In real life, I think of myself as preferring to avoid conflict when I can, but conflict is the engine that drives story. As a writer, I need conflict—and if you write, you do too.
The thing is, I say “conflict” and you think action film shootout or chick flick heated argument over relationships—and then say, “but my story isn’t about that sort of brawling or whining.” So let’s look at what conflict can be, beyond the fistfight or name-calling.
At its core, conflict explores the gap between expectation or desire and reality. Even the most unsubtle mayhem in suspense novels can be understood as bridging the gap between how one character expects or wants his or her opponents to act versus how those other actually respond. But conflict can come from something as non-personal as a late April snowstorm in Illinois, weather that flies in the face of what one would expect for that time of year. Drama, romance, comedy—they all depend on conflict to give the characters reason to act.
Conflict, defined as the tension or gap between the expected or desired and the actual, plays important roles in other artistic endeavors also. The impact of many striking photographs depends on some subversion of what you’d expect to see. In music, the clash of dissonance sets up a tension that leaves listeners waiting in expectation of an eventual resolution. Fiber art, sculpture and illustrations in many media all create interest through the tensions generated by using unexpected imagery or unusual juxtapositions.
In fact, that sort of conflict plays a valuable role in making factual as well as fiction writing more compelling. If text you’ve developed for a company website or the press release you’ve written for a product or service lacks appeal, you may need to find a conflict that can bring this information to life. For publicity to announce a commercial venture, try using some variation on the sequence: expected condition, undesirable reality, solution offered. When writing up special events for nonprofit groups, I’ve often set up a common expectation that I can contrast with the activity or attitudes of the group and its members.
If you’ve been paying attention here, you’ll have noticed that I set up a conflict right at the opening of this essay by announcing that I think of myself as avoiding conflict but I need it as a writer. I put a second level of conflict in play immediately after, by introducing the idea that conflict in writing may not be what we think of when we hear about conflict in real life.
Writing challenge: Can you identify the conflicts in the last thing you’ve written? Did you recognize these as important when you were writing? Can you think of different conflict(s) that might work better—or other layers of conflict that would add depth?