Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 4: Options for Conflict in a SceneSHARE
Once you’ve established your character’s scene* goal, the fun begins in earnest! Conflict is what story is all about. Without it, the character would achieve his goal in minutes, all the loose ends would instantly be tied off with a pretty red bow, and the story would be happily ever over. That may be nice for the folks in your story, but it’s going to bore readers into rigor mortis.
Enter the opposition, stage left.
Here’s your character, merrily skipping along toward his goal of contributing to the annual Christmas Children’s Charity, when bammo!bandits swarm the road, block off access to the goal, and demand the character hand over all his money. Ta-da! Instantly, your scene becomes more interesting. Readers are breathless to discover if your character will escape the bandits and deliver his charity donation to the poor little orphans.
Conflict keeps your story moving forward. We say “no conflict, no story” because without conflict, the story comes to an end. When the character’s initial goal is stymied by conflict, it causes him to react with a new goal, which is stymied by further conflict, which causes him to again modify his goal—and on and on, until finally he reaches the goal and the story ends.
Surprisingly, authors sometimes experience difficulties in injecting enough conflict into their stories. Their characters mosey through life, getting along with everyone and doing nothing of great importance. Or, if they do have an altercation with someone or accomplish something important, the ramifications are resolved so quickly and seamlessly, that they end up being neither crucial nor entertaining.
Don’t be afraid of socking it to your characters. Without conflict and its associated suffering, characters have no reason to exist. Analyze your scenes to ensure each one erects obstacles between your character and his goal.
Options for SceneConflict
1. Direct opposition (another character, weather, etc., which interferes and prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal).
2. Inner opposition (the character learns something that changes his mind about his goal).
3. Circumstantial difficulties (no flour to bake a cake, no partners to dance with, etc.).
4. Active conflict (argument, fight, etc.).
5. Passive conflict (being ignored, being kept in the dark, being avoided, etc.).
These generalities can include (but certainly aren’t limited to)
1. Physical altercation.
3. Physical obstacle (weather, roadblock, personal injury, etc.).
4. Mental obstacle (fear, amnesia, et.).
5. Physical lack (no flour to bake a cake).
6. Mental lack (no information).
7. Passive aggression (intentional or unintentional).
8. Indirect interference (long-distance or unintentional opposition by another character).
Is Your Conflict Integral?
As if we don’t have enough to keep us busy just in dreaming up a good altercation, we also have to limit our conflict to only what is integral to each specific scene. In the words of Dwight V. Swain, “conflict for conflict’s sake” isn’t good enough.
If the charitable character in our original illustration loses his donation money to bandits, that’s probably a good conflict. It directly interferes with his goal of giving the money to the orphans. But if the bandits never show up again in the story—if they appeared solely for the sake of stealing the money—they’re not going to represent integral conflict.
Even worse is when the conflict has nothing to do with the goal. If Allie is walking down the street, intent on getting to her hair appointment before her debut performance on Broadway, a random argument about the worth and importance of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade just ain’t gonna cut it.
Instead, we have to ensure each scene’s conflict is a direct result of an earlier occurrence in the plot (maybe our protagonist infuriated the bandit leader by throwing a snowball in his face) and a direct obstacle between the protagonist and his goal (maybe the Macy’s parade is preventing Allie from reaching her hair appointment).
Questions to Ask About Your Scene Conflict
Once you’ve identified your scene’s conflict, stop and ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the opposition to the character’s goal matter to him? (If not, he doesn’t want the goal badly enough in the first place.)
2. Does the conflict organically evolve from the goal?
3. Is the opposition’s motivation logical within the overall story?
4. Does the conflict lead to a logical outcome (resolution or disaster)?
5. Does the conflict directly interfere with or threaten the protagonist’s goal?
Scene Conflict in Action
How does effective scene conflict manifest in successful stories? Let’s take another look at our chosen books and movies:
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: In the first chapter, Mrs. Bennet’s goal is to get her husband to call upon Mr. Bingley, so their daughters may later be introduced to this eligible young man. Her goal is impeded by Mr. Bennet’s passive resistance to her nagging. The conflict takes the form of a verbal altercation. Even though it’s not an outright argument, and
certainly isn’t violent or even aggressive, it still offers conflict simply because the two characters are obviously at odds. If Mr. Bennet were to immediately give in to Mrs. Bennet’s desires (“Why, certainly, blossom, I’d be overjoyed to visit Mr. Bingley since you’re so keen on it!”), the scene would be instantly (and yawn-inducingly) over.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The opening scene’s conflict comes in the form of the angel Clarence’s incompetence. The goal of Joseph, his superior angel, is to send Clarence down to earth to save George Bailey. But not only is Clarence late and worrisome in his ineptitude, he’s also unable to see Joseph’s narration of George’s past. This is a very
minor conflict (and one that’s overcome, at least partially, with ease, since all Joseph has to do is help Clarence see the past), but it serves not only to spice up the scene, but also to demonstrate key facets of Clarence’s character.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: In the first chapter, Ender’s goal is simple enough: he just wants to get to the school bus and go home. But conflict immediately arises in the form of Stilson and other bullies who try to impede Ender’s progress. The conflict arises naturally from the characters and from the plot, since the bullies are taunting Ender about the loss of his monitor. But it goes far beyond conflict for conflict’s sake. This first altercation not only aptly demonstrates important character qualities within the protagonist, it also leads into a disaster that will figure prominently throughout the book—and ultimately foreshadow the climax.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: Conflict arises in the first scene when the midshipman Mr. Hollom wavers in his decisiveness about whether or not he’s spotted the enemy ship Acheron. This opening scene is primarily confined to Hollom’s inner conflict, which is illustrated through a terse exchange of words between him and another midshipman. The conflict neatly dramatizes important facets of shipboard life, sets up the overall conflict of Surprise vs. Acheron, and foreshadows Hollom’s character arc.
Conflict is arguably one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts to write in any story. So long as you’ve properly set up the conflict within eachscene, your story will chug along, almost under its own power.
*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.
Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Ending Scenes With Disaster