Conflict: The Ins and Outs
edited: Friday, March 08, 2002
By Richelle M Putnam
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2002
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Without conflict there is no story.
CONFLICT: THE INS AND OUTS by Richelle Putnam
Most people go to incredible lengths to avoid conflict. But not writers. Like crazed addicts, they search out serial killers or earth destroying comets. They place innocent young women into the hands of rapists, forcing them to stay until the last unnerving moment. They might even attempt to destroy the world. Why? Because conflict is the key to a successful story.
There are five basic conflict categories:
Character against God-made crises (nature, disease, and sickness)
Character against unknown (space, spirit world, fantasy)
Character against character (protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain)
Character against Society (law, government, religion, rules, authority)
Character against Self (insecurities, disabilities, physiological, emotional)
These can be further summarized into two categories--outer and inner.
OUTER CONFLICT: These are situations that occur OUTSIDE the character's mind, elements beyond his control. Examples are god-made crises, the unknown, society, murder, espionage, robbery, stalkers, rivalry, competitions, other characters, and so on. OUTER CONFLICT can cause INNER CONFLICT.
INNER CONFLICT: These are situations that occur INSIDE a character's mind, such as jealousy, envy, love, anger, hurt, fear, insecurity, phobias, rejection, and so on, elements within character's control. INNER CONFLICT also causes OUTER CONFLICT.
In THE BOOK OF RUTH by Jane Hamilton, we have character against character, and in SEIZE THE NIGHT by Dean Koontz, we find character against unknown.
Here's an example of an inner conflict that heightened into murder:
THE BOOK OF RUTH by Jane Hamilton, Houghton Mifflin, publisher, ISBN 0-395-866502
I swear when I looked into Ruby's eyes they were the yellow of a sky right before a fierce summer storm. He looked at me without seeing my face. He saw absolutely nothing but the blazing fire in his own mind. Perhaps I have it wrong and in Ruby's eyes there was only the reflection of my blind stare. We clawed at him; we clawed and snarled until Ruby grabbed the broom, the broom that was May's dancing partner sometimes. I had always thought it was a friendly object. He started to whack me with the handle. He whacked my face and my arms, coming down on me so that I put my hands on top of my head. After a few clumsy strokes I could see him looking around for something better.
For Ruby the outer conflict he and his wife, Ruth, continually faced was May (beyond his control), Ruth's harsh, overbearing mother. Ruby's inner conflict (which he couldve controlled) finally overcame, conquered, and utterly destroyed him and May.
Here's an example of an outer conflict:
SEIZE THE NIGHT by Dean Koontz, Bantam Books publisher, ISBN 0-553-58019-1
The very first page reads:
My name is Christopher Snow. The following account is an installment in my personal journal. If you are reading it, I am probably dead. If I am not dead, then because of the reportage herein, I am now-or soon will be-one of the most famous people on the planet. If no one ever reads this, it will be because the world as we know it has ceased to exist and human civilization is gone forever. I am no more vain than the average person, and instead of universal recognition, I prefer the peace of anonymity. Nevertheless, if the choice is between Armageddon and fame, I'd prefer to be famous.
For Christopher Snow, the outer conflict is his hometown Moonlight Bay (beyond his control), and the evil that lurks there.
In THE BOOK OF RUTH, Ruby doesn't start off as a murderer, but as a confused, weak man with many vices and insecurities. Page after page, May's verbal abuse drives him to murder. From the beginning, SEIZE THE NIGHT's Moonlight Bay is eerie and frightening, but until Christopher Snow confronts its terror and enters the depths of horror, it isn't really threatening.
So, what is happening here? First, conflict is introduced, then it heightens, progressively worsens, and as characters face it, they are either strengthened like Christopher or weakened like Ruby.
This is called "cause and effect." After overcoming one obstacle, another pops up even more complicated and challenging. This continues until the final conflict/climax, which seems insurmountable. And sometimes it is, as in Ruby's case. In Christopher's story, the goal is achieved and he becomes a stronger person in the process.
So, how do you not only create inner and outer conflict, but also heighten and maintain the pace until the final climax and story resolution? First, establish the ultimate goal and, once characters begin their quest, start hurling obstacles in front of them. This maintains the pace. Below is a very simple outline of progressive conflicts:
Goal: Teenager wants to sneak out and go to a party
Obstacle: Parents won't let her
Solution: She plans to sneak out the car
Obstacle: Her best friend who is spending the night, doesn't want to get into trouble
Solution: Main Character talks friend into going, saying they won't get caught and it'll be fun
Mounting Obstacle: Policeman stops car because girls are out after the twelve o'clock curfew
Mounting Solution: Main Character tells officer that her best friend is sick and wants to go home.
Intensifying Obstacle: After girls get to party, best friend feels uncomfortable because of drinking and drugs and wants to leave.
Intensifying Solution: Main Character decides to take her friend home and go back to the party.
Heightened Obstacle: On the way, main character, who has had too much to drink, runs off road. Car flips several times. Best friend is knocked out. Main character smells gasoline, and sees the small fire. Door is stuck. Main character panics. She kicks at crushed door. It won't open. She kicks at front window. It won't break. She screams and cries. Then, she calms and remembers that an automobile's side windows aren't as thick as the front window. She kicks and kicks her window. She feels the heat intensify. She kicks harder, harder. The glass cracks. She kicks. It cracks some more, until finally her foot crashes through. She grabs her best friend. The fire is crackling. Her arms ache trying to pull her injured friend out. Her head is whoozy from drink and fear. She cuts her arm on broken glass, but ignores it. She pulls and pulls until finally, she yanks her friend through the small window, dragging her away from the car, which is now engulfed in flames.
Heightened Solution: Friend in hospital, a small chance she might make it, but most probably she won't. Main character stays at hospital day after day dealing with guilt and regret. She speaks out against drinking and driving, losing many friends in the process
Climaxing Obstacle: All the friends she wanted to impress at the party mean nothing anymore. Even though they have showed up at her side now, she doesn't care. Only one person matters to her now. Her best friend. The one who had accepted her when others hadn't, and stood by her at any cost. She'll never forgive herself if her best-friend dies.
Final Resolution: Best-friend responds to treatment. Soon, she is sitting up, getting better day after day. The two are reconciled. Main character learns from her destructive behavior and grows from the experience.
A novel should consist of mini conflicts and climaxes, inner and outer, all possessing beginnings, middles, and ends, and all leading to the ultimate conflict, climax, and resolution. Nevertheless, don't rush from conflict to conflict. Your readers will become nervous wrecks. Use thoughts, narratives, descriptions, and flashblacks as a calming affect before going on to the next one.
In closing, no story can succeed without inner and outer conflict. Characters have to strive for something, and, as we all know, even in real life nothing comes easy. Readers long to struggle with characters, celebrating their successes, and crying over their losses. Struggles don't have to be riddled with blood and violence, but must be dramatic and moving. Endings need not be happy, but something that readers are not likely to ever forget.
Don't fear conflict. Confront it, tackle it, and then go on to the next one.
Copyright 2002 Richelle Putnam (richput.netdoor.com)
Conflict: The Ins and Outs has been published in the January 15th issue of Cyber-Journal.
This journal is only $12.00 per year, well worth that dollar per month for the amount of instruction and information on the art of writing.