In Pursuit of Conflict

Monday, January 17, 2022

In my personal and even professional life, I tend to be a little conflict-averse. You won't exactly find me running into the open arms of conflict with my heart wide open. I don't seek it, look for it, and find ways to generate it. However, when it comes to my own writing, I look for it constantly. 

As I have shared recently, I recently found a new way to revise my stories and I found a hitch in the giddy-up of the story I'm working on as a result. You see, there's not enough conflict. The problem I haven't figured out what my character really wants quite yet. I've explored areas that could reveal what her wants might possibly be, but none so far have felt right. This has left me wondering what could that want be and what could get in the way of her having it. 

In most books that talk about writing, they usually talk about a character needing a want or motivation or a goal of some kind, and then something gets in the way of that want or motivation to complicate it, thus generating some conflict. I know this, and yet, I haven't quite nailed down my character enough to find out what's her biggest want, goal, or motivation.

I love examples, and to help myself resolve them, I've thought of some conflict that has come up in my favorite movies. Here are a couple of conflict examples:

Take Office Space for example. Peter's want? Well, he doesn't like his job and he doesn't want to work there anymore. What complicates it? Well, he gets hypnotized into not caring whether he loses his job or not. That's all well and good until his friends who LIKE that job might end up losing theirs, and he ends up keeping his (and even being promoted) despite all his efforts otherwise. If you've seen the movie, you know it gets even more complicated after that. You wonder to yourself as the viewer, how will he get out of his job? How will he help his friends? And so on.

Another movie that's one of my favorites is Beauty and the Beast (I'm thinking of the Disney version). Belle's want? To get out of her small French village and have romance and adventure with someone's that isn't a total jerk. What complicates this? Well, her father gets lost in the woods, and then ends up trapped in a castle. Then she goes to find him and then becomes trapped in the castle herself. So now she isn't even stuck in a small village, she's stuck in a castle with an angry beast. You wonder: How will she get out of the castle? What will happen to her? 

The thing is about conflict is that it isn't just about what happens to the character, I'm realizing that you need to believe that it matters to the character what is happening. It isn't enough that the character is passively experiencing this moment. Like in Office Space, you know that Peter wants to get out of his job but he also wants to help out his friends. The reader has to accept that what is happening to the character has just made it worse for them. Whatever is happening is making it harder for that character to get what they want.

So, I'm not any further along than when I started this post, but maybe as I pursue different conflict scenarios for my character, I'll figure out just the right one to help fit my story. 

How do you figure out the right conflict and complications for your story?


Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--I think you need to surrender yourself to your character/lose your focus until you've immersed yourself in your character. Then your character will tell you what they need/desire. If you're a Seinfeld fan, you might remember an episode with Elaine and Mr. Pitt. Mr. Pitt was desperately trying to see the "secret image" in a large picture/painting. To see the secret image, one had to unfocus their eyes, and the image would be revealed. The only advice I have is veg out, and just contemplate--but not too seriously--your character. Casual thought (beating around the bush) might bring about a realization. Maybe sketching your character (even if you're not a talented "artist") or thinking about what's in her purse might help. Do you drink? Have a drink or two, and get together with some friends. Toss around some ideas.

This is one idea that has (strangely) worked for me, even though I scoffed at it when I first heard it. Write a letter to an imaginary (or a real) critic--a critic who doesn't like your writing. Imagine what they look like (the critic, that is). In your letter, tell the critic about your project (story/manuscript) and your character. You know more than you think you know. This one also works: go out with a friend for a walk. Walk and talk. Talk about your character, your writing. For some weird reason, the physical act of walking jolts the brain into action.

Nicole, I wish you luck. I think once you crack open your character and see their vulnerability, the character will start talking to you... and the words will flow.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Good suggestions from Sioux!

Something else that has worked for me is to write a letter from my character to me. I ask, "At X point in the story, what is the one things you wish I knew? What am I missing?"

Something interesting always comes up.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Ah...finding conflict. I think of a day around the old Hall House, Nicole. A quiet day where everything goes smoothly is kinda boring (which honestly, would be nice, to have a boring day). But things rarely go smoothly--something always happens and then bam. DRAMA.

Something has to happen so it's not boring, and usually that something is an obstacle of some sort. Banish the boring and you'll find your conflict!

Angela Mackintosh said...

"If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, why don’t you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?" Lol! I love Office Space. :)

You mentioned a character should want something, and that's what I realized was wrong with my early creative nonfiction. Things happened to me and I reacted and there was conflict, but it wasn't clear what the narrator truly wanted, and that's so important to the reader because it gives them something to root for and they are more invested.

Years ago WOW interviewed author Adair Lara, and she has a formula that I still use today! It's for nonfiction, but you can fill it out from your character's perspective:

I wanted _____.

I wanted it because _____ (backstory). (This is where character comes in.)

To get it, I _____ (action).

However, something got in my way: _____.

I had to try something different, so I _____. (There may be several action-reaction sequences, depending on length.)

All the time I was thinking that _____.

The turning point came when _____.

When that happened, I realized _____ (the point of the story and what you realize are the same thing).

Resolution: After that I _____ (what you did as a result of your realization).


I found this exercise super helpful. You might want to try it with your protagonist in your new and existing stories and see what you come up with or if anything is missing.

I'm glad you're working on your story revisions! I'm in the midst of revision as well and I do believe it's where the real writing happens. :)

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