CONFLICT #2: Conflict vs Combat

After offering my introductory article on CONFLICT (the one about Tiger Woods), I got a lot of kind and thoughtful responses (thanks, everyone!), including this one from a follower named Dan:

Michael –

I agree about needing conflict in stories. But I try, and I fail. I am a nice person. Always have been – never in conflicts; same wife for 40 years. So I struggle having my characters do things I could not imagine doing. When I try to include conflict, it comes off like milk toast.

I encounter lots of filmmakers, fiction writers and business leaders who, like Dan, mistakenly believe that conflict must be big, action packed and extraordinary.

Then, because their own lives have been relatively happy, kind, and (oh, no!) ordinary, or because they have no desire or ability to write about comic book battles or violent confrontation, these storytellers can’t – or think they can’t – elicit an emotional response in their readers or audiences.

So before I reveal how to create conflict in your stories, I’d better tell you what conflict actually is.

CONFLICT is simply whatever prevents a character from getting what he wants.

Whatever desire drives your hero towards a compelling goal, something needs to stand in his way. It’s not the goal itself, but the obstacles your hero faces, that keep us leaning into your story, eager to see or hear what’s going to happen next.

So sure, if your hero confronts an alien invasion, a supernatural demon, a crazed serial killer, or a ruthless gang of terrorists, those conflicts can generate lots of thrills and suspense.

But conflict is more than just combat.

What if instead, the obstacles your heroes face involve racial prejudice, political and romantic rivalry, disease, artistic competition, drug abuse, poverty, unwanted pregnancy, dishonesty and corruption?

Some of these conflicts can involve violent confrontation, but they don’t have to. More often they’re revealed through physical weakness, failure, argument, separation, competition, rivalry, lying and manipulation.

And what if those external conflicts are combined with the wounds and fears that create inner conflict? What if your heroes believe they are weak, isolated, unloved, unforgivable, or worthless, and as a result are desperate for wealth, fame, status, power, control, escape, or isolation?

These inner conflicts are what make your stories universal. They tap into the pain and fear we all share, and they give us a sense of the courage that we all long for.

These real, recognizable, everyday conflicts move audiences and readers deeply and powerfully. And storytellers who tap into them can achieve monumental success.

If you don’t believe me, just notice that the lists above are all illustrated in Green Book, Blackklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star is Born and Vice – all Best Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards.

Consider one very small moment in Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddie (Rami Malek) is living in his mansion, alone, and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) the love of his life, lives next door. He phones her and asks her to do something for him.

FREDDIE
I want you to go to your bedroom window. Look out of it.

Freddie turns on a light and gazes up at her far away window.

FREDDIE
(cont.)
Do you see me?

MARY
Yes, I do.

FREDDIE
Now you do the same.

We see Freddie’s look of happiness as a light in Mary’s room appears. Then he asks her to have a drink with him. She tells him it’s late, but he begs her.

FREDDIE
Do you have something to drink? Go get it…. Do you have it?

MARY
Yes.

But we see that she’s lying. He toasts her and she pretends she’s raising a glass.

FREDDIE
To you, my love.

MARY
To you, Freddie.

FREDDIE
Good night.

MARY
Good night.

This scene could not be simpler or quieter. Yet it is filled with conflict – and emotion.

We know Freddie and Mary love each other deeply. But because he is gay, they both realize they can never be fully together. So Freddie, filled with the alienation he has always felt, clings desperately to whatever closeness he can feel with Mary, and whatever trappings of success can numb his pain.

And even though Mary does what she can not to break his heart, she – and we – know she’s drifting away from him.

In this one short sequence, we see Freddie’s longing for love, connection, belonging, significance and the support of his only true friend. But the obstacles that stand in his way – his homosexuality, his inability to find peace with who he really is, and Mary’s own desire for a life of happiness and romantic love – create an abundance of conflict.

This conflict is revealed without big action, pyrotechnics, violence, fighting, or even a raised voice. With just the turning on of a light and minimal dialogue, we experience deep, universal emotion at the pain that lies beneath.

So to Dan I’d say this. Whether you’re creating your signature story for the stage or the page, or longing to write a script or a novel that will change people’s lives, you have plenty of conflict to draw from. Just look to your own history, and your own struggles.

Whatever you have accomplished, it wasn’t without challenges and setbacks and obstacles from the world around you or those closest to you. Whatever got you from where you began to where you are now, that journey wasn’t without hardship and pain. Find those moments of struggle and sadness and ask yourself how you overcame them, or how you learned and grew from your failures.

Look deeper into the fears that held you back, and the moments of quiet courage you’ve found as you moved through your life.

Then look to those closest to you who confronted their own challenges and fears. If you’ve been married 40 years, the two of you had to have struggled through problems and conflicts as you shared your pain and celebrated your triumphs.

Use all of these experiences as a foundation for the conflict you want to introduce into your stories. Then the characters you create will resonate with you and will come to life. Stop trying to write about characters and actions you can’t imagine, and write about those you can, because you’ve seen and experienced their struggles first hand.

These are the stories that will touch your audiences deeply, and these are the stories they long to hear.