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.