Storytelling is universal. From Ancient Greece via medieval Italy to modern-day world, the fundamental formula that makes or breaks any story, EVERY story, be it in written form, on-stage play, or a movie production remains unchanged. Well, it’s one ingredient only: conflict.
The word conflict may invoke a wrong kind of visual/emotional response in your brain. It does not refer to any fighting per se (although it can), it refers to the process of struggling with a choice or multiple choices – in the hands of whichever character the story focuses on.
And so, the conflict manifests in several ways:
- Imperfection – the character (protagonist) must choose between a lesser evil of the two (or more). The resolution may also go against the character’s fundamental beliefs.
- Incompleteness – the character makes a choice that makes one thing better but makes another worse. One may look at conflict as a constant, which simply shifts around but never disappears.
- Compound conflict – the character resolves one conflict only to create a new one or more, or the resolution of one conflict exposes previously unknown conflicts or develops into multiple (new) conflicts.
And that’s it. That’s all you need for a good story. Mix and mash!
And conversely, if your story does not have a conflict, it will not be a good story.
This is why stories with perfect protagonists, who can never suffer or be in danger, are silly and boring, and why people do not relate them to them. Without conflict, the story becomes a sequence of complete events that do not resonate with the basic human need of/for struggle.
This is even true in seemingly shallow or superficial stories, like superhero comics. Although quite often the protagonists are powerful, they often have some issue – either there’s one thing that can destroy them, they can’t get acceptance from the society, they have a secret identity, they might not have love. Without these, the stories of Superman, Batman, or for that matter, Hercules or Beowulf would be just a list of boring happenstances.
Let’s do a little exercise
All right, so how does this translate into deeds – words. Cue our hero, Johnny.
Say Johnny is a special force guy, but now his daughter is in danger because of his military past. She gets kidnapped by the baddies. Conflict. But that’s not enough. He only has 12 hours to find and save her. Compounded conflict. Simple, effective. And as it happens … this is the plot of one of the most awesome action movies of all time – Commando.
Now say you want to write a fantasy book – this be a book blog, so perhaps we ought to focus on written words as opposed to movies, right (but nothing really changes in this regard). You want to have a hero that has problems in his life. He may be a less-than-favorite son of a king. She may be a sorceresses that is struggling with magic. They may be have troublesome pasts, difficult relatives, failing relationships, fears, greed, whatever.
Then, you develop the personal conflict into something new – the protagonists needs to do something. This ought to be a less-than-perfect choice, of course. Now beware, quite often, people mistake danger for conflict. Peril on its own is a good ingredient, but it is not what makes the story interesting. It’s how the protagonists approaches peril – this is where the conflict resides and the seed for the good story.
So the hero embarks on a quest (can be emotional, physical or both). It is up to you to decide how elaborate the story should be – how much conflict it ought to have. You can add other people into the equation, which would test the protagonist emotionally. You can add hardships that will test the protagonist physically. Their choices should never be 100% complete – there always ought to be an inkling of a conflict left. They survive a robbery, but they are wounded. They spare a robber, who then betrays them to the enemy. They fall in love, but the other party rejects them. There is a storm, and they must separate.
The ending …
The resolution of the arch-conflict will define how your stories ends – happy ending = conflict is resolved, unhappy ending = the conflict is only partially resolved, unresolved or even becomes bigger! Most people seem to struggle with this, as they expect stories to end with the resolution of the conflict. But this is a typical tool used to create book sequels, including the famous cliffhanger, which is the suspense of the story mid-conflict.
That brings us to the end of this article – hopefully with a nice closure, and no conflict left unresolved. I hope you enjoyed this little piece. Take care, and stay tuned for book updates, including the imminent release of Darkness, book two in Humanz, my dystopian, zombie-themed trilogy.