Why we need more conflict…

…or what we really need from a story.

I read the other day that many aspiring and novice writers tend to avoid the very thing that makes a story interesting.  When these moments, the moments where characters at cross purposes cross paths, are what we read for.

The conflict.  The tension.  The argument.  The fight.  The physical war.  The silent war.

We read for the exchange of glares and stares with set jaw, thin lips, narrowed eyes, boiling blood, red face, quickened pulse, and perspiring palms.  What will happen next?  We must know because the characters we like are struggling with what  they need versus what they have.

We read for the break up and reconciliation.  We read for the beginning and end of a battle.  We read for a naive character gaining wisdom.  We read for the prideful character finding humility.  We read for the pursuit, loss, and rediscovery of love.  We read for the saving of the world or the saving of a family.  We read for the hero to triumph and the villain to fall.  We read for small victories and great victories.  We read for things to change.

We don’t want to read about happy characters making a great living where their boss and co-workers idolize them.  We don’t want to read about characters with loving and supportive spouses and high-achieving and obedient children living the dream in the suburbs with the annual vacation to the timeshare in Lake Tahoe.  We don’t want to read about the well-adjusted character who was raised by kind, wise, and affectionate parents, who provided everything and the character lacked for nothing and faced no adversity in their childhood.

As much as we want and aspire to some of these things in our lives, why wouldn’t we want to read about characters that have it all and can just cruise through life without any ill winds blowing their way?

Because it’s boring.

Stories are not meant to lull us into a false sense of the ideal life around us.  A story is a window into a setting where characters struggle for what they want and fight for what they need.  Story is drama.

Dictionary.com defines drama as “…a story involving conflict or contrast of character…”

Think back to your favorites books or even movies.  What happened?  Did someone just cruise through a perfect life with no problems?  Or did things go wrong from the beginning and the entire story was about trying to set it right or at least to achieve some form of equilibrium?

So, when a writer tries to tell a story by emulating what we want in real life, he misses the whole point of telling a story.  There must be a difficult and challenging path for the characters and it is the writer’s job to provide those obstacles and really push the characters to overcome.  Because it through that process of overcoming that we as readers truly identify with the characters we like most.  We share their journey through the ups and downs and can experience the highs and lows we may not normally find in real life.

Very few of us will sneak through an orc encampment in the heart of an evil nation to toss a ring into a molten lake inside a mountain like Frodo did in Lord of the Rings.  But, we were right there with his every faltering step, his every burden, his struggle against Gollum, and the weight of the ring itself on his soul.  We won’t do that in life, but we did it through a story.

So, next time you read a story, relish the conflict, the drama, the tension.  The author worked hard to make life difficult for the characters so that they could learn and grow from their experiences.

And if the writer does his job well, and you as reader identify with a particular character and a particular struggle, then you may just learn a little bit about yourself.

And isn’t that really why we read stories?


9 responses to “Why we need more conflict…

  • Nick Taylor

    Sweet post! definitely makes me want to go put in the extended version of the “Lord of the Rings”!

  • katneal

    Very true, however writing the conflict is what is difficult. It is easy a pie to write a good life, but very difficult to write a conflict driven life. My feeling are if it is easy to write, if it does not help me grow as a writer, why write it?

  • Mom

    I love reading your insights into writing. They are so interesting. You’d make a great teacher in college.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    Well said. Not so much for the argument that we need conflict (a truth, yes, but it was news to me that it’s a controversial one, I guess; I took it as a given) but more for the many great examples of what constitutes an interesting conflict. There’s a lot of possibilities there, a lot of depth.

  • MJT

    Yes, it is true that for most readers and writers we “get” the idea that a story is made up of conflict. I was surprised, however, in reading an article on writing that the author called out novice writers for spending so much time depicting mundane actions of their characters instead of really focusing on maximizing the conflict. This was a minor light bulb for me, at least. The author pointed out that some beginning writers tread too lightly around conflict in their fiction because of the tendency for us to avoid conflict in real life.

    A wake up call for me to at least watch for that in my own works.

    • Stephen A. Watkins

      A worthwhile point. Rather makes me consider the standard fantasy opening that sets us in an idealized pastoral setting – one virtually devoid of conflict – before introducing the main conflict and setting the hero out on whatever quest. But an idealized pastoral setting needn’t be devoid of conflict (indeed perhaps shouldn’t); it’s just that the conflicts will be of a less epic scale…

      I remember, for instance, the opening of LotR has some tension already revolving around the ring, and what Bilbo will do with it. Or the opening of Eye of the World in which there is some tension and excitement between many of the various characters.

      • MJT

        There is a broad lanscape of conflict that can be tilled, planted, and harvested by the writer. I believe the story and characters deserve the best possible treatment and that is often done by giving them really hard things to overcome. And that is just the outer conflict. We need our characters to have an inner conflict or emotional, spiritual, or intellectual struggle that parallels and intersects and often overlaps the outer or external conflict. If destroying the One Ring is Frodo’s outer conflict, his inner conflict may be dealing with the loss of innocence or the will to overcome despite getting more help from his enemy, Gollum, than from his friend, Sam.

      • Stephen A. Watkins

        Agreed. Especially when working in the novel format, the conflicts have to be many and layered. A single over-arching conflict is insufficient to make the plot and story interesting for that long.

  • Bryan

    Bravo! Can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. I think your abso-poso-frigin-lutely right. The last line hit home, “And isn’t that why we really read stories?” Thanks for this article Mark.

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