing they want but cannot obtain? Of course not. That is the story of Joe Sitting On A Comfy Couch With An Endless Supply Of Chicken Wings And Cold Beer In Front Of A Big Screen TV On Superbowl Sunday, and we all know that’s all there is to that story and it’s not going anywhere. For it to go anywhere, we need to add conflict – either his TV breaks down, or he runs out of beer, or the cable company decides to run a Disney princess marathon instead… anything that makes Joe uncomfortable enough to actually get off the couch and do something about it, which is the essence of ALL stories. That is what is called conflict. No, it doesn’t have to be violent; just more uncomfortable than doing nothing about it would be.
There are four types of conflict under which all conflicts can be classified. They’re not in order of importance, but in order of ease to explain.
1 – The first type would be elemental conflict. It doesn’t need much explaining; it’s man versus nature. Think disaster movies, or Big Monster movies (Jaws, Anaconda, and all the other oh-my-god-there’s-some-kind-of-dangerous-animal stories). See? Easy to explain.
2 – The next conflict is the social conflict. It opposes social ideals, and its most frequent form is a conflict between two people who have some kind of an authority relationship: a soldier and his superior, student and teacher, child and parent, etc. But the important part is that there are social ideas put into contest in this kind of conflict, such as injustice, persecution, challenge of authority, war, etc. This is the case of quite a lot of stories, but to name a few popular ones, there is The Help, Gone with the wind, Saved! Etc.
3 – The third one is interpersonal conflict, which basically means that it’s about the various tensions that can arise from a relationship between two people. Yes, obviously, all the stories that involve romance will center around this conflict, but that is by no means the only type of relationships there is!! People have TONS of relationships with many different people, relationship that have everything to do with love, if nothing to do with romance, and yes, there is a huge difference between the two. Think about it. A mother loves her children, and they love her back (in most cases, anyways!) Siblings love each other. Extended family members, or adoptive family members have extremely loving relationships as well. And let’s not forget friendship; certain friendships, though they have nothing sexual about them, involve great love and devotion from the people involved in them!!! All of these relationships, between lovers, family, friends, even neighbors, feature interpersonal conflict. There is no conflict in romance, you say? OF COURSE THERE IS!!! If there wasn’t, the lovers would get together from the very first page on, and there would be no story. In typical romances, the story reaches its climax when the lovers finally get together, vanquishing all that lie across their paths (which, very often, is themselves). Even in other relationship stories, the characters struggle to understand each other (which, by the way, is also what romance is all about, and I will definitely make a post about this in the future) through an issue or misunderstanding that puts them at odds with each other. Good examples of this are The Joy Luck Club, The diary of Bridget Jones, etc.
Yes, sometimes, that issue is social. And didn’t I say that a conflict between a parent and child was a social conflict? The truth is, a GOOD story never shows only one conflict; there must be many, and since there is a lot, most of the time they are of various types.
4 – The last kind of conflict is the internal conflict. This is the conflict that the character has with himself. The “am I good enough?” or “why am I doing this?” and all the really large existential questions that everyone asks themselves at some point in their lives. EVERY STORY SHOULD HAVE INTERNAL CONFLICT. Why? Because your character should grow in some way between the beginning and the end of the story. He has to; after all, the story is about HIS problem… and he is the only one that can solve it. The story is mostly about him exploring every way that this doesn’t work, until he finally puts his pants on and takes back power over the situation (I’m going to go a LOT further in that area with a future post). But that implies that he had that power all along… so if he is to seize it, he has to understand something important about himself, and he can’t help but be a little changed in the process (he’s at least become strong enough a person to understand he has this power). Though ALL stories must have internal conflict, some stories are centered around it… the character struggles to overcome part of himself. Such is the case in books about mental illness (such as Sybill) or gender identity (She’s Not There) or drug habits (The Basketball Diaries).
Like I mentioned above, though, a story which is rich will have many, many conflicts, and the vast majority of stories have at least numbers 2, 3 and 4 (for example, The Help has racial conflict (which is social) interpersonal conflicts (between the servants, between the young white women, of the young woman writing the story and her family members and friends) AND internal conflicts (the servants coming to terms with their fear, taking back their dignity, and deciding to come forward with their stories after struggling with the idea), and those are just to name a few of the conflicts present in that book. The Lord of the Rings, and ALL zombie stories, for example, present EVERY sort of conflict, even elemental ones; after all, the undead are a force of nature, and so is Sauron, but it’s the interactions between the characters, the relationships, social situations and inner struggles that develop in the face of such horror that really defines the stories. And stories MUST be rich in conflict. Conflict, after all, is the best way to express emotion, and to reveal who the character truly is – through his actions and reactions.