What is story anyway? We could explain it in any number of ways, but it’s hard to come up with anything pithier or more accurate than the old saw: No story conflict, no story. If we flip that on its head, we could just as easily say: Story=conflict.
Why? Obviously, conflict is pretty entertaining on its own merits. Whether we’re talking mega action scenes on the big screen or a whispered argument overheard in a bistro, it doesn’t take much in the way of conflict to rivet most human beings.
But surely, you say, entertainment value isn’t enough in itself to qualify as a story? And you’d be right. Conflict doesn’t create story based solely on its merits of sheer entertainment. Conflict creates stories because it creates the uncertain, rock-strewn, life-altering path the character must tread between his goal and its resolution.
Take a look.
Where Does Your Story Begin?
Every story opens with a goal. Somebody (or somebodies) wants something.
- The bad guy wants to blow up the Empire State Building.
- The heroine wants to reconcile with her estranged husband.
- The hero wants to make peace with his role in the death of a brother-in-arms.
Some of these will be plot goals (e.g., kill the bad guy and save the world). Some of these will be thematic goals (e.g., find the inner courage to let go of the past and face the future). All of them will drive your story forward.
They represent a destination toward which your characters are headed. Without that destination in view, your story will wander aimlessly, your readers will have nothing to anticipate, and your plot will fall flat (something I discuss in more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel).
Your characters’ goals will evolve throughout your story. The protagonist may not even know about the bad guy in the beginning. Or he may later decide he doesn’t really want to kill the bad guy after all. But the goals you set up in the first chapter will always be the ones that influence and frame the entire story to follow.
Where Does the Story Conflict Come In?
So you’ve figured out your characters’ big plot and theme goals. Now what? Does he just make up his mind to get ’er done—and then do it? Maybe. But for the sake of your story, let’s hope not. The moment your character reaches his story goal, the story ends.
And that is where story conflict comes into play. Conflict is all about not giving your characters what they want. We often think of story conflict as being a personal altercation between two people. A better definition of story conflict is that it is an obstacle that stands in the way of your character’s accomplishing his goal.
- A flash flood washes out the bridge he needs to cross to get to his daughter’s dance recital? Conflict.
- A slimy informant gives him only half the information he needs to find the drug kingpin? More conflict.
- He gets a concussion and forgets the password to get into the super secret spy base for his latest debriefing? Ta-da! More conflict.
Goals and Story Conflict on the Scene Level
The main thrust of your story will center around whatever large-scale conflict is preventing your character from reaching his main story goal. But story conflict will also play out, on a smaller scale, in every single scene.
To reach his overall story goal, your character must enact many smaller goals. If his overall goal is to track down and kill the hideous swamp monster, he will have to break down that goal into smaller chunks.
- Assemble his equipment.
- Learn the necessary tactics to fight a swamp monster.
- Get permission from his superior officer to go on his quest.
And so on.
Every one of these goals must be met with conflict. Some of these story conflicts the character will overcome. Some will stymie him completely. Most will push him sideways. He won’t be defeated exactly, but his straight path to the accomplishment of his overall story goal will turn into a twisty, turny mess.
And, just like that, you have yourself an interesting story.
Where Does Your Story End?
Once your character accomplishes his overall goal, the story is over. His plight probably won’t be perfect. Conflict will still exist in many areas of his life. But the main conflict—the one you introduced in the first chapter—has been capped.
- He’s killed the bad guy
- She’s reconciled with her husband
- He’s found peace and learned to forgive himself.
The resistance—the conflict—he pushed against throughout the story is now gone. Without that resistance, both the entertainment value and the meaning of the story disappear. Author and characters must both make their bows and exit stage left—to much audience applause, of course. Thanks to all that appropriately wielded story conflict, you just gave them one heck of a show.