The Art of Conflict

As well as being a track from one of my favourite bands (check it out on youtube: Art of Conflict by VNV Nation) and an integral part of fiction writing, I have also found the stirring up of conflict can be an ace in your writing sleeve. One of the lines in the track says “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” While this my be arguably very true in the real world, we’re not dealing with the real world. And I say, the more warfare the better. It may be of a literal kind depending on the genre, but more importantly there needs to be a warfare of the soul.

I am hard pressed to think of a protagonist in the novels I’ve read who is not in conflict, from Bilbo Baggins not really wanting to go there and back again, thank you very much, to Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, who’s inner conflicts are often offered to you in list form and in number order. If nothing is wrong, if everyone is happy then, as cynical as it might seem, nothing happens. Almost all stories can be boiled down to this simple premise: how a character or characters strive to resolve their inner conflict.

But I’ve also found the stirring up of conflict can be a great cure-all for writers block. Whenever I get to points in my novel where I seem to have run aground, floundered on some boring plot point or some wordy description, I take a step back and think about how to get back on track. For me, there is nothing worse than thinking the writing might be dull. If I want someone to commit to my 800 pages, or whatever number it might well end up being, I need to not let up on the tension for even a moment. However, rarely does the simple adding of a smidgen more conflict, in some shape or form, not work. Conflict is, after all, the fuel the story burns on. If it’s running out of steam, throw another log on the fire.

I’m not saying that a bomb should hit or someone pull a gun the second the character has a pause in thought, though if you are writing that kind of thriller I dare say that can work. It would certainly be dramatic, thought not always appropriate. But there will always be something suitable there that you can throw in the mix to ratchet up the tension and get the time line moving again. For example, they can be reminded of something they’re unhappy about, and think possibly about what they plan to do about it. Or another character could disagree with something they say. It is important to keep everyone in character when stirring up the tension (sudden breaks of character can be powerful but they have to be believable), but the way you have written your characters should mean that there are already threads of conflict between then that you can pluck on.

If even two of your characters like each other without any negative feelings at all, something is wrong. Even in real life if you like someone, there will always be conflict on some level. Either you suspect you like them more than they do you, you disagree with some things they believe in, or you love them to pieces but they still don’t rinse out the bath after using it, despite you asking countless times. Whether the conflict is justified or not doesn’t matter, the point it it’s always there, between every human being, and it should be between your characters too. I’ve found considering the conflicts that exist between the characters is the easiest way to define them: whether it’s as grandiose as one powerful character disagreeing with another on matters of royal law, or as subtle as one not liking the way the other drinks his wine.

Something happened in my writing today which is a good example of how I found you can stir in some conflict to get the pace moving again. My protagonist, Rowan, has just gained a new level of trust for the man assigned to tutor him, at a time when he doesn’t feel like he can trust anyone. But I still want there to be conflict there. It’s important that Rowan doesn’t completely adore him, mainly because he’s not that sort of character (he’s a bit spoiled and a bit of a martyr at the moment, though I’m hoping he’ll grow out of it) and I need to stay true to how I’ve established him. However, there is a lull where he actually begins to feel happy about the situations he’s in for the first time, he feels like his tutor is someone he can finally depend on, which was a nice break, but I had to pull it back so it didn’t just drift off into dull territory where nothing was going wrong.

So I chucked in an explosion. A real one, not a metaphorical one. I was lucky that this was the part of the story when this was supposed to happen, but it didn’t half come together nicely to get the story moving again. After the bang, Rowan goes to go and investigate, but his tutor insists it’s not safe. Upon discovering the source of the explosion (you’ll have to wait for the novel to find out what it was) they argue about what they’ve seen. Rowan trying to deal with what he’s seen and how he is going to carry on with the knowledge lays down roots for his actions and motivations in the coming chapters. And it pulls a string of tension tight between him and his tutor, so there is something for them to discuss the next time the meet, revealing more about each of them in turn.

Nobody is ever perfectly happy with everything in their lives and it is either their determination to resolve their inner conflicts, or there lack of it, that defines the sort of character they are. I find keeping this in the forefront of my mind renders it much easier to think of what my character will do next.

Of course, no one says you have to be subtle all the time. By all means turn it up a notch, like I did today, and throw masses of conflict into the world around them. In my fantasy land there battles happening to control some colonies. There’s international tensions generations old and there’s also conflict within the realm as some people don’t believe in what the king is doing. But the fundamental tensions that matter most on a word-by-word basis are those going on in Rowan’s head. They effect what he thinks and how he acts towards other characters and in turn how they act to him. It scales up and out and determines his whole fate.

I hope he manages to put some to rest by the end of the book. I think he owes it to himself. But for now, I need to keep stirring it up inside him to keep him and his world moving.

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4 Responses to The Art of Conflict

  1. mpskydog says:

    Conflict is absolutely necessary – and the type of conflict should fit the setting and genre of the story, and the circumstances of the characters. Sometimes conflict can be as simple as a disagreement.

    A good way to think about it is how Robert McKee explains it in his Seminar/book ‘Story’. In its simplest form, conflict is nothing more than the world around a character opposing him or her. If the character needs shelter, the world tries to keep them in the open. If the character needs a friend, everyone may seem to be against them. And if a character needs to come out on top, then the world will do all it can to keep them an underdog.

  2. Pingback: The Open Door « The Path – J. Collyer's Writing Blog

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