Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sparks of Conflict

Conflict is one of the fundamental elements of fiction, according to Janet Burroway, the author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.

"It's fundamental," Burroway writes, "because in literature only trouble is interesting."

Lots of writers, not only Burroway, argue that a story isn't a story without conflict.

But what, exactly, is conflict?

Webster's Third New International Dictionary suggests that the origin of the word "conflict" is from the Latin conflictus--past participle of confligere... to strike together, to fight--and defines "conflict" as follows:

"...a clash, competition, or mutual interference of opposing or incompatible forces or qualities (as ideas, interests, wills); an engagement between men under arms: struggle, contest, fight."

Isn't it interesting that the origin of the word comes from "to strike together," an action which produces sparks that draw our attention immediately?

In terms of story, perhaps the most helpful of these definitions is the idea of conflict as a clash of opposing forces.

It's this clash of opposing forces, suggests Garry Disher in Writing Fiction: An Introduction to the Craft, that is at the heart of storytelling.

"In most traditional stories and novels," Disher writes, "conflict will be one of two kinds: trying against opposition to achieve a goal, or having to choose between two courses of action or values of equal strength. In the case of characters forced to choose, the dilemma is more intense if the choices available are equally undesirable."

Without a struggle on the part of a character, there's nothing to hold our attention. No rising suspense. No dilemma to solve. No clash. No sparks. No trouble.

But, as Disher explains, it's not enough for a character simply to engage in a struggle. The struggle itself must seem important, not only to the characters... but to the readers, as well.

"Conflict will be convincing to readers," writes Disher, "if they can see that it's significant to the characters, and that its outcome is of obvious importance to them--especially when difficult decisions are involved, with the good and bad of one course of action equal to the good and bad of the other."

Conflict isn't necessary to all forms of writing, but it's essential to storytelling because, as Burroway reminds us, in fiction only trouble is interesting.

Conflict, in other words, is the force--the spark--that sets the story in motion.

What's the conflict at the heart of your story, the spark that ignites the reader's interest and holds it from the first page to the last?

Try summing up the conflict in a brief sentence or two.

See if the process of defining the conflict sharpens the story, pulling your reader (and you) even deeper into your character's struggle.

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