Conflict: The Spectacle of Your Story

It’s fantastic, isn’t it?

Any form of conflict is always an interesting sight. Something that grabs our attention and gets our blood racing.

The conflict of your story acts as the spectacle. The mesmerizing fireworks. It’s what keeps your audience’s attention and adds excitement to the events as they transpire.

But what is “conflict?” Can we define it in a useful, practical, way?

For your main character, conflict is tension between what they want, and what’s in the way of what they want.

As you may be noticing, the desire cubby and the conflict cubby are intimately related.

As your main character pursues their desire, they will encounter roadblocks – outside forces impeding their pursuit. These roadblocks, in their many different forms, are the source of all the conflict in your story.

Let’s take a look at the general categories of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Society

Are there other types? Sure. But these are the main four.

Pretty much every form of conflict will fit into one of these categories. The simplest way to identify the type of conflict in your story is to ask:

“Who fights what, over what?”

Man vs. Man

If your character (“who”) is fighting another specific person – that’s the first “what.”

Your character is fighting: another person.

The second “what” would be the reason they are fighting. Your character fights another person, over what?

Well, let’s remember: conflict is all about obstructed desire.

So what could they be fighting over?

Maybe your main character, and the other character, have the same desire.

What’s that look like?

  • Two men fighting over a woman. They can’t both be with her, it’s got to be one or the other. A classic love triangle.
  • Or two people fighting over a prized job. They can’t both get it. It’s one or the other.

What’s a different twist on this same idea?

Maybe instead of having the same desire, their desires are in direct competition. They have opposite desires:

Like a super villain trying to destroy a city, while the hero is trying to save it.
They’re not chasing the same desire, instead their desires directly conflict with one another.

This all seems pretty clear when it’s one person vs. another. But let’s take a look at the other three types of conflict:

Man vs. Nature

Your main character fights his environment.

The unfeeling forces of nature.

Say: Man fights a tornado for survival.
Our main character’s desire is to survive.
The tornado and its destructive force are getting in the way of that desire, that goal.

Man vs. Society

Your main character fights the social forces around him.

In a lot of ways, it’s quite similar to Man vs. Nature. Except here, it’s not about fighting the forces of earth, wind, or fire – but instead fighting the forces of social pressure, political systems, and cultural norms.

Here the conflict arises from the social reality around your character.

Say: Man fights society for justice.
This woman’s son was denied medical treatment due to a corrupt and profit-focused health system. This will not stand. She leads a crusade to fix what’s broken, and get justice for her son.

Our main character’s desire is for justice. But the societal machine is in the way. The complex worlds of business, health care regulation, and the courts, all seem to be thwarting her.

That’s where the conflict bubbles and broils.

Man vs. Self

The main source of conflict for the main character, is themselves.

Their own problems, their own demons.

Say: Man fights himself for redemption.
This guy has made a real mess of his life. He wants to turn it around and find redemption – peace. But his bad habits, faulty thinking, and addictions keep getting him back into trouble. He knows what he wants for his life, but his ingrained issues keep getting in the way.

That’s the conflict: old programming vs. his desire for a better life.

Okay, so let’s say you’ve figured out your conflict.

You’ve decided on what kind of conflict is primarily driving your story. And in what ways it will be expressed.

How do we take that conflict and weave it into the structure of the story?

Well, it’s a lot like the desire line. A good way to do it, is to…

Follow the four act structure.

You have one main, overall source of conflict.

But you break that main idea into smaller sub-conflicts that unfold as the story progresses.

One thing to do, to spice things up, is to decide on the type of conflict you’ll be using as your main conflict. Then, you make each act focus on the other three types of conflict.

Say your overall conflict is: Man vs. Man.

Superman vs. Lex Luthor.

Then you’d want to go ahead and make sure the sub-conflicts focus on anything but Man vs. Man.

  • Act 1: Man vs. Self
  • Act 2: Man vs. Society
  • Act 3: Man vs. Nature

And then you end on the fullest expression of the main, overall, conflict:

  • Act 4: Man vs. Man

Another way to weave your conflict into the story is to design specific characters or specific elements that represent the different types of conflict. This will make it that much easier to introduce these main and sub-conflicts into the story.

SO!

We’ve covered the main four sources of conflict. The four general categories of stuff that impede a character’s goals. That’s a lot of conflict. But we can take it a step further.

We can also make sure to put these different types of conflict in direct opposition with eachother.

Depending on the nature of your story, this won’t always be possible. In most stories it is just your main character vs. these other elements. But if you can swing it, turn your story into an mosh pit of conflict.

What’s that look like?

Let’s say our overall conflict is Man vs. Man.

Superman vs. Lex Luthor.

While this conflict will be woven into the fabric of each act, we’ll also make sure to focus each act on a different type of conflict. So let’s say:

Act 1: Man vs. Self – Superman is having some trouble relating to people because of his Kryptonian desire for long stretches of alone time.

Act 2: Man vs. Society – Luthor has succeeded in passing legislation making it illegal for Superman to intercede in criminal situations – he’s only allowed to help during disaster relief. This is incredibly difficult for a guy who spends his days helping people.

Act 3: Man vs. Nature – A (Luthor created) tsunami hits Metropolