STORY ESSENTIALS #6: Conflict
This series reveals what I consider to be the ESSENTIAL components of any great story. These are the principles you must master if you want to impact people’s lives – and increase your revenue – whether you’re creating a film, TV episode, novel, non-fiction or instructional book, speech, webinar, blog or sales pitch.
When you create a story for the page, stage or screen, your primary objective must always be to create an emotional experience for your readers and audiences. And the primary source of emotion in any well-told story is conflict.
Whatever story you want to tell, in whatever arena, your hero/protagonist has to want something, and they must pursue that goal to the climax of the story. The conflict is simply whatever stands in the way of your hero achieving that desire.
The source of conflict in a story might be from other characters – villains, rivals, competitors, or even partners, friends and loved ones – whose actions prevent the hero from achieving the desire. The conflict might come from forces of nature – natural disasters, diseases, physical limitations, hostile environments or the laws of physics. Or it might simply be that the nature of the goal your hero is pursuing is beyond his or her own physical or mental limitations.
But whatever their source, these obstacles and challenges must make it seem nearly impossible for your hero to succeed. Because the greater the conflict, the greater the emotional experience for the people you want to reach with your story.
Consider one of my all-time favorite movies, UP. The hero Carl’s goal is to get the house he shared with his late wife Ellie to Paradise Falls in South America, the place they always dreamed of visiting on one of their never-realized adventures.
Now look at all the conflict Carl faces from other characters in the story. The city wants to evict him, and construction workers want to demolish his house. Once he arrives in South America, Russell, the boy who stowed away in Carl’s house, wants to let Dug the talking dog tag along, wants to return Kevin the exotic bird to its children, and later wants Carl to rescue Kevin from the evil adventurer Charles Muntz. Muntz later sets Carl’s house on fire, and is willing to kill Carl and Russell in order to keep the bird.
In addition, Ellie’s death in the prologue, the seeming impossibility of flying a house to South America, the weather they encounter, and the hostile environment and sheer distance Carl must endure to drag the house to Paradise Falls – all these forces of nature increase the conflict this hero must overcome to achieve his goal.
The heroes of your own stories must confront challenges and obstacles from the time they are introduced, in the setup of your story, until the moment their goals are resolved, at the climax. And as your stories move forward, the hurdles your heroes face must become increasingly difficult to overcome, and must occur more and more frequently.
Conflict is not simply two people arguing – though an argument may reveal that the characters involved have seriously opposing desires. But I’m guessing if you think about the movies or novels you’ve loved, or the biggest goals you’ve achieved in your own life, seldom did they involve a lot of yelling and screaming. What gave those stories and personal situations such emotional impact was the actions you or those heroes had to take, and the monumental difficulties that had to be overcome, in order to ultimately succeed.
Whenever you feel stuck somewhere in the middle of a story your developing, avoid the contrived “Let’s-add-a- snowstorm,” or the “What-if-he’s-really-an-alien?” approach to conflict. Instead of making up more unrelated or outlandish external obstacles because they sound really original or exciting, create conflict that grows organically out of your hero’s desire. If that goal is clearly defined, and if it’s of vital importance to your hero, then the challenges coming from the overwhelming effort required, and from the people standing in your hero’s way, should provide you with plenty of conflict.
And if you’re trying to create a story where there simply wasn’t that much conflict in what really happened, or in the goal you’ve created for your fictional hero, then it’s time to find a better story to tell.
But before you abandon any story you want to tell, go deeper into your hero to explore one more source of conflict. This is where you will touch your readers and audiences most deeply – with your hero’s inner conflict.
Inner conflict grows out of a character’s opposing desires: the conscious desire to achieve what he or she desperately wants, and the universal, ever-present, subconscious determination to stay safe.
Because of wounds and beliefs from the past, we all want to stay in our own comfort zones, doing whatever it takes to avoid once again experiencing some pain from our past.
So we create what I call an identity – a false self or persona that we present to the world to protect us from our fear of failure, rejection, humiliation, poverty, abandonment, or whatever other condition we were in, and whatever false beliefs about that event were instilled in us by our parents, friends, family, classmates, religion, culture, or traumatic losses.
These are the subconscious memories, fears and false beliefs that keep us stuck, preventing us from living the fulfilled lives we long for. As a result, we are in a constant battle between avoiding our fears and living our truth, our essence.
Think again about the hero of UP. Carl is consumed with grief over the loss of Ellie, and with the guilt he feels over never giving her the adventures that he promised. These wounds from his past have instilled in him a crippling fear of losing even the memory of Ellie, and of letting go of his attachment to her.
So to protect himself from experiencing even more of that pain, he’s created his identity: a grumpy curmudgeon who wants nothing to do with anyone, and who now literally drags the weight of his past behind him as he trudges toward Paradise Falls.
Until Carl finally lets go of that protective armor, he’ll never achieve his desire to truly honor Ellie’s memory. More important, he’ll never live in his essence, and never experience the fulfillment that will come when he is brave enough to connect with, protect and love Russell, Dug and Kevin.
When you tell stories – real or imagined – where your heroes must find the courage to overcome their deepest fears, abandon the emotional armor of their protective identities, and take action to achieve their desires or destinies, you won’t have much trouble creating enough conflict.
And when, as a storyteller, you are willing to take your hero, your audiences and yourself to that deeper, universal level – that’s when you’ll elicit the greatest emotion in the people you want to impact.
Links to Michael’s previous articles in this series: