Five types of conflict

I was reading Save the Cat! Strikes Back by Blake Snyder.  It’s geared toward screenwriters, but it holds a lot of great advice for any story creator out there.  Along with his original Save The Cat! book, I’d call it essential reading for any story writer.

On page 36, Snyder writes:

Conflict offers more challenge, especially when you’re having a hard time finding it in your scenes.  How many scenes have conflict in a 110-page screenplay?  That’s right.  Every.  Single.  One.  And yet finding that conflict in all scenes isn’t easy.  During an early class, the wonderful writer/actress Dorie Barton was working out cards for her L.A. thriller, Migraine, and we had a scene wherein the protag, a waitress hampered by severe headaches, explains to her boss what a “migraine” is.  It’s pure exposition, and the scene just lay there.  Why?  No conflict!  Well, to fix that, we shoved some conflict in.  We created a customer who, while the hero goes on explaining her condition, keeps banging on the counter.  “Miss!  More coffee over here!  Miss!  MISS!”  The forced conflict of that scene makes it play better – and reinforces the pained look on the hero’s face as her migraine builds.

stcsb I’m currently working on a fantasy novel, and I can now easily see why some of my scenes are boring.  No conflict!  Or at least not enough conflict.  I’m an outline-the-story-first writer, and as I look over my notes for my current fantasy novel, I see lack of conflict in many of my scene outlines as well.  For example, the point of one scene is: “The queen shows the old man that the telescope has been destroyed.”  The point of another scene is: “A man tells the queen that his village has been destroyed.”  Another scene: “The wizard arrives at the castle.”  I think these are fine descriptions for an outline; these things need to happen for the plot to move forward, and to give readers the necessary information to understand the plot.  But the purposes of these scenes are completely expository.  They only exist so that certain characters and/or readers will get certain information.  If I go to write these scenes with just these purposes in mind, I will be a bit bored as a writer, I will write a boring scene, and readers will also be bored.

The solution, of course, is to add conflict.

I could of course just do this naturally without thinking much about it, as I’m sure many writers do.  But I wanted to see if I could identify exactly what types of conflict a scene might have.  In school, I learned to identify types of story conflicts like “man vs. man” and “man vs. himself” and “man vs. nature.”  I think these are more thematic conflicts.  I’m thinking about conflict as something that manifests itself in a specific scene through specific character thoughts or actions.  That way, when I get to one of those conflict-free scene descriptions, I can look over my list and think about how to spice up the scene with conflict.  Here are the five I came up with.  If you can think of anymore, let me know, and I’ll add it to the list.

1 – Decision conflict

This is an internal conflict, when a character must decide what to do.  In a way, this could describe any conflict, because it’s usually a character’s decided actions that resolve a conflict.  But I think of this conflict as describing when the internal decision conflict is the main conflict, presented when the character has opposing desires, wants two or more things, but can only have one.  For example, perhaps a character wants to get his sick friend to a hospital, but he also wants to avoid being seen because he’s a criminal.  Or a character wants to tell her boyfriend that she loves him, but she doesn’t want to be rejected.  Or a character wants to kill the evil overlord, but he doesn’t want to get hurt or die.  This conflict happens entirely in the character’s head.  There are multiple roads to take, none of them are all that great, and the character must choose one.

In movies, you hardly ever get this conflict actually told to you in words.  Instead, you see it introduced by the plot itself, and how the characters respond to it.  It’s that look in an actor’s eyes when he sees something he wants but can’t have.  For a writer of literature, there’s always the danger of going overboard in presenting the decision conflict, of allowing the character’s inner dialog to go on and on.  “To be or not to be, that is the question.  Let me ponder it out loud for the next half hour.”  Meanwhile, the audience takes a nap.  Decisions can be vital conflicts, every story has them, but they don’t have to be analyzed to death.

2 – Physical conflict

This is probably the most natural and primal of conflicts, and I have a tough time thinking of many movies that do not include some form of it during the climax.  (Gosford Park maybe?)  This conflict occurs when a character’s body is in physical opposition with another force, usually another character.  The result of losing is often death, and the character must use his physical strength to stay alive.  But this conflict could also present itself less climactically.  Perhaps two characters are just having a small shoving match.  Maybe a character is trying to lift something heavy.  Maybe a character is reaching out for something that’s just beyond grasp.  Though point is, unlike a decision conflict, the physical conflict is completely external, manifested in physical action.

(One a side note, I think this sort of conflict works much better visually than in writing because it’s so movement-based.  Visually, it’s almost instantly interesting, almost mesmerizing to watch.  But a sword fight can’t look nearly as “cool” in a book, because there’s nothing to actually see.)

