By Shawn Coyne | Published: November 29, 2013
Here’s another chunk from the book that is slowly killing me…THE STORY GRID.
Conflict drives stories. Without it, nothing happens. The words just sit there, inert like your uncle Lou in his Barcalounger on Sunday afternoon.
Even though we spend most of our time avoiding it, it’s important to remember that conflict is not “bad.” In fact, it’s the thing that gives life energy, instills in us a sense of controlling our own destiny. How we manage conflict, how we act when up against Resistance makes us who we are. As hard as it is to believe, getting everything you want without having to contend with inner anxiety or expend any effort would be Hell. Think about all of those mega millions lottery winners who blow all the money and end up destitute. It’s practically impossible to value anything not hard won through conflict.
Conflict boils down to this:
One person/character wants one thing, another person/character wants another.
The two wants are mutually exclusive. And the result is a crisis that must be resolved. Remember that a story crisis is expressed by a central question. Who is going to win? Who is going to lose? Is there a negotiation that can be had between the two that can result in them both moving their agendas forward at the expense of a third party? Think in terms of energy. Conflict is like thermodynamics, except it’s the process by which energy moves between two people.
A story crisis leads to decisive climactic action. A character faced with the threat of not getting what they want makes a best bad choice or irreconcilable good choice. He chooses to do this, and not that.
The resolution of the story is the change in the life/lives that result/s from the choice made at climax. It seems complicated, but the process is deeply ingrained in every single one of us. So much so that we don’t really think about it.
Don’t forget that there is a wide range of conflict that gives rise to change. And change is happening practically every moment in our lives. Not getting a spoon and fork with your takeout is a conflict in your life just as is a knock down fight with your spouse about wall paper. The degree of change in the life/lives of the character/s can either be reversible or irreversible.
A reversible change is something like this: A character is at a party and faces a crisis question. His friend is drunk and needs a ride home, but he’s met a very interesting woman and he’s not sure if he’ll ever see her again. He decides to take his friend home choosing to abandon what’s good for him in favor of what’s good for his friend. But just before he puts on his coat, the woman tells him that she’s leaving town the next day and won’t be back for six months. Because his friend is still drunk and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, the character can reverse his decision rather easily and stay longer at the party. So faced with the new conflict (the prospect of losing a chance at romance), he reverses his earlier crisis decision from taking his friend home and stays at the party.
If you had to assign a numeric value between 1 and 10 about the degree of the reversibility of this change (1 being very easy to reverse the action and 10 being impossible to reverse the action), you’d probably give it a 2. It’s easy to go back on the decision to drive the friend home. So the degree of reversibility of the change is low.
Let’s take the example to the extreme…
The character at the party stays, but then out of the corner of his eye he sees his drunk friend digging his car keys out of his pocket. This raises another crisis, amplifies the stakes in fact with regard to his first decision to stay. The character decides to lie to himself and pretend he never saw his friend leaving with his car keys in his hand. No one else at the party noticed that he saw his friend leave and the character thinks to himself…
He isn’t that drunk…and he only lives a mile away…and people drive buzzed all the time…
He makes the choice to stay again as the drunk friend leaves to get in his car. I think you can see where this is going. Soon thereafter, the friend not only kills himself in a car crash but kills an innocent carload of teenagers on the way home from Dairy Queen.
Let’s go back to our guy making time at the party with the fascinating next day departing beauty. His decision to not drive his drunk friend home has now become irreversible. So if you had to rate this second choice on a scale of 1 to 10 on the degree of reversibility, you’d give it a 10. He can’t take back the choice because he can’t bring people back to life.
You must have conflict in every beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global Story or you’re just typing. Expertly modulating the degrees of reversibility of the changes that result from the conflicts is what makes a writer/storyteller an artist. A story with conflict resulting in change that never moves past a 2 isn’t very compelling. Similarly, one operating only at Spinal Tap level 11 will prove ridiculous.
Like a master conductor, the writer/storyteller also needs to regulate the three distinct levels of conflict too.
INTERNAL CONFLICT: Within the Self
Conflict within our inner understanding of our world and our place in it. It is expressed through the characters’ mind, body, and emotion. When we act against our understanding of who we are, we face a serious existential conflict. When we do things that we don’t expect ourselves to do, those actions knock us out of our equilibrium. Perhaps our body does not behave in the way we thought it would or we aren’t as quick and smart as we thought we were or our emotions push us into doing things we never felt possible. This is the stuff of internal conflict. We find that our understanding of ourselves is inaccurate and that disconnect is torturous.
A few years ago I saw a news story that perfectly illustrates innermost conflict coming to a head. A professional hockey player was giving a press conference after his wife had him arrested for spousal abuse. This was his opening statement:
“I am not the kind of guy who beats his wife.”
The statement seemed ridiculous as evidentiary photos of his wife scrolled onscreen, but in this man’s understanding of himself, he was not a wife beater. Even though he had clearly beaten his wife. Crazy right?
But for him the statement was not contradictory because he had come to the conclusion that his actions were the result of his emotions overwhelming him, which triggered his body to act before his mind could intervene. He wasn’t “himself” when he hit her. After the evidence of his actions presented, he had to reconcile those actions with his sense of self. His conclusion was that deep down, he was not the kind of man who would hurt his wife. But somehow that truth was slow in coming into his brain.
Slow neurons were at fault, not “him.” People used to blame “the Gods” for these kinds of actions.
Clearly, admitting to himself that he was the kind of guy who hit his wife was in deep conflict with his sense of self. So his statement—while ludicrous to anyone who saw the evidence—made complete sense to him. Of such internal conflicts self-deception is made.
