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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Conflict to Resolution

One of the axioms that fiction writers hear is that a gripping story is a story with conflict. Indeed, even in high school, we were told that the parts to a story were introduction, a building to a climax, the climax, and the resolution. Or, a story needs  to introduce a conflict, push that conflict to a breaking point, until at its peak, one side gives, and the conflict resolves. Usually one side "wins' and the other "loses." Most plots are built upon that basic premise.

That leads one to then ask, what is conflict? We discussed this in a writer's group for a while. Some appeared to want to define it narrowly to only be about two people fighting. My self, I defined it more broadly, to mean any conflicted emotion. I pointed out that even hunger pains are a form of conflict. Most certainly not a conflict we control mentally, but within one's body there is a conflict. Pain by its nature is a conflict. It creates a demand.

Perhaps it may be best to define conflict itself. A book that has had a big influence on me is "Managing Church Conflict" by Hugh F. Halverstadt. I took a seminary course on that back in the early 90s, and I would wager was the most practical and useful seminary course I took while there, as far as preparing one to be a pastor. He says on page four:
Conflicts are power struggles over differences: differing information or differing beliefs; differing interests, desires, or values; differing abilities to secure needed resources.

Note the lack of an "and" before the last entry. That indicates the list could go on, these are some basic examples. Conflict at is core is a power struggle over two entities who have different agendas. And the two entities can be within one person. We all have our hypocritical tendencies. We believe or say one thing, but do a different one. That creates a power struggle between our brain and our heart. Temptation is a conflict between what we know is the right thing to do, and what we really want to do emotionally.

The later is called internal conflict, whereas a power struggle between two people or groups of people is called external conflict. Internal conflict is  form of discontentment. We are not satisfied with were we are at, but long to move over to a place we believe will make us happier (often finding out the promise of happiness doesn't pan out). It points to a conflict between what we want, and what we have. The executive who wants to get that promotion has an internal conflict. He's not happy where he is at, but struggles to convince his bosses that he's the man for the job. He may also have some external conflict. Another employee may also be trying to grab that job, and may do some underhanded tricks to make our protagonist look bad.

Indeed, a good story will generally have both internal and external conflict. We generally call internal conflict "motivation" while external is the protagonist against the "enemy" who either wants to stop the protagonist from reaching their goal, or get to it first. It's a power struggle. Will our hero succumb to the temptation to kill the man or will he stay his hand and show mercy? Will they give into their hate or overcome it? Will they win the sword fight or lose it? Will the protagonist's hunger cause him to eat what is forbidden or will he resist?

There are all types of conflict, and the conflict has a life cycle. It usually starts small. Maybe two people simply look at each other the wrong way, and one of them perceives it as, "He hates me." A power struggle has begun. Then that person is in a position to decide whether the other can join the group, and they vote no. The other now perceives that that person hates him as well. At a church function, they refuse to talk to each other. Tension builds. They both end up on a church board, and it can be counted on that if one votes one way, the other will buck it. It all gets swept under the carpet, and the tension continues to build. Finally, the whole mess threatens to blow up. The climax of the story arises when the board takes on a seemingly innocent decision...the color of the carpet. The volcano of emotions blow. The two parties who have aligned themselves with either individual have a knock down, drag out "fight," and one group ends up "losing." And the result is a church split as the resolution. Though the tension continues in the two communities.

This kind of thing informs our plots, our character arcs, all of which are founded on conflict. In reality, humanity doesn't move forward without some level of conflict. If we didn't have conflict, we would never seek to improve ourselves, never want to grow. It is the interaction and conflict, and learning to resolve it in a productive manner that results in everyone moving closer together, closer to God. Going through conflict and resolving it changes us. Either for the better, or the worse. And that is the heart of any story. Not only whether the conflict will be resolved, but how it will be resolved and whether it will be a good thing or bad thing for the character(s) we cheer for.

"But does a story have to have conflict?" One member said no. Describing the experience of watching a sunrise can be quite interesting and exciting, but there really isn't any conflict there. This is true in part. This type of literature is known as "literary." Literary doesn't rely upon a plot, but upon the deeper meaning conveyed in the words and situation being described, and the beauty/poetry of the language used to describe it. But such stories usually lack one thing: a plot.

Yes, they are stories. They can be interesting. And any "conflict" isn't so much a conflict in the story itself, but more a conflict in the reader who wants to see something unique, a new perspective on something, a fresh and original take on an old experience. The "tension" created isn't so much between conflict proper, but the reader seeking a new experience that makes them go, "Wow!"

But such isn't a plot. It is an experience, maybe a very good one. It may have meaning it conveys. But it doesn't fit the traditional story telling, and generally doesn't make for a compelling plot that will keep the reader wanting more. Humans being what they are, there are going to be exceptions to that. But it should be a given that what most people are going to look for in a novel, especially genre fiction, isn't literary, but a good character and plot driven story full of conflict. If your telling a story, you'll need conflict. Certainly you can have those moments of literary brilliance, but the plot has to be there, and if there is a plot, it means it is a conflict, or else it will bore the reader and they won't care.

But understanding conflict is key to building a good plot. How it starts and builds, and the ways it can be resolved, both positively and negatively. Build characters with internal and external conflict, and you have yourself a story. At least the guts of one.

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