3 – Puzzle conflict

This sort of conflict is a bit like a decision conflict in that it’s mainly internal, but rather than having to decide something, the character is searching for a specific answer, a solution to some problem.  In essence, any sort of mystery for which the answer is important to the plot is a puzzle conflict.  This is obviously one of the main conflicts of most mystery stories, but it can present itself in smaller forms as well, such as Gandalf wondering how to open the Mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings (“Speak friend and enter” – what does that mean?)  J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is full of all sorts of puzzle conflicts, which create wonderful and thrilling suspense throughout the stories.  However, the storyteller must be careful that he has good (or, dare I say, clever) solutions for his puzzle conflicts, otherwise the audience may feel cheated.  If you’re a writer, you maybe to tempted to create puzzle conflicts before knowing the solution so that you too will share in the suspense of the story.  But if you can’t think of a good solution, it’s a waste of time to write much about it.

Many times puzzle conflicts present themselves over multiple scenes; a mystery is introduced in one scene, clues are gathered throughout other scenes (sometimes unknowingly), and the solution is found in another scene.  But a puzzle conflict could be introduced and solved in one scene, such as the aforementioned Mines of Moria entrance conflict.  Or perhaps a character must try to figure out how to get through a locked door, and realizes he can melt the mechanism with potions he has.  Or perhaps a character is looking for a code in a book, and realizes the last letter of every page form a secret message.

The point is: there’s a missing piece of information that is essential to the story’s plot, and the characters must puzzle it out and find the solution.

(You could probably also have a reader-only puzzle conflict.  The characters are going about their business happily unaware of any mysteries, but the readers, who are able to see the whole picture, are realizing that some things just aren’t adding up.  You just have to be careful, because you don’t want the audience to feel like their being cheated out of knowing stuff that a character does.)

4 – Character disagreements

This conflict is perhaps the most fun to write, though it can be challenging to do so believably.  It involves mainly dialog, so the writer must understand the viewpoints of each character well enough to argue effectively from his or her point of view.  As a writer, you must induce a sort of multiple-personality-disorder within yourself.  What makes this a conflict is rather obvious: characters disagree about something, and they let their disagreements known to each other verbally.  “Yes.”  “No.”  “Yes.”  “No.”  If characters are different enough from each other, and their arguments are interesting and unique enough, you’re bound to have an interesting scene.

Of course, it doesn’t have to involve dialog.  It could be a simple matter of a character turning the car radio to rock and roll, and another turning it back to classical, and the other turning it back to rock and roll and turning the volume up.  The point is that they disagree about something and act on it.

5 – Danger is lurking

In this conflict, nothing actually happens, but something bad might happen if the character doesn’t do something.  It’s all about what could happen, and what the character must do to prevent it.  Maybe the character has to run away from a dinosaur, or not move when challenged to a staring contest by a T-rex, all to avoid entering the animal’s digestive system.  Perhaps a character is sneaking into a castle and must hide in the shadows while the guards pace around or tiptoe past them as they sleep at their posts.  Perhaps the clock is ticking and a bomb is about to go off, and a character must either diffuse it or get out of a the building just in time.  The point is the character must do something and  be careful and/or hurry up!  It’s all about the tension of what could possibly happen if the character makes the wrong move at the wrong time.  Like a physical conflict, this sort of conflict often presents itself near the climax, and death is often a possible a result.

In conclusion

It probably goes without saying, but these sorts of conflicts do not have to present themselves exclusively.  That is, a scene could contain any number of possible combinations.  You see this in movies a lot, where characters are sword fighting and exchanging witty (or cheesy) dialog.  Or when characters are running away from danger and trying to puzzle out how to stop the bad guy with their limited resources.  No story (besides perhaps flash fiction) would ever contain just one type of conflict, right?

The interesting thing about adding conflict to an otherwise expository scene is that I think it actually makes the scene more expository, because readers then get to see how characters respond to certain challenges.

And no conflict is OK too, sometimes

In literature, there are some instances in which you just have to do a conflict-free info-dump.  As long as it’s kept as lean as possible, audiences usually won’t complain.

In movies, there can be mood-setting scenes or montages.  Usually music (which is often instantly, though perhaps subconsciously, interesting) accompanies the visuals.  The director can easily get away with showing montages of mountain flyovers to show off grand landscapes, or to show characters traveling through the wilderness, or to show a character’s otherwise long and boring rise to popularity, etc.  Opening credits often present themselves in collections of conflict-free shots that do little else but establish the story’s initial mood and physical setting.  As long as it doesn’t go on for too long, audiences will sit back and enjoy the meditative atmosphere presented to them.  Stanley Kubrick’s long boring shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey really test the durational limits of such montages.  Personally, I think he went too far and I dare to call his decisions idiotic and fast-forward-button inducing, but others praise the shots as an “innovation.”  In musicals, conflict-free song and dance numbers can go on for some length, as the music and the dancing entrance the viewers.

Anyway, the point is that you can get away with little or no conflict when it’s necessary.  But I think it’s extremely advantageous to know when and why you’re doing so, so that you’re not just doing so out of laziness or ignorance.

Hope that was an interesting post.  Writing it out has given me plenty of ideas for my own otherwise boring novel scenes.