Conflict, Plot Lines, and The Devil Wears Prada

Sunday, April 16, 2017
I teach interpersonal communication, and love the chapter on conflict because of the way it applies to plot lines. One of my favorite assignments is to have students keep a "conflict log" for a week, and then select one example and analyze it.

Most of my students have jobs in the restaurant or retail industry, and/or siblings, which account for many of the conflicts. One of my favorite stories was about the creative way in which a student resolved the scarcity of resources dilemma (same goal) with her brother regarding a bag of peas that included him driving her to the store late at night to replace it. The dialog alone made me laugh out loud. Conflict drove that story, turning it into a funny essay that should be published.

There are three common causes of interpersonal conflict: misunderstandings, different goals, and same goals. Each can propel a story.

Misunderstanding: Caused by a simple miscommunication, lack of communication, or poor listening.

After my daughter's recent wedding, I volunteered to take her friend to the airport. She was staying at my daughter's condo, and I drove there to pick her up. But, she had driven to my workplace, and called me just as I was pulling into my daughter's driveway. I barely had enough time to drive back, take her to the airport, and return to work. This misunderstanding caused tension, and the question, "Would I make it back to work on time?" is a plot device we've seen in every movie that has a bomb with a timer, and some involving a pregnant woman. (Will she make it to the hospital on time?) That tension makes us turn pages, or stay engaged.

Different goals: Many romantic comedies feature couples with different goals, and the conflict drives the story as we wonder whether or not they can work it out.

For instance, The Devil Wears Prada plot focuses on a "glamourous" job in the fashion industry, but conflict arises from the goals not shared by Anne Hathaway and her boyfriend. He is unhappy about the time she spends on the job, with little time left for their relationship. He wants her, she wants the job. Different goals.

Same goals: Two people want the same thing. Scarcity of resources.

Same movie, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt had the same goal, to be the essential assistant to Meryl Streep. In the beginning, we watch Blunt navigate the job smoothly as Anne flounders, but then the tables turn. Each resents the other while competing to get in the good graces of their boss. One job, two people. We've also seen this plot when two women compete for the same man, or vice versa.

So, the next time your plot is stagnant, consider conflict. Or, try keeping your own conflict log to see if you can spot any plot lines that might turn into a great story. And, if you take my class, you'll get credit for it!


Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She also teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I've read, and reread this post, and it's gotten me thinking. Are there spots in my WIP that drag? I hope not. However, I'm revising it (and correcting a tense change-of-mind) so I'll keep the need for tension in mind.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Every story needs conflict--even if it's just inner conflict. I'm reading through some flash right now and the stories without conflict just read like a slice of life. Thanks for great examples, Mary. I like how you highlight miscommunication, which is something I don't automatically think about as conflict, but it definitely can be! :)

Mary Horner said...

Sioux, I've read some of your work and it's terrific! I don't think you have that problem. But I think setting up conflict is just one way to move a story forward, and it's something I struggle with, so usually I write about topics I need help with. These posts are like my own therapy/reminder/lesson all rolled into one! I also like having a conversation about it with thoughtful writers like you who offer a different perspective. Thank you!

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Angela! I have learned a lot about writing and telling stories through teaching communication because there are so many parallels (the interconnectedness of all things!). Humans have many issues, and communication is just one of them, so the good news is I don't think writers will ever run out of material!

Margo Dill said...

I like how you explained the three types of interpersonal conflict. Useful for fiction writers!

Renee Roberson said...

Nice examples! I absolutely love the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" even though I've never read the book. I should put that on my list. I read and write YA, and so many conflicts in that type of literature are caused by misunderstanding! Also like the way you explain the "same goals." I've never thought about it causing issues in that way besides in a love triangle :-)

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Margo and Renee for your comments! Margo, I've found a lot of examples regarding conflict that are applicable to fiction, which is so much fun exploring. And Renee, I hadn't thought about "same goals" that way either until reading about interpersonal communication. I have a friend of a friend who is a conflict mediator, and I would love to pick her brain for plot ideas!

Pat Wahler said...

Mary, I'm in process of revising a manuscript. Your advice is timely and gives me something else to check as I'm going through it.

Linda O'Connell said...

You are so right. Some of my most humorous writing has evolved from conflict based on misunderstanding. Great article!

Mary Horner said...

Pat, it seems like there's always one more thing to check before finishing a manuscript, I guess that's why it takes so long! And Linda, your humor writing is great, you figured this a long time ago!

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