I have written on conflict before. The focus there was on choreographing a fight, as well as understanding hand-to-hand and other types of combat as well as how it is applied, with the aim of making the action in a scene and story flow better. This is important for a writer to know if they are ever going to write a passage where the hero beats up the bad guy – or the villain pounds the good guy into the ground.
That being said, combat is not conflict as it is defined in storytelling terms. Conflict is the word that applies to the plot and what is occurring within it. Who are the main characters fighting? Are they fighting anyone? If so, what are the stakes and do they rise? What is the highest point of intensity, the moment of triumph – or defeat? What starts the fight? How does it end?
Some of this should sound familiar, if not from English class, then from the ubiquitously-cited Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. John C. Wright pointed out that the Hero’s Journey is an enlarged, and more than a little puffed up, description of how conflict works. Once he said that, I realized one reason why the formula had always bothered me; for as Mr. Wright explains, not every story can be crammed into the Hero’s Journey format. More often than not, those who attempt to do so must essentially cut off the limbs of the tale and characters to fit them into the crate they have arbitrarily designed for them, a la Boxing Helena.
Of course, before we continue, we need a working definition of conflict. The typical one used for English classes should serve us well here. Conflict in a novel or story is defined by four characteristics: the reason or spark that ignites the conflict; the rising action as the conflict intensifies over the course of the story; the climax, which is the moment of highest triumph or ultimate defeat in the tale, and finally the resolution of the adventure. We could call this the “happily ever after” scene, as it is the moment just before the curtains fall or the hero rides off into the sunset.
Now I used spark to denote the start of a tale’s conflict for a reason. What sets the events of The Hunger Games* in motion? Katniss Everdeen’s little sister is Reaped for the Games almost immediately after she turns twelve. While the Districts and the Capitol exist in a precarious balance that depends entirely on the idea that Panem will remain quiescent – if not docile or precisely cowed – the system the Capitol has established is not something anyone is certain they can overthrow. They are waiting for a spark to strike some tinder and light a fire to bring the system down to a level where they can possibly overcome it with less bloodshed than if they tried at once in the present moment.
Katniss is considered and described in the trilogy as that spark. The match that strikes the spark is the Reaping of her twelve-year-old sister, whom she has spent years providing for and protecting after their father died in a mining accident and their mother was left catatonic for around a year due to grief. Until this point, Katniss hates the Capitol but sees no opportunity to successfully fight against it. Nor does she think of rebellion until it is suggested to her in the second book.
But even before she has this revelation in the first novel, what ignites her defiance is the desire to save her sister. This leads to a series of decisions on her part that causes a greater longing for rebellion in Panem, which leads to the conflict of Catching Fire* and Mockingjay*. Trilogies and series must have conflict as well, so The Hunger Games serves in toto as the spark for the whole trilogy, with the rising action going from “survive the Games” to “survive the Quarter Quell” to “defeat the Capitol and free Panem.”
Rising action is what happens when the tension or “action” ramps up as the story progresses. As stated above, the action becomes more intense the further you go in The Hunger Games. Will Katniss survive the Games? Will she abandon Peeta? Will she kill him? Will she let him bleed to death? These are the questions that have readers gasping and turning pages with a vengeance to reach the climax, the moment of highest intensity that may also be described as the moment of truth or the moment of despair, depending on the tale.
In The Hunger Games the climax comes when Katniss chooses to force the Capitol’s hand. She cannot bring herself to kill Peeta because of the code of the Seam; she owes him her life, and thereby the life of her sister and mother. If she kills him or lets him die to save her own life, then she remains in his debt. In the Seam, this is unacceptable, as neither of these choices are something a survivor who pays her debts can countenance.
Knowing intuitively that the Capitol is desperate to survive and relies on the Districts for its livelihood, Katniss suggests a suicide pact to Peeta. Retrieving some deadly nightshade berries that she had kept in case they needed to use them to defeat another Tribute, she and he each take a handful and prepare to kill themselves. Katniss knows the Capitol needs a Victor after each Hunger Games to maintain control of the Districts, so denying them any Victor at all should cause them to keep their promise that the two District 12 Tributes will be allowed to live. If she has miscalculated, however, and the Capitol would rather see them die – well, then she and Peeta are already dead.
It is the moment of truth, the climax. The instant when we know precisely what type of character Katniss is and wait with bated breath to see if she is right. Has she read the Capitol correctly, or are she and Peeta doomed to die?
