My eye used to twitch a little when I helped my daughter with her reading book. The stories were all something like this: Tommy swims with a frog in a pond. Tommy sees poster for swimming contest. Tommy goes to the pool and wins the race. The End.
My problem? It isn’t that I resent little Tommy’s success. But there was no conflict whatsoever. No struggle. Nothing to overcome. No victory. Something has to chafe so that the reader pushes through to find out the resolution. It doesn’t have to be non-stop, like in The Hunger Games, where your heart races for three solid books… But there has to be something. And there are plenty of options and variations on a theme to choose from.
Take for example…
Man vs. Man
This is the most common conflict found in stories because it lends itself so easily to the whole Good vs. Evil theme. In this kind of conflict, a protagonist (the good guy) has an antagonist (the bad guy), and the two have to duke it out in some arena. Whether it’s Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, or all those Princess stories with their evil step-mother/witch caricatures, someone must prevail at the expense of another. The reader is clearly directed to side with Good, and the conflict is over when Evil is solidly vanquished.
Man vs. Society
This conflict most often manifests itself in one of two ways:
- a cry for individualism–In this conflict, the hero has to prove his right to be different and still maintain value within his society. Think Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Bug’s Life.
- a contrast of two value systems–In this conflict, two opposing societal paradigms clash, with the protagonist championing the author’s value system. For example, in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (not starring Will Smith), Dr. Stockmann discovers that his community’s financial livelihood is based on a health hazard. In his effort to protect people from physical harm, he his branded a trouble-maker for disrupting the economy. Bodies, or bank books? Both have merits, and the conflict is in the choice.
Man vs. Nature
This conflict is as erratic as nature itself. In this kind of fiction, the elements are often personified with words like cruel, relentless or unforgiving. The hero’s primary objective in these tales is simply to survive. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins is a prime example, as is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. These stories typically include very little dialog and may feel as if they lack a specific plot; however, they offer a metaphor for any kind of long-term conflict or trial that one must endure. Authors can maintain tension because there’s not always the implied guarantee that the hero will make it out alive. The conflict is in the uncertainty (because one cannot negotiate or dominate nature).
Man vs. Self
Hopefully, there is an element of this in all fiction. This is where a hero’s worst enemy is himself. Oedipus had his pride, Willy Loman his self-deception, and Ivan Ilyich had his materialism; for all three, their flaws were fatal and they doomed themselves to destruction. However, other heroes, like Hamlet with his self-doubt and Elizabeth Bennett with her prejudice, overcame their weaknesses to find resolution (if not always blissful happiness). The conflict comes from rising (or failing to rise) to the best character within.
Of course, the most exciting stories include elements from more than one of these at a time, and it can be particularly effective if the main plot features one kind of conflict while the subplot pursues another. Here I would definitely hearken back to The Hunger Games as providing examples of each, almost to the point of exhausting the reader’s emotional ability to cope. (I, for one, was traumatized for Katniss’ sake…)
In all the search for conflict, however, there must be reality. Life is not non-stop conflict. Not forever. People can only handle so much stress and challenge before they either snap, give-up, or come off conqueror. Gratuitous conflict–like a movie loaded with pointless explosions and car chases–does little to create meaningful weight in a story. The conflicts should always move the lead characters towards an end that will make the author’s point. If the author has no point but to create action and conflict…. Well, you know. Those are the books that get forgotten. I can’t think of any off the top of my head that ever succeeded with that formula.
So get conflict. Try more than one. But don’t overload it. Use it to evoke a catharsis in your characters and in your readers.
And someone introduce Tommy and his frog to Michael Phelps…