All About Conflict

Can you think of a book you read and loved that was without any conflict? I’ll bet the answer is no. A good story is full of conflict and setbacks, rife with faulty reasoning and rationales, goals, both easy and difficult, and clear motivations for actions. And all these conflicts provide room for growth of the characters in the story.

Conflicts should be not only external – or plot – conflicts, but also internal conflicts. Say you have a character named Malone whose goal is to save a group of children who are being held hostage in a remote camp somewhere. That’s an external goal. It’s about the plot. It’s a goal that’s going to drive some interesting action, but the internal conflict is just as important. What if Malone is a millionaire xenophobe who never gets his hands dirty, especially for a bunch of foreign kids who shouldn’t be in this country, anyway? Can you see how the internal and external conflicts are in direct opposition to each other?

To make it even more complex, you might add yet another character whose own personal conflicts (both internal and external) are in opposition to Malone’s.

I’ll use a few well-known movies to show examples of conflicts:

You’ve Got Mail
The external conflicts center on the dissolution of a little bookstore owned by Kathleen because a giant super bookstore is moving in around the corner. The big store is owned by Joe’s family. The internal conflicts revolve around the irony of Kathleen and Joe having a cyber relationship without knowing each other’s true identities. When Joe finds out who he’s fallen in love with via email, he is conflicted about what his store will do to her career. He can’t just stop the process of starting his family’s huge store, but he knows it will destroy Kathleen’s business. When Kathleen learns who Joe is, she must overcome (or not) the notion that he is the enemy.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana and Marion share what is obviously a contentious past, which sets them up for conflict and mistrust throughout the film. But the main conflict is external – the Nazis seem to be close to finding the Ark of the Covenant, which will give them some (vaguely explained) supernatural power. Indiana must find it first, or else the Nazis will attain unfathomable power. Think of all the setbacks Indy suffers. He can’t just find the Ark and pull it out of the deep tomb. No – he and Marion get stuck in the tomb. Then there are all those classic scenes where they pursue the Ark before they finally achieve the goal. But it’s not easy. Nor should your story be.

The African Queen
Rose Sayer is a British missionary in East Africa when WWI breaks out and the Germans arrive and burn down the mission, killing her brother. Charlie Allnut (sort of a lowdown character) arrives and takes Rose away on his rundown boat, The African Queen. Rose is prim and proper and looks down on Charlie. He is a very rough-around-the-edges drinker, and there is immediate conflict between the two. When Rose learns a German ship is blocking the British from engaging them in battle, she proposes they travel down the river in the African Queen and blow up the German ship. The trip down the river is laced with danger (external conflicts), but they manage to achieve the ultimate goal. Both the internal and external conflicts are obvious in this film: By the end of the movie, they’ve blown up the German ship and they’ve learned to respect each other, even though they could barely tolerate each other at the beginning.

When Harry Met Sally
Harry and Sally don’t really like each other when they first meet. They’ve got their own belief systems, which are not in accord with each other, but that’s ok, because they only need to get through a car trip to NYC after graduation. There is not a lot of external plot to this story, although most of it seems to be provided by Harry’s and Sally’s best friends, who meet through Harry and Sally and end up dating. There are also the breakups between Harry and his wife and Sally and her boyfriend. They find themselves single at the same time and become friends. They learn to accept each other in spite of their hang-ups, and overcome all the reasons why they can’t be together.

Return to Me
Bob’s wife Elizabeth dies in a horrible accident, and becomes an organ donor. As Bob grieves, his emotional life falls apart. He is unable to move past Elizabeth’s death until he meets Grace at her grandfather’s restaurant. She is shy and charming, and he finds himself attracted to her. Unbeknownst to Bob, Grace is the transplant recipient of Elizabeth’s heart. So, while the courtship/plot moves on under the “supervision” of Grace’s grandfather and his meddling old friends, Bob’s internal conflict (risking his heart again) begins to resolve. But Grace realizes that she has Elizabeth’s heart, and knows she has to tell Bob. He fulfills her worst fears when he shows he is unable to deal with it, and she goes (runs) away to Italy to accomplish her own dream of painting in Europe. Then they both overcome their fears and insecurities and get together again.

With conflicts should come character growth. Or not – depending on the kind of book you write. Sometimes, a character just will not learn and grow from his experiences.

This is often true of the antagonist in a novel. The bad guy just doesn’t get it – doesn’t understand why he was defeated. It’s part of why he’s the bad guy. He has no empathy, no room for growth, no “emotional intelligence.”

Try thinking about your favorite books or movies and see if you can come up with the internal and external conflicts in the stories. The external ones are usually easy to spot… the internal ones… not so much.

Margo Maguire © 2011.

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