Before Katniss and Peeta can swallow the berries, the Capitol re-establishes their promise to let them both live. The two Tributes spit out the berries, are picked up, given medical attention, and hailed as co-Victors of the latest Hunger Games. This leads to the resolution of the book, where the two are crowned, before sowing the seeds for the sequel that will follow.
An important note, these seeds are NOT the resolution. The resolution is when the conflict of a particular story is finished, and the crowning of Katniss and Peeta as the first two Victors of District 12 is the finale of their efforts to survive the Hunger Games. However, The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy, so it operates as the spark for the rising action in Catching Fire, which will find its climax and ultimate resolution in Mockingjay.
(As an aside, I have always found it interesting how the titles in the trilogy essentially constitute a countdown. The Hunger Games – three words. Catching Fire – two words. Mockingjay – one word. 3 – 2 – 1. Boom.)
The Magnificent Seven*’s conflict begins with Calvera raiding a Mexican village for food. It is not the first time he has come, but on this particular occasion he kills a villager who tries to fight. This prompts the villagers to decide they must rid themselves of him and his men, but since they cannot fight, they need to hire gunmen who will help them drive off Calvera. By killing the villager, Calvera lit a spark of defiance in the hearts of the people he had browbeaten and mistreated for so long.
During the movie the tension increases, first due to the fact that the villagers have very little money with which to hire help. “This is everything we have!” they tell Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) and Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen). It is very little, even for gunfighters so hard up for a job they can barely keep themselves fed.
Chris and Vin look at one another. “Have you ever been offered everything before?”
“No, can’t say as I have.”
Although the pay is paltry, the villagers have appealed to the gunmen’s sense of honor, and the fact remains that the West is closing. They all know it. If it is a choice between going out in a final fight or being condemned to “ride fence,” as Monte Walsh* puts it, these men would prefer to die fighting.
The next problem is recruiting more men to the cause. Bernardo agrees to the job in part for the honor and in part out of despair at how his life has gone. Britt joins because he has a reputation that others continue to challenge; he leaves another man from the outfit he was working with dead due to this. The job in Mexico is ironically safer than continuing with the group he has been working with up to this point.
Henry Luck signs on for the gold and riches he has convinced himself are near the village, while Lee joins because he needs room and board, if not money. There are also ghosts from the Civil War haunting him, so he seeks at the same time to quiet them at least a little, while Chico (played by the Germanic-named Horst Buchholz) wishes to make a name for himself. Young and impressionable, he does not know what older and wiser heads have recognized: the West is closing. The age of the gunfighter is dying.
Does this count as rising action? Yes, because the tension remains palpable from scene to scene. Will each man say yes? What will Chico do when he is refused? Once they arrive at their destination, the villagers hide from the Seven at first, and Chico rings the church bell to summon them out of hiding. It is a moment fraught with tension as he scolds the men, calling them chickens for fearing those they paid to help them.
On and on the tension increases, rising with every scene, until Calvera unexpectedly gets the upper hand and forces the Seven to leave. Is this the climax?
No. The climax occurs when the Seven return and kill Calvera’s men, with Chris seeing to the bandit leader’s fate personally. Four of the Seven die in the fighting and Bernardo (Charles Bronson) puts a poetic note on the climax when he tells the boys he befriended earlier to admire the courage of their fathers, who joined the Seven in the fight with nothing but the items they could grab quickly.
Resolution comes when Chris, Vin, and Chico set out to leave the village. Chico turns back, having fallen in love with the girl Petra, and Chris echoes the words of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the epigraph for the film: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
Peace and stability have been won, but for the rough men willing to fight to secure it for others, peace is a rare gift. Chico found it, the four who died found it in the next life, while Chris and Vin must continue on until the final sunset in their future. The resolution being accomplished, the film lets the curtain fall on the two gunfighters as they leave the victors to their celebration.
It may well be asked if every story has a conflict. The previous samples were both action adventures with clear battles between good and evil. What about romances or other tales that do not have such high stakes?
Hayao Miyazaki’s The Secret World of Arietty* is a fairly low-stakes film in the grand scheme of things. Based on Mary Norton’s Borrowers* series, the movie takes some liberties with her world to tell its own story. A young Japanese boy named Shō goes to visit his maternal aunt’s house before an operation on his heart, as he has a heart condition that is killing him and they hope this operation will prevent that. It has a low potential for success, though, and so Shō is attempting to reconcile himself to death.
