Writers, please fill in the blank: Without _________, you have no story. That’s right! The answer is “chocolate.” Oh, wait, Robin is shaking her head (notice, however, she has a large bag of Hershey’s Kisses torn open next to her computer). Okay, the correct answer is “conflict.” We, who have been writing for more than three days, know this as well as “show don’t tell.” You see? It’s all quite simple really. You take a character, your hero/protag, and put him or her in the midst of conflict. Nuttin’ to it.
So you think. The truth is, a good conflict is tough to nail down sometime. First of all, what you see as conflict may draw great and mighty yawns from your readers. For example, let’s take the classic “boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy joins the Al Queda and nukes several Midwestern cities.” Lot’s of conflict, right? Well no, not really, if he’s happy with his choice, the wife is fully supportive of his new career, and the Home Defense Agency is clueless and doesn’t even get close to him.
You, writer, must make things interesting. True, nuked cities are somewhat interesting, for about a chapter. Life must go on after that. How? Well, if I knew, I’d have a nice fat contract by now. Okay, seriously, let’s get into it.
First, according to Robert McKee in Story and several other sources, there are three levels of conflict: Inner, Personal, and Extra-Personal (I don’t like that one, I think “External” works just as well, let’s go with that).
The Inner conflict is what’s going on inside your character. Our boy is a terrorist. Why? He’s a red-blooded American. What drove him to it? Without getting into character development, let’s just say he should have lots of misgivings about what he’s doing. He’s struggling. Characters who are evil for the sake of being evil are passé. Let him struggle in his heart, mind, and soul.
Personal conflict comes with close friends, relatives, and, in this case, the wife. She’s obviously going to have issues with her hubby’s career choice. She’ll provide very good conflict.
Then there are the Externals. These come from bosses, agencies, everything outside our protag’s immediate circle. He should get some conflict from the FBI and law enforcement agencies, don’t you think?
It all seems simple, but I think we often miss out on one or two levels when creating our stories. The internal are probably the most difficult. We have to get inside our character’s head to understand how he or she will be affected by their choices. One level of conflict makes a good scene, but a good story requires the use of all three.
Next time I’ll talk about writing from the inside out—getting inside your character.