Six impossible things


One of the supposed truisms of writing is that a good plot must have conflict. And while this is, in fact, true, I’ve seen it misinterpreted so many times that I thought I’d talk about it a little.

The problem always seems to come in the definition of “conflict.” We hear that word so often on the news that in many people’s minds it seems to have become irretrievably associated with violent physical conflict between two or more people. And since there are a good many folks who don’t want to write about violence or physical conflict, the near-universal insistence on conflict as a part of story can become an insurmountable obstacle.

But as I’ve said before, there are more kinds of conflict than the straightforward physical I-punch/stab/shoot-you, you-punch/stab/shoot-me sort. Emotional conflict is frequently far more powerful, story-wise, than physical conflict; social/political conflict can be just as gripping (and can also be far easier for a reader to identify with, as it’s far more common in most people’s daily lives than being punched, stabbed, or shot at).

More and more, though, I’ve come to believe that the thing some folks can’t wrap their brains around isn’t the definition or the possible types of conflict; it’s the word itself. It just carries too much emotional freight. Also, it is inaccurate.

Stories do not require conflict in order to be effective. What they do require is struggle – steadily increasing effort on the part of the protagonist to overcome one or more obstacles, whether internal or external.

A two-block walk to the grocery store isn’t a struggle for most people, and therefore doesn’t make for a terribly interesting story. Put some obstacles in the way – serious ones that the protagonist is going to have considerable trouble overcoming – and it becomes a lot more interesting.

And that’s where the trouble begins. The first obstacle that occurs to most writers is usually another person – a gang of bullies after the protagonist’s lunch money; a mugger in an alley; a kidnapper; a robber holding the store clerk at gunpoint. If the author is really going for something big, they’ll set the scene in a war zone somewhere, so that the two block walk becomes a matter of dodging bullets, mines, or bombs.

But that two-block walk can be just as dramatic (and perhaps even more powerful) if the obstacle the protagonist faces is not another person. You can make a perfectly good story out of an agoraphobe taking his first trip outside his home in ten years, or from the first post-accident walk by someone trying out her new artificial leg, or even from someone dreading they’ll screw up on their first day at a desperately needed job working at the grocery store.

The key words are obstacle and struggle. An obstacle is something that the protagonist is going to have serious trouble getting past. Again, people are the most common, but there are plenty of others. An animal, a memory, an emotion, extreme weather (such as a hurricane or tornado or blizzard), difficult terrain, physical incapacity…there are plenty of things to choose from.

The second point is that getting past the obstacle has to be difficult for the protagonist. Years ago, my then-husband and I went on vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Our second morning, we were hiking in the backwoods when we reached a rock face of maybe ten feet. My husband climbed it easily; I got stuck halfway and could not make further progress. My husband was five inches taller than I was; the handhold that he could reach to get past that point was a good four inches beyond my absolute farthest ability to stretch. What was barely an obstacle at all for him was an insurmountable block for me.

Which brings me to the next point: the reader has to understand just how difficult the obstacle is for the protagonist, and why. This is, I think, one of the main reasons most people opt for physical violence/conflict as their struggle-of-choice – they don’t have to worry about explaining why it’s hard or dangerous for their protagonist. If I’d left out the next-to-last sentence in the paragraph above, everyone would have gone “Huh?” Because without knowing about the five-inch height differential, there seems to be no reason why I should have gotten stuck when he didn’t. Unless the reader knows that the protagonist is an agoraphobe or a desperate new hire, the walk to the grocery store won’t seem particularly tense to the reader even if the protagonist is flinching at every bush. The story might work anyway – giving people a mystery (“Why is this guy acting so scared?”) can be as good as giving the protagonist an obstacle, if the payoff is right – but the chances are a lot lower.

  1. I like the distinction between “conflict” and “struggle” and agree. The use of the word struggle makes far more sense when viewed in terms of short stories that may involve just one person (I’m picturing especially scifi where the protagonist may be the only one onboard).

    This discussion also explains why I find movies/plots more satisfying when the heroes’ success comes from within rather than without. As an example, in both Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the villain dies and the heroes live happily ever after. But in the latter, the characters come to a resolution of their conflict beyond just their struggle with the villain (who actually distracts, in some ways, from the real story), while in the former the need to defeat the villain is the only real conflict.

  2. An excellent post.

    I’ve been considering this problem myself a lot lately, in regards to romance novels. Thanks to my writing group, I now have much more contact with romance novels than I did previously. And at least one of the romance writers in my group has been accused of being ‘averse to conflict,’ and really, even more than an action novel, a romance novel thrives on conflict.

    For me, the protagonists’ struggle in society or legality or through trumped up ‘bandits on the way to the grocery store’ is never going to be interesting. A romance novel that I like is a story about two people getting over themselves enough to manage to deal with each other. The external conflict should dramatize and make crisis points for the internal struggle. But it’s never the external issues that are the real story arc.

    Of course, now I’m considering a romance between the agoraphobe and desperate-for-employment grocery store clerk. Hmmm.

  3. Great post. It’s so true that what is an obstacles depends a lot on who is facing them -and that memories can be major obstacles. I think that’s an especially easy one to forget.

  4. The grocery store reference brought to mind Bujold’s ‘Memory’, where the protagonist does have to walk to the grocery store on his unfamiliar home planet, while being unsure how his fellow citizens are going to react to his ‘mutant’ stature. It’s a wonderful, tense, funny sequence.

  5. Thank you! Obstacles and struggles. I’m one of those who think that conflict isn’t the right word. Now I have two that will help me improve my writing (this tends to be the weak area in my novels).

    • Cara – Yep; for category romances, the genre itself pretty much requires that the emotional plot arc be the center of the story, just as for murder mysteries, solving the crime is the required central plot arc. Lots of other stuff can go in, but it’s not actually necessary.

      Chicory – It’s easy to forget any of the possible emotional, internal obstacles if one is focused on the external action plot. The opposite is also true, but it seems to happen less often.

      Mary – The thing I love about that scene is the way it illustrates just how much society on that planet has changed while Miles has been off having adventures…and how little he is aware of it.

      Alex – Murphy’s Law tends to be a terriffic generator of obstacles. Unfortunately, this seems to work in real life just as well as it does in fiction… 😉

  6. Excellent: cutting through the haze like a foghorn.

    I have an unexpected one at the moment – two aging, almost crazily heroic characters, each needed in separate desperate situations, but neither weighing death very heavy in the pan for itself. From this thirty-year reunion of theirs, though, the King of Terrors still picks his way to obstruct them:

    “Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.”

    Some obstacles are worse to step around than to face. Useful, those lads can be!

  7. Pushed along this way by Lois’s MySpace link.

    Nicely put.

    Have you read McKinley’s “Beauty”? She did it so well that it was several years before I realized there was no (on-screen) antagonist. I can excuse my lack of notice only by saying I was about 15 when I first read it.

    • Gray – What you said.

      Harimad – Yes, I’ve read “Beauty.” And I don’t think you need to excuse anything; when an author does something that really works well, it generally isn’t noticeable unless the reader goes looking for it. And it shouldn’t be, unless one is writing something that’s deliberately meant to show off one’s technical mastery.

  8. Thanks! I’ve always had trouble with the requirement that stories have ‘conflict’ and you very neatly identify why. Struggle is much more apt, and for me that struggle is often toward finding the answer to questions raised in the story.

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