The spark for the story comes when he spots a tiny girl – a Borrower – in the garden before she scampers into the house via a vent. The rising action occurs as Shō attempts to befriend the girl, whose name is Arietty. The Borrowers keep out of sight of the humans, but on her first Borrowing mission with her father she is seen by Shō. Now she and her family have to move out to avoid being discovered by the rest of his family, because they naturally (and rightly) fear they will either be killed or held captive and treated like specimens on display.
Arietty, however, wishes to prove her courage and goes to tell the human – known among Borrowers as a “human bean” – to stay away from her family because they are leaving. Saddened by this, Shō begins to talk to her, and their conversation nearly ends in disaster when a crow spots and tries to eat Arietty. Shō manages to save her, though not without cost as the excitement causes issues for his heart.
Back and forth the tension goes as Shō and Arietty’s friendship grows and he tries to convince her to stay, until it becomes clear that his relative’s house truly is not safe for her or any other Borrower and they must in fact move away. It leads to a climax where Shō chases after her and her family as they exit the house for the final time. Arietty in turn runs to him, and the two have a touching good-bye as Shō admits that meeting her has convinced him to fight to survive the operation. He gives her a sugar cube, something she Borrowed on her first mission, and she leaves him the clothespin that she has used for so long to pin up her hair.
Wouldn’t this better serve as a resolution? No, because the resolution comes after Arietty leaves Shō to answer her parents’ call. Watching her disappear into the grass and trees, Shō whispers: “Arietty, my heart is strong now because you are in it.” The crisis has passed, and both characters have been altered by it, learning from and becoming stronger due to their association with one another. Now the curtain may fall and hide them from the audience’s sight.
In a similar quiet manner, Jo’s Boys* – the sequel to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men* – has no high stakes in the sense of being an action-packed story. Rather it is a collection of tales tied together only by the fact that the titular boys were all taught by Jo March-Bhaer and her husband. Some of these youths are related to her and her husband by blood, others are related only by ties of friendship and warm affection, but Jo and her husband do their best to council them and convince them to lead good lives.
Each boy has a specific spark that sets them on their journey; for Emil, it is becoming second mate on his ship. For Nat, it is going abroad to study music, and for Dan it is heading West to enjoy freedom in the wide-open spaces. Yet the action rises nonetheless; Emil’s ship sinks and his captain is injured leaving Emil to care for the survivors. Adrift at sea, they must hope against hope that another ship will find them before they die of starvation and dehydration.
While studying in Europe, Nat nearly loses himself in dissipation during his studies. Dan, whom one would think the safest of these three boys, finds himself in the worst predicament. He ends up in a fight where he kills a man in self-defense after standing up to him to protect a young friend, and for this he must serve a year in prison.
In each of these stories, there is a climax. Emil is resigned with the rest of the ship’s survivors to die until a ship appears on the horizon, from which they manage to hail a rescue in the veritable nick of time. Nat wakes from his dissolute stupor to realize what he is doing and cleans up his act to do his teachers proud. Dan, meanwhile, must finally learn control his temper while in prison, as the enclosed space is pure torture for a man who likes to be out in wide-open spaces.
During his time in prison, he overhears plans some are making to break out and considers joining in just to get outside again, but the timely reminder of a charitable lady who visits the prison convinces him to finish serving his time. The climaxes for Dan and Emil’s adventures are more tense than the one Nat experiences, yet Nat’s is no less important for being a quieter moment of tension. Will he dissolve in a puddle of self-pity, continue in his iniquity, or clean up his life and study as he was meant to do?
The resolutions to each boy’s story come when they return home to talk to Jo, letting her know how they failed and how they triumphed. Dan’s interview is perhaps the hardest, as he and Jo both feared his temper would lead him to kill. Even killing in self-defense in the manner he did does not absolve him in the society he loves and would return to, if he could. But having fallen in love with Jo’s youngest niece, Amy’s daughter, due to having her picture with him while in prison, he cannot spoil her life with his record by attempting to marry her now. And so he leaves Jo and her family, never to return, for to do so would cause him and them too much pain.
When next you hear mention of The Hero’s Journey, future authors, think of it less as a formula you need to follow and more as a popular reading of conflict. Campbell’s work has its value but it need not – and really, really should not – be treated as utterly sacrosanct or the be-all, end-all of writing advice. It is simply a recognizable vehicle for teaching how conflict works in a story.
You will always need a spark, rising action, a climax, and a resolution in your fiction. There are different kinds of conflicts, to be sure. In the future we will discuss what those are and just how broadly they can be applied to your works. Until then, check your works-in-progress to see how well the conflict flows. You don’t want to miss a beat in your performance, after all, and your plot should have as few sour notes in it as possible!
