Do you know what kind of conflict really drives a story?
June 11, 2016
WRITERS KNOW what makes the engine of a novel run even before they sit down and type out their first words for a new story.
We wade through wide rivers, jumping from one conflict to another as if they were stepping stones left in angry currents.
But do we get it right?
Do we really know what conflict is?
Sure, one character is mad at another.
But is that enough?
Sure, life is unfair when a boss yells at his employee, or a first date leaves a widower alone at the coffee bar, or the detective receives a mandate to meet with Internal Affairs, or a spy forgets to come in from the cold.
But does a reader care?
Spats are commonplace in real life.
Spats are commonplace in novels.
If spats are the best conflict you have, all you are doing is convincing readers to quietly close the pages on your novel and run back to Amazon to look for another story.
I was reading a blog last week and came across the words of noted author Laurie Johnson. She wrote: “Basing conflicts on a misunderstanding, something that could be solved if only the characters were to have a simple conversation, is unsatisfying for the reader and something we see time and again from newer authors.
“All stories will have conflicts set out by the plot for the characters to overcome, the peaks and troughs of the journey the characters go on. These external conflicts may be necessary to move a story along, but it’s not what keeps a reader itching to turn the pages.
“The most satisfying stories also have the main characters dealing with their own internal emotional conflicts — something that is specific to them, that keeps them from the love interest, that makes the case they’re working on personal, that stops the quest they’re on from being easy. This internal conflict is what emotionally involves the reader in the story, in rooting for the character, and seeing the character conquer this in the end is what makes for the most exciting and enticing stories.
“The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page.”
As Laurie says, external conflicts may be necessary to a story.
But they aren’t critical.
In Night Side of Dark, I tried early on to establish the raw emotional scars behind the internal conflict that drove Ambrose Lincoln.
Had it ruined him?
But for better or worse, it made him the man he became.
Thoughts of her had been rattling around in the misplaced fragments of his mind long before Ambrose Lincoln crawled out of the darkness and heard the clatter of steel grinding against steel as the train knifed its way through the gray side of a dark night. No moon. No stars. No scattered shards of light on the land outside. All Lincoln saw were forms and shapes and shadows, and only the shadows concerned him. He did not trust the shadows.
Shadows carried guns.
One had shot him.
But that was long ago.
Or had it ever happened at all?
And why did his chest hurt in the bitter cold of winter, and why did he carry the ragged scar of a scalpel across his chest, and why couldn’t he remember why someone had wanted him dead, or had he merely been an innocent bystander in a Netherworld where no one was innocent or a bystander?
They had taken his mind.
They had removed his memory.
A man without a memory is a man who fears nothing.
That’s what the doctors said.
That’s what the doctors told him each time the electrodes touched the tattered nerve endings of his brain, each time the worn purple switch sent jolts of electricity racing down the dark tunnels of everything he had known in life and could not find anymore. The electricity had wiped it all clean.
You fear nothing.
And no one.
Not even death
Regardless of what external conflicts Ambrose confronted, regardless of his assignment, regardless of the battle that lay in front of him, he would forever be a prisoner of the emotional conflict that once upon a time had defined his life.