What Conflict?

conflict3I just finished up a synopsis workshop and one of the things I kept seeing was that folks were having a hard time writing the synopsis due to not really knowing what is the main conflict in the story. It really does help to know this before you start writing, but it’s vital to know this at some point because the conflict has to come to a head in the third act. If it doesn’t, the story risks being unsatisfying.

You also have to know what’s the main conflict, because that’s going to show anyone interested in the story that you knew what you were doing when you wrote the story. It’s your main selling point.

So how do you figure out the main conflict in your story? It starts by making sure there really is strong conflict.

In one of my favorite Monty Python skits, a man shows up and pays for an argument—the person he paid tells him he didn’t pay. He says he did, too. And they go back and forth. The fellow who came in for an argument puts forward this is contradiction, not an argument. Again with “is too, is not.” That’s sometimes what I see—not really good arguments from the characters, but them contradicting each other. Or, even worse, manufactured, contrived conflict from characters that do not really have deep conflicting issues and goals. This is a problem in a story.

A reader pays for a good story, meaning you need some conflict going on.

The best summary I’ve heard of this is from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.

What does that mean?

  1. What does a character want?

This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really wants.

The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.

  1. What does a character really want?

Under ever want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.

  1. What does a character really, really want?

When you find out what a character really wants, ask–but what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.

This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical and marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.

  1. What does a character really, really, really want?

This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl. The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.

Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict? You want other characters who want things that conflict with the main character’s wants.

This is where you look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict. Have them want the same thing, but only one person can have it (any McGuffin movie). Have them want opposite things (any superhero movie with one side wanting world-domination and the other side out to stop that). Have them want the same thing but have different approaches to getting it (any buddy flick, with one guy being the rule keeper and the other being the rogue).

In every book, I love it when every character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. All of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together. And it is not just one character causing Thea problems–she has issues with her mother, her employer at the theater where she is an actress, and with other, younger actors who want to take her place.

And that brings up the next issue with conflict.

If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.

Recently, I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day. His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.

Now this is a character that seems not to have goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.

The interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling, at first, to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it, given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.

Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story.  And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.

Finally, look to have consequences–that is how you make goals matter. If your character wants a job promotion, but there is no problem with not getting that promotion (there are other, better jobs out there), then the goal doesn’t matter. Look for goals have huge personal benefits–and losses. So if that character doesn’t get that job promotion, maybe mom ends up thrown from her nursing home. Or better still, that without that promotion, life as that person knows it is over. Make it matter. Make it matter a lot. That is how you raise the stakes in a story and make the reader care.

That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters. And you want to know that’s the conflict you have in your story–conflict you can easily identify and summarize.



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