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!
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12 thoughts on “Conflict – Defining and Building It in Your Fiction”
I really like how you use varied / unusual works to illustrate your examples instead of sticking with the trite and true Star Wars/Trek/LOTR only.
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Thank you, Riders! I don’t particularly like leaning on really popular stories alone – the articles which do that often feel very one-note and so they’re…well, hard to appreciate after a while. It leaves so much territory unexplored, and I don’t like that, as it can make one feel he or she has to narrow him or herself to one specific line of writing and thinking.
I don’t mind using popular tales as examples, of course, but I prefer to put them side-by-side with other media to help broaden the point so other writers can see different methods of applying the same principle. I’m really glad that you like it because that means it’s effective. The Grand Plan is working!!! XD
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Plus of course it alerts some danger of the reader thinking you are cherry picking. 🙂
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That, too. 🙂
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Structure is important
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In a continuing series, there is a fundamental choice to make about basic structure: will each book build directly upon the last, or will they only be tangentially related (often by bit characters from preceding books getting their own story)?
I’ve never been much of a fan of the latter — I would rather see ever more of the world/people that got me started. Of course, this requires some fundamental structural choices. The commonest is the “detective series” type, where each book is a new incident for the continuing cast, who themselves grow and change as slowly as the author can arrange Reichenbach Falls. As a reader, after a while I find it hard to preserve my interest in the primary characters, and the author finds it hard to maintain interest (and keep them from aging too quickly). Too much sameness in each story.
Nonetheless, that’s what I write — longish series with a continuing cast, but in the Fantasy genre. (My first two series were 4 books, but the current WIP will go on indefinitely.) This pushes me into the Hero’s Journey as a sort of lifelong concept — continual challenge and learning. To support that in a periodic narrative, I find that the world needs a structural scaffold of unifying, repeatable, concepts (just as a detective series needs cases). By planting my hero as a lead driver in an Industrial Revolution of Magic situation, I gain a fruitful source of incident and exploration and conflict, even if most of the conflict (not all) has no need of human villains for opposition to exist — the world of science-of-magic and the cultural disruption of rapid innovation are quite sufficient to the task.
In individual series entries, the conflict might be antagonistic (direct opposition), psychological (the hero needs to learn hard life lessons), material (stubborn existential reality in science-of-magic research), prudential (disruption of the status quo), economic (business disasters), accidental (bad stuff happens), familial (stages of life & family), etc.
If you have a hard time creating believable villains, there are plenty of other choices…
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Thank you very much for this – I think a lot of writers need it, myself included. There is so much focus on amping up the tension or reaching a grand climax and finale in media these days that it is very easy to try to push oneself to write the next impressive tale. “Go big or go home,” as they say; it has it’s place but bigger and more dramatic isn’t always better.
It’s not just believable villains, it’s the sense of – I suppose we could call it “leveling up.” Like a video game your characters are just supposed to increase in strength so they can face the next boss on the next level, but life doesn’t work like that and neither do people. Why should our fictional heroes be forced to do the same?
Even worse, some writers “restart” the game by undoing a previous trilogy’s or series’ events to retell the story and put their characters through hell in the process. Once again, life doesn’t work that way. Yes, one can have everything, be reduced to nothing, then gain everything back again. Job is perhaps the best example of this. Yet that is not the same thing as this sense of pressure, this sense that the heroes and villains must become gods constantly waging war upon one another and building up to a higher boss level that goes – where? Where does one go when they have hit the ceiling and there is nothing beyond that?
The attitude has been creeping into media for the last thirty or so years and it’s…exhausting. So very tiring. We need reminders that a series doesn’t HAVE to build to some ultimate, world-ending calamity, that there is no “final boss” out there to defeat. There are challenges to overcome but they always end somewhere, somehow. Certain genres and characters lend themselves to retellings or even long-running series (glances at Sherlock Holmes, among others) but that’s not at all the same thing as an individual author with an individual series or set of series. We can’t do the work of twenty writers on the same series without making the product predictable and/or stale.
Thank you again, Ms. Myers, for pointing this fact out. For reminding us that there ARE several ways to write a series. In this present literary climate, that is a message we all sorely need. That we can have conflicts which don’t end or threaten to end the world, but which are still enjoyable for the audience and can keep them on the edge of their seats. It is a message we sorely need right now.
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Thank you, both, for this discussion.
And for pointing out that “…not every story can be crammed into the Hero’s Journey format.”
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You’re welcome. 😉