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60 Ways to Create and Heighten Conflict
Why Do We Love Stories?
by: Ian Irvine
Stories dominate our daily lives, in books, movies, TV, games, jokes. Newspaper articles are called stories; even songs tell stories; even advertisements. But why do all humans crave stories? For many reasons, including escapism and to learn about life, but most of all to relate to the characters (Cleaver, Immediate Fiction).
Relating to the characters is what makes a story real, but how does this work? Relating means making an emotional connection, and the emotions we’re feeling when we read a story are the emotions of the characters (enhanced by our own lives and experiences). What they feel, we feel. The better the story, the more we lose ourselves in the lives of the characters and the more we become them, through identification.
Identification is why the reader reads and the writer writes. It’s our deepest social need and at the heart of all human interaction. We cannot identify with someone in a story unless their character is revealed to us, and revealing character should be the author’s main purpose. But how do we do it?
The Basics of Story Craft
In its purest form, a story consists of just three elements: conflict, action and resolution (Cleaver). Someone is faced with a problem (conflict) that he must struggle to overcome (action), and he either wins or loses (resolution).
CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
Conflict brings stories to life, though it isn’t important for what it is, but for what it does. What does it do? The answer to this question lies at the very heart of storytelling. Conflict forces characters to act in ways that reveal who they are – and nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their troubles.
When conflict exposes who a character really is, the reader is drawn in through identification. The more difficult the character’s choice, the more his true nature will be revealed. In great stories – Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Scarlett O’Hara; Frodo; Harry Potter – the heroes are forced to go all the way. The more pressure you put on your character, the more you make him reveal his true, inner self and the more powerfully your readers will identify with him.
So, stories are about adversity. Happiness can be the ending of the story, but it can’t be the story itself. Why not? Because happy characters don’t want to change. Happiness doesn’t force the characters to act and thus reveal themselves and, if the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.
To be forced to change, to act and reveal their innermost selves, characters need to be frustrated, desperate and at the end of their rope. The worse you make it for your characters the better it is for the reader. When the characters give all they’ve got, readers experience it deeply and powerfully.
To create true conflict, two things are needed: a want and an obstacle. Your protagonist must want something, and there must be an obstacle (the antagonist) that’s trying to stop her from getting what she wants (Ahab wants to kill the whale, the whale wants to kill Ahab).
Both the want and the obstacle must be strong and determined. If either is weak, it will be impossible to create a good story, no matter how much effort is put into writing it. A great story is driven by the energy and determination of both the protagonist and the antagonist. To put it another way (Cleaver):
WANT + OBSTACLE (CONFLICT) + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
Conflict is often misunderstood in fiction. A great story can’t be made from everyday conflict (bickering, abuse, arguments, fights etc). A great story requires dramatic conflict, that is, conflict related to the hero’s story goal – either furthering it or blocking it. A dramatic want and a dramatic obstacle are needed to create dramatic conflict.
A dramatic want arises when the character is desperate to make things change. She can’t stand this aspect of her life any longer, and has to act. If she can live with things the way they are, if she can turn away from what she wants and be no worse off, it’s a false want and will only create a false conflict.
A dramatic obstacle is one that is as determined to block or deny the want as the want is driven to deny the obstacle (Frodo is determined to take the ring to Mount Doom, Sauron is determined to stop him). If the character can ignore the obstacle and suffer no harm, it’s a false obstacle and there is no conflict, no drama and no story.
Sometimes the obstacle appears first, and only then does the character realise his want, eg the husband discovers his wife is cheating, the killer stalks the hero, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, the kid is abducted by aliens.
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