A person knocked off his fragile self-equilibrium must get back into balance. He can cling to who he thinks he is and rationalize his behavior. That’s the “guilty with extenuating circumstances” phenomenon. Or he can begin to define himself through his past actions and then consciously change his future actions to align with who he aspires to be, not who he assumes to be. Which course do you think is harder?
When we act against who we think we are there is serious conflict, enough to destroy us. We can either rationalize ourselves back to our original understanding (denial) or we can reconcile who we really are with who we want to be (change). Stories help us do the latter.
INTERNAL CONFLICT is the most intense and poignant variety because it is universal. Every single human being experiences it. And we all face the very same choices. Do we live a lie and defend the lie until death or do we seek truth? Heady stuff.
EXTERNAL PERSONAL CONFLICT: Personal relationships
Conflict on this level is from family, spouses, friends, confidents. When you are a brother you play a specific role with your sister. You’re her protector. Or you’re her nemesis. You have a certain kind of relationship. When conflict arises, that relationship be it protector/ward, bully/victim is challenged. Same thing with the parent/child, teacher/pupil, friend/friend etc.
Conflict at this level is of the “I can’t believe she did that to me” variety. How a character acts under threats to her interpersonal relationships sets her out of balance. And like inner self conflict, she can either choose to move back to the original relationship or she can act to change the relationship. Go back or move forward… Polarity again.
If a friend of yours has a habit of undermining your quest to lose weight by acting hurt if you don’t eat the brownies she made for you, you can either maintain the relationship the way it has settled (eat the brownies or lie and say you did) or you can try and change the relationship (decline and ask that she not bring you sweets when you are dieting).
- EXTERNAL EXTRA-PERSONAL CONFLICT:
This is the third, most-broad, level of conflict. This is conflict with governments, religions, corporations, agencies, or archetypical representatives of those institutions like policemen, priests, CEOs, bosses, college admissions directors etc.
Also conflicts with environments, natural and man-made. Time, space, etc. are part of the extra personal. Dealing with a snow storm or growing old or losing a limb… These kinds of conflicts are those that are most on the surface. They dominate in Action Stories.
So a story can move forward through broad external conflict, or interpersonal conflict, or internal conflict. You have at least two if not all three levels of conflict in your story. If you don’t think you can have all three in your action potboiler, a James Bond kind of story, just watch SKYFALL.
If you just have extra personal conflict, you’ll just have someone dealing with one disaster after another. He’ll never come in contact with another human being beyond archetypical figureheads. It will be a cartoon. If you just have interpersonal, you’ll be creating soap opera. If you just have inner conflict, you’ll be stuck in your protagonist’s head and difficult to follow stream of consciousness will be the result.
Here’s an example of using all three levels of conflict in a story sequence.
Our protagonist could be having a problem at work. His boss is taking advantage of him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. The boss represents broad Extra Personal Conflict. This instigating conflict creates a crisis question. Will the protagonist confront the force of antagonism and tell him that he will not be used like a beast of burden? Or will he keep his mouth shut and soldier on?
The protagonist goes to his wife for advice only to discover that she is not interested in shifting their personal dynamic from provider/dependent to tormented friend/counselor. She refuses to talk about his problem. It’s his job to navigate that terrain, not hers. He’s on his own. The conflict has now moved into the Interpersonal.
How will he handle this crisis? Again he chooses to avoid confrontation, keeps his mouth shut and stews…locked inside himself.
Now the character is forced to confront his understanding of himself at the deepest level. Is he a coward for not standing up for himself at work and not confronting his wife about her cavalier attitude to his distress? Or is he just a pragmatic guy not sweating the small stuff?
He now has conflict at a serious inner level. He always thought of himself as courageous. Maybe he’s just a patsy after all and all of the years of hard work he’s put in to reach the level of achievement were not about his “courage” rather they were about compromising and fitting in.
These three levels of conflict force him to confront a much larger crisis than his boss expecting him to do more than his share at work. He has to make a global decision about himself. Is he going to continue on the path of brow-beaten wimp at work and at home or is he going to stand up for himself and become the courageous figure who he always thought he was at heart? Deny or change.
So an extra personal conflict at work leads to a personal conflict at home which leads to an inner conflict inside the character’s mind. This is what is meant by creating progressive complications.
This is the stuff of life. When you tell a story, you must constantly keep vigil about these three levels of conflict. Remember that the inciting incident of your global story throws your protagonist’s life out of balance. His contending with that instability leads to additional complications and more and more conflict, until he can no longer avoid reacting to the inciting incident. That active choice leads to yet another complication that incites further conflict.
Tracking the levels of conflict at play in each of your scenes will help you discover repetition of conflict and/or gaps of reason. That is, you will find places that repeat the same conflict. You don’t want more than one “am I a coward” progressive conflicts in your story. If you do, your reader will get bored.
And you will find places where your character’s actions don’t seem to make sense because you’ve skipped a scene that moves the conflict from outside to inside. Isn’t it reasonable that in the example above, your protagonist could have skipped the heart to heart with his wife and moved directly to inner conflict? He blows up at his boss in the moment his boss tries to take advantage of him? Making this choice as a writer deeply impacts the view of the character in the reader’s mind. In the first example, the reader will probably view the protagonist as soft/ineffectual/skittish. The second choice would come off as someone mercurial/aggressive/paranoid etc.
Not only do you need to understand the three levels of conflict, you need to decide how your lead character contends with the conflict. His actions define him.
Just like ours define us.