The essence of storytelling is conflict, the struggle between opposing forces. Conflict provides the motivation for your characters to act, to experience things they haven’t experienced before, to better understand who they are, and in some cases to evolve (or devolve) into someone different. Basically, without conflict you have no story.
Types of conflict are internal (Man vs Self) and external (Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, Man vs Machine, etc.). Most stories include several of these and the outcome is generally the resolution of the primary conflict.
Typically external conflict forces the characters to face some type of internal conflict with which the reader can empathize. Disaster movies are classic examples of this. Some great catastrophe occurs – a terrible storm, a devastating fire, a cruise ship flips upside down and begins to sink – which forces the characters to struggle with internal issues in order to survive. They must find emotional strength they didn’t realize they had. Or maybe they must face a phobia that has plagued them their entire lives. They might have to deal with a problem affecting a relationship or come to terms with the loss of a loved one. In some cases they may even have to resort to violence or act in a way that shakes their very moral fiber. Can they do it? Will they do it? This is what draws the reader in and holds his attention, what builds suspense, and what elicits an emotional reaction to the story.
Let’s look at an example of how external and internal conflicts affect the characters and can change the tone of the story.
Mary was at her teller window at the bank counter but her mind was elsewhere. Her husband had lost his job almost three months ago and her young son had been ill. The bills were piling up and their only source of income was her job. And then the rumors started that there would be layoffs at the bank, as well.
She spoke with the branch manager that morning and told him how much she needed this job. He said he understood and he would do what he could but it was really out of his hands. Of course, Mary knew that was BS. It may not be his decision on whether or not to lay off employees, but he would decide who was let go. And the fact of the matter was that he liked the younger women who worked there more than he liked her. He was always flirting with them and she had heard that he was “involved” with one of them. Mary knew that if any tellers were laid off she would be the first to go.
The more she thought about it the angrier she got. She despised her boss and was beginning to hate her job. If she thought she could find work somewhere else she’d walk out of the bank today and never look back. Then the worries about her job vanished as three men suddenly burst through the front door. They were wearing ski masks and dark overcoats. Two of them carried shotguns and the third had a large pistol that he pointed directly at her as he walked across the bank lobby.
“Do exactly as we say and nobody gets hurt,” the man shouted. He tossed several large bags on the counter and motioned at them with the gun. “Fill ‘em up and be quick about it. Anyone tries anything stupid, we start shooting.”
Okay, so Mary is definitely dealing with some internal conflict here – concern about the well-being of her family and, perhaps, some issues with self-esteem. This is compounded by the external conflict of possible layoffs at the bank. This is a tough situation and our hearts go out to her as we think about how we’d feel if we were in a situation like this. Then another external conflict, the bank robbers, changes Mary’s focus. It’s no longer about the job and what might happen in the future. Now it’s about the very real, very immediate threat of violence.
Next week we’ll continue our story and see how changes in conflict can affect the reader’s perspective and the intensity of the story. Will Mary’s internal conflict over her family’s issues affect her actions during the course of the robbery? Will the threat of violence give her an epiphany about her job and what is really important in her life? Will something happen during the robbery that will create even more conflict for poor Mary? Stay tuned…