16 February 2011

Story Elements #8: Conflict (Again)

So, way back in Story Elements #1, I talked briefly about conflict and why it's necessary. But because of a few things that have been going on in my writing life lately, I decided it's time for a more in-depth redux.

First up, I'm teaching a creative writing class at the moment and having a blast. It's scary, but also exhilarating, and since I'm doing most of the writing exercises at the same time the class does, it's a lot of fun. I even got some useable stuff :o) Woot. One of the things we're concentrating on this week is conflict, and the different flavours thereof.

Maybe because I was teaching it, the idea of conflict was on my radar moreso than usual. Maybe it was because last night I was reading through some really EXCELLENT articles on Janice Hardy's blog. Stuck in the mire of rewrites, I clicked on a random link from twitter and found what I needed - someone who'd been through the process before and not only survived, but who had documented the process and mapped out a path for other people to follow. Really, really excellent articles. Go forth and devour her site.

But anyway, instead of going to chapter 9 and doing more rewriting-from-scratch (which feels suspiciously like drafting, only worse, because you know it's supposed to be better this time), I ended up rereading what I'd written so far - and adding quota for the day just in fleshing out chapters 1 and 2. Oi. Then I hit chapter 3, and chapter 3 hit me back with the realisation that it's not working because it's seriously lacking in meaningful conflict.

So today, conflict, both because I'm working on it with my school class, and because apparently I could use the refresher.

When asked to define conflict, the first thing most people say is some variant on arguing, fighting, etc. But most writers know - explicitly or implicitly - that there's more to it than that. Not every scene in every book has someone fighting, and yet we have this maxim of 'conflict on every page'. So either the maxim's wrong - or our definition of conflict is. Personally, I think it's the definition of conflict. So let's broaden our definition today.

(The following terminology is my own, but the ideas are heavily influenced by Holly Lisle's How To Write Page-Turning Scenes).

1) First of all, we have implied conflict. This is one of the sneakiest and most fun tools a writer can use. It is, essentially, foreshadowing; the reader sees something happen without knowing why it's important, but because of the way it's presented, knows that it is. There are two sorts of implied conflict: agented and unagented.

A. In agented implied conflict, we see something happening that the participants in the story don't recognise as important, but that we as readers do; for example, a cat knocking an important letter off a table, a mother cleaning their child's room and throwing out a bit of 'junk', someone stooping to pick up The One Ring.

B. In unagented implied conflict, there are no actors, but simply a change that we recognise as important. This is the most basic form of conflict, and the most subtle; we're not seeing the stone being thrown into the pond, but the ripples the stone makes. An example would be a red light flashing, blood spilling out from under a door, or a sudden cessation of noise. All of these promise that something important has just changed, and while they create conflict even if you have a character observe this, they can be even more powerful when done in omniscient POV such that the reader is the only one who gets to see the light, or the blood, or hear the sudden silence.

2) Overt conflict. This one is pretty obvious: it's conflict that happens directly on-stage, that we can see and recognise as conflict and that the participants in the story would probably recognise as conflict as well. Like implied conflict, it comes in various flavours: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and external. Overt conflict is where the handy rule of thumb of conflict comes in most useful: that is, conflict is anything that stands in the way of what the character wants. With that in mind, let's examine each in turn.

A. Intrapersonal conflict is when there is something internal to the character preventing them from getting what they want. Perhaps they've been brought up with a deep-seated conviction that no one should eat grass, only now, to get what they want (or perhaps to save their life), they must eat grass. It sounds a bit contrived, I know, but if you played it right, this exact situation could come across as genuine, immediate conflict, because it's something inherent in the character preventing them from getting what they want. Think fears and phobias, habits and beliefs; anything the character does that sabotages, deliberately or accidentally, their own wellbeing and dreams.

B. Interpersonal conflict is the type of conflict everyone reaches for when asked to define conflict. It's two people shouting at each other, two children fighting, bickering, threatening, attacking, and so on. But it's also two people refusing to speak, a child deliberately ruining another's project, cold shoulders and icy glares, bragging, back-stabbing, lying, evading, denial, and misdirecting. It is, in short, anything that one person can do to prevent someone else getting what they want or need. (And I hope it's obvious to you that not all conflict is bad; preventing a toddler from touching the hot stove may be thwarting their deepest desires of the moment and be enough to induce a tantrum, but it's better than the alternative. Sometimes what we want is the worst thing for us.)

C. Finally, external conflict. External conflict can either be personal, or impersonal. Personal external conflict is the larger result of some other kind of conflict. It's where conflict that has nothing directly to do with your character has grown so big that it can't help but affect them; a war, for example, or, in the right story, parents constantly arguing. These are interpersonal conflicts for other people, but for your character, they're not the effect of anything your character has done; your character is just in the wrong place at the wrong time and falls afoul of other peoples' issues. Impersonal external conflict is similar in effect but differs in its source; instead of coming from other peoples' issues, impersonal external conflict is external to everyone. Natural disasters, aliens invading - those are probably the only examples.

And that's conflict in a nutshell, or on a pinhead, or in some other small, easy-to-devour package. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to figure out how the heck I'm going to inject some or all of this into chaper three.


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