A Silly Study in Conflict

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Think about wants

What is conflict? Is it being loud? Is it a fight? Is it tense music? Is it a moral dilemma? 

Conflict is one thing: something preventing someone from getting what they want.

Note that I use want here instead of any other word. Mainly because it’s paired with the word need. Needs in literature can be thought of as the underlying motivations of a character. The why. Also, the word goal is too solid. Wants are fluid. Guesses. That’s all they are. Guesses on what to do next. Someone might have an internal need to be happy. Because of that, they want to get a promotion at work. Will it make them happy? Probably not. But they want it nonetheless. 

Through this article, just know that I’m using the term loosely.

Breaking it down a little further, you can want big things and you can want little things. In a story, our protagonist generally wants one big thing. All the little wants along the way are things they think will help them attain that one big thing. 

The things that block these big and little wants are conflicts. 

In short, there’s always one overarching conflict and lots of little conflicts along the way. Each little conflict isn’t random. They’re always created to help solve the big conflict.

As a simple rule: if you write something about the protagonist wanting something that doesn’t pertain to solving the overarching problem, delete it. You’re writing the wrong thing. Easy.

A Plan of Action

Wanting something big will always reveal many smaller problems that must be solved first. 

To get a degree, you take classes. There are prerequisites that must be met. Things happen in a clear order. They build upon one another. It’s this natural order that will give your characters their plan of action. “First, I’ll enroll in a school. Then, I’ll choose a major. I’ll take all the gen ed credits. Then, the advanced credits. Finally, I’ll graduate and be rich and happy with my degree…” 

To use an analogy (because that’s what writers do sometimes), imagine you want to get to the other side of a river. 

There is one large thing blocking your way. The river. The river is the overarching conflict. Now, picture three stones revealed above the water in a row leading to the other bank. Each of those will be one of your small wants. You’ll want to step on the first rock first. From the first rock, you’ll want to step on the second. From the second, you’ll want to step on the third. Then, you’ll want to step on the bank. A very simple game plan. 

At every step, however, there will be something trying to prevent that step. Those will be your small conflicts. The first rock may look very slippery. That’s a small conflict. The second rock may be far away from the first. Another small conflict. The third rock may have a community of micro-aliens on it and if you were to step on it, you would wipe out generations of rivlorkians. 

To recap and belabor the point, within the large want of getting to the other side, there are small wants along the way: stepping on each stone. The large conflict is the river, and the small conflicts are the things making it hard to step on each stone. 

Concerning ending a story, you’ll know when the story done when they do or don’t get what they want. i.e. crossing the river.

Crossing the River

Let’s play the analogy of crossing the river out as a short story. A few things to note as you read are: 

  1. It doesn’t matter at all what game plan your character takes. All that matters is that they choose one and play it through till the end.

  2. Each step along the way is tied to solving the overarching problem, no matter how silly it seems.

  3. Every step the protagonist takes has a causal relationship to the last.

  4. Conflicts can vary. They can be huge or tiny. Some are in the character’s head or caused by other people. Some are forces of nature.

  5. There can be as much or as little conflict as you want.

Congratulations, you are the protagonist. 

First, to get to the other side, you decide your game plan will be to vault over the river. Because vaulting over stuff is cool. 

Your initial want, then, is to find a stick suitable for vaulting. A small conflict arises, however. There are not a lot of trees around. Especially none with wood good enough to hold through your sick vault. Because of that, you walk around for hours and can’t find a suitable stick. You give up looking for a rogue, free-range stick and decide you want to go into town to loo k for a good, regulation pole made for vaulting. The only problem now, another small conflict, is the nearest town is over a large hill that would take you hours to hike.

You decide it’s worth it. After a few hours of hiking, another small conflict arises. You break your ankle.

All of a sudden, you have a new want. You want to heal your ankle. At least enough to vault over the river.

After making a splint, creating a shelter, and capturing a few animals to use as food over the course of two weeks, you feel like your ankle has healed enough to keep going. The thought of vaulting over that river has kept your spirits high through all these little conflicts that keep popping up mysteriously.

Finally, you make it to town and hobble around looking for a store that sells pole vaults. To your surprise, there are none. Another small conflict! Fuck! Fortunately, there is a lovely old woman who strolls by and asks what you’re looking for. You tell her all about how you want to vault over the river and she says, “That’s reasonable. I can help! My grandson taught me how to order things on the internet.”

What a lucky break!

However, she also tells you, “I’ll order you a pole-vaulting pole if you help me water my sunflowers.” Another small conflict. They’re everywhere.

Wanting to vault over that river more than anything, you obviously tell her, “No problem.” And both of you go to her house at the edge of town. It becomes a nice day of watering and towards the end of the night, she hops online and orders you a pole. Over the next few days, you tell her all about how awesome jumping over the river will be, and she tells you how much help it is to have you there watering her sunflowers. In fact, she loves your help so much you wonder if you should just move to town and forget this whole river-jumping business.

But no.

“That river’s gonna get jumped no matter what,” you decide. She obliges and once the pole arrives, you realize it’s a long road back and you’re scared to hike the hill once more. What if you break your ankle again? That would be horrible. That’s when the old woman says, “Don’t worry, I have a friend who owns a small plane. A puddle jumper. I met him during the war.”

“Perfect!” You say, high-fiving her.

Within a few hours you’re on your way. The pilot is friendly and drops you off at the river, right where you started. As he drops you off he yells out over the engines, “Kind of small stream, isn’t it?”

You yell back, “Well, yeah. I’ve never pole vaulted before.”

“Well, that’s an awful lot of trouble to get a pole vaulting pole to vault over such a small river!”

Oh, no! Small talk! The worst small conflict of all! Here you are trying to do a sweet maneuver over this river and this guy is holding you up. How terrible! You tell him, “It’s what I want to do. What does it matter to you?”

“Fair enough,” he says. “Good luck kid!” With that, he flies away and leaves you to your business.

The moment has come. After conquering all sorts of little conflicts, you’ve made it to the big show. You back up to get a running start. Running as fast as you ever have you jam the end of the pole into the middle of the small stream. Holding onto the vault with all your might, you’ve never concentrated on anything so hard in your life.

Just then, the stick snaps in half.

You fall flat on your face into the shallow water. Feeling very defeated, you lay in the gentle trickle for a minute or two, then get up and walk to the other side.

“Shit,” you say, remembering something. “I left my wallet back at that lady's house.”