What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

Think your story is falling a little flat? The problem might be that your conflict is too one-sided. The most interesting stories are always those that result from the complex interweaving of various threads of compounding conflict.

Anatomy of Story John TrubyIn his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby talks about “four-corner opposition”:

A simplistic opposition between characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story. For that, you need a web of oppositions.

 

He’s talking specifically about human antagonists and their conflicting goals and values, but the principle holds true for any type of obstacle placed between your protagonist his story goal. The more layered and complex the antagonistic forces headed your protagonist’s way, the more interesting, complicated, and resonant your story will be.

For a great example, we need look no farther than Steven Spielberg’s marvelous Jurassic Park, as we continue our impromptu summer series, mining its brilliance for our own nuggets.

What is the main antagonistic force in this story? The dinos, right? But at the beginning of the story, the dinosaurs aren’t an obstacle at all. They’re safely locked up behind park owner John Hammond’s spared-no-expense gazillion-volt electric fences. The paleontologist heroes and Hammond’s own grandkids can tour the park without any fear for their safety.

Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?

The key to this movie’s conflict is that it is brilliantly layered—and tensely foreshadowed—throughout its first half. The unique catastrophe that forms the heart of this story could only have happened thanks to several very distinct veins of conflict coinciding spectacularly—and lethally—at the story’s heart.

Consider the levels of conflict happening in this story:

1. Dangerous carnivorous dinosaurs have been engineered and trapped on an island with the protagonists.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

2. This island is in Central America—with a massive tropical storm approaching.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

3. Dennis Nedry, the disgruntled computer tech, needs to shut down the park’s control center and fence systems so he can steal InGen’s research and then escape.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

Had any one of those aspects of the conflict been missing, the dinos’ escape at the center of the movie would never have happened. Even if it had, the story would have missed out the complexity and the realism offered by the compounding conflict.

What’s the conflict looking like in your story? Is it all coming from a single direction? If so, take a moment to brainstorm possibilities for how to create compounding conflict that will raise the tension, excitement, and verisimilitude of your story on every single page!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some of the layers of compounding conflict in your story? Tell me in the comments!

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Excellent post. Your blog really makes me think. Thank you.

  2. I saw this movie when it first came out. What stood out for me then was how what one character would do would impact another, and in a way that did not seem like a stupid coincidence. Laura Dern had to turn the fences back on; she had no way of knowing that the little boy would be on it at the time. And Sam Neill and the kids HAD to go through that fence in order to get to safety. I loved, loved, loved that interlocking, because it’s such a departure from the lazy way that a lot of stories go. Now that I can see how the fence incident helped Neill’s arc, it’s all the better.

    This was a story where the writer thought “I need X to happen” and then thought of a sensible reason the characters would do X. The core of many terrible stories start with a writer saying “I need X to happen,” where X is something guaranteed to result in mischief, and then stops there, never ever thinking of why a rational human would do “X” in the first place. At the time I was excited that JP had more respect for its audience than that.

    I never caught the irony of “spare no expense” and “underpay Nedry.” At the time, I thought Nedry was a wayward son who Dad (Hammond) had to financially bail out once too often, and Hammond just didn’t want to anymore (at some point Nedry calls him “Dad”). I had thought that Hammond allowed Nedry on the project because he thought it would help him shape up. I thought he was a spoiled rich kid angry that Dad was making him work for the money and live within his means. The lesson I’d drawn was “nepotism: just say no” 🙂

    This is a great series. Looking forward to seeing what else I missed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That line in which Nedry calls Hammond “Dad” originally tripped me up too. But, especially due to the difference in last names, I don’t think a relation between them was the intention. I think the “Dad” was more sarcasm on Nedry’s part.

      • I always felt like that line added so much to the story. Because of the different last names, I figure Nedry was raised by his mother with an absent rich father. Hammond at some point felt guilty for abandoning him and hired him. But Nedry never forgave his father for all the years of abandonment. Stealing the InGen eggs… (was it eggs? Trying to remember) Anyhow, stealing them was payback and entitlement all in one. Nedry felt he was OWED. Just my thoughts.

      • did you notice that, by playing with ‘nedry’ you’d get the stereotipical ‘ nerdy’?

    • Garrett says:

      What an astute observation, I don’t know if I ever thought of it that way. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Great article. I will be going back to my outline and reviewing it to make sure the conflict doesn’t fall flat. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great thing to focus on in the outlining stages. If we can get it right there, the whole book comes together more easiy.

      • I remember catching that line when I first saw the movie too. I liked the snarky sarcasm from Nedry from Hammond’s ill-fated quote “I don’t blame people for their mistakes. But I do ask that they pay for them.” It foreshadows his humbling from the over-the-top confidence in the illusion of control and power.

        I also love how the film portrays Nedry with little extras at his desk. He complains how his work is under appreciated – how it takes time and money. All the while he’s slouched back, guzzling a soda and a game of chess clearly on one of his computer screens. He was the embodiment of the park’s downfall in greed, sloth, and hubris.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          He’s also a nice dichotomy: since he’s obviously a genius and yet he’s a disgusting, whiny slob.

  4. LaDonna Ockinga says:

    Your blog is so incisive at analyzing how to tell a story well. Because of it I just bought structuring your novel and highly recommend it. From one Nebraska girl to another, you are a joy to read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great to hear! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Outlining Your Novel!

  5. Katie–
    The discussion is focusing on ways to complicate a central plotline, the release of the dragon, in this case raptors. But another way to complicate things is through subplots. By creating conflicts that aren’t directly related to the central plot, everything at stake becomes more nuanced. In my soon-to-be-released suspense novel, Deep North, four women go fishing, and two men with very bad intentions follow them. By developing the relationships among the four women, I think I’ve succeeded in deepening and strengthening the disaster-in-the-making of the central plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. This is actually a great litmus test for subplots: if they’re not complicating or compounding the main conflict in some way, then they’re probably too extraneous to belong in the book.

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  1. […] What is the main antagonistic force in this story? The dinos, right? But at the beginning of the story, the dinosaurs aren’t an obstacle at all. They’re safely locked up behind park owner John Hammond’s spared-no-expense gazillion-volt …read more […]

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