Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Conflict -- An Editor's Dream

One of the things that I see a lot of is conflict without substance. It's become my new little catch-phrase, actually. And I think the concept of conflict is maybe a little vague. Or more precisely "Strong conflict"

Strong conflict is something that takes more than a conversation to work out. It's not just having two divergent character types banging heads and being beligerent or alpha. A strong conflict involves the following set up:

External conflict influences the hero and heroine internally, by targetting their internal beliefs (that are founded on their backstory experiences) and impacts their goals to the point that it makes them resist leaping into a solution.

A person cannot resolve their internal beliefs by having one conversation and everything's good. It takes working through those beliefs, and the events the hero/heroine encounter must contribute to that resolution. The events are either related to the external conflict, or related to the emotional relationship.

Let's look at a somewhat stereotypical example:

Hero is a wealthy businessman whose wife died and left him with a young child. Heroine is the woman he loved as a teen, who was from a poor family and "the wrong side of the tracks". They were involved as teens, but he left her suddenly. Ten years later, after his wife's death, they are reunited through professional endeavors.

Non-existant conflict:
They meet, there's a conversation along the lines of:

Hero: Susie, my parents forced me to. I never wanted to leave, and while I cared for my wife, I was in a loveless marriage. Please be mine again.
Heroine: Oh George, I've loved you too! Yes, that's all I've ever wanted.

Weak Conflict:
They meet, there's a bit of animosity between them. A bit of snide remarks on her part, his banging his head mentally, accusing himself of being a fool, since it's a Champagne title, they hit the sheets, sparks fly, and no one discusses what happened in the past. Eventually after a few chapters of a happy resolution being present in the writing (but not through character's actions or writings) they consent to forgive, forget, and move forward. Afterall, they've been working on this joint professional venture famously, they share core beliefs, and what happened in the past was out of youthful ignorance and the domination of powerful parents.

In this example, the author has made an attempt at keeping them apart. But the grounding isn't present. Both characters love each other from first meeting, always have, and their conflict is on the surface level. Actions portray it, but it isn't internally grounded. One conversation can resolve it between them. And while the conversation may not be as weak as the example in no conflict, it's still a situation that can be resolved by a conversation.

Strong Conflict:
They meet, there's a whole lot of animosity between them because the reason he is on the job conflicts with the reason she is on the job. Both have strong beliefs in their position and their work. They are at polar opposites, so it appears, within their moral compass. Adding into this the heroine feels intense betrayal, that she wasn't good enough for him because of financial positioning or her lineage. The hero, is anguished over what he did, but his reasons for leaving her had nothing to do with his parental domination, (although on the surface that's how it appeared), were in attempts to forge a path for them to be together.

When he came back to get her, she was gone no forwarding address and her parents wouldn't speak to him. Lo and behold, HER parents are the reason they were forced apart.

Yes, they can discuss this. Yes, he can swear to the truth of it. But although that conversation resolves why their teenage love came to an end, it does not address the larger issue of now that they are adults they are at odds with their core beliefs in relation to this professional set up. But before they can resolve it conversationally, they have to have their misconceptions proved wrong. Not just stated as wrong proved wrong.

The external plot -- the professional endeavor -- triggers them to act in ways that force them to grow and evaluate their individual standings. One of them must grow and change internally after doing something (the wrong something) that puts a divide between them, that seems insurmountable.

So if you have an environmental engineer opposing an oil mogul, the oil mogul must go ahead with the plan that damages the environment, despite feelings for the environmental engineers stance on the situation. External factors trigger something that points the oil mogul to the environmental engineer's motivation, and the oil mogul must scramble to right the situation. If the oil mogul doesn't right the situation, the love is forever lost.

These actions are what leave the reader on the edge of their seat, turning pages, wondering "How in the world is this mess ever going to get resolved?"

Conflict is a complicated entity. But if an author keeps in mind STRONG conflict, grounded in personal beliefs that are triggered by internal circumstances, and far deeper than one conversation can resolve, the odds of mastering conflict is significantly increased.

Good luck and keep on writing!


Kelly McCrady said...

Conflict and story tension also does not equal animosity -- I see way too many stories where the hero and heroine are constantly bickering as the only representation of their conflict. Sometimes, the argument is not about the surface issue. This is what the writer needs to dig up--what are they REALLY fighting about? Show the reader that someone's pillars of belief are being shaken and why they stick around for it, and you have true conflict.

Mabel Tuckingham said...

Valuable insights into the depth of true conflict! It's easy to work so hard writing witty dialogue and sexy scenes that the deeper messages get lost.

allywildrose said...

Great post, Tori. Very good explanation of a difficult concept for many writers to grasp. For those writing suspense, it's great if the external conflict (the danger) further drives a wedge between the couple and fuels the internal conflict.

Anonymous said...

No matter how many blogs I've read, how many dozens of times I've heard someone encourage 'more conflict, more conflict', this is the first time I've run across exactly 'what' the conflict is that they want increased! This will be printed for present/future reference! (um, if that's ok?)

Thank you Tori.

Beth Trissel said...

Excellent post and examples. Great stuff to bear in mind. thanks!

Mona Risk said...

That's exactly what I needed to hear now. I don't have problems with external conflict, It's internal conflict that's driving me crazy. I am copying and saving. Thank you.

Kathy Otten said...

Great post. I love deep conflicts in the stories I read. Thanks for helping explain how to get it on the page.

Jennifer Jakes said...

Very good, informative post!
Thanks :)

Jill James said...

Tori, great examples of what conflict is and isn't. I've seen way too many books that the conflict is that the male is too Alpha and once he is "straightened out" all is good. He is sweet, and tender, and 'neutered'. LOL

Tori Spence said...

I'm glad you found it useful and sorry I couldn't get back here earlier. I was editing :)

And for those who asked, no I don't have any qualms with you printing off and saving my post for your craft references.


Bianca Swan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cherie Marks said...

I personally hate to be in conflict with anyone in my real life, so I have to constantly remind myself that in a story, conflict is good, and with a little creative thought, there's a resolution.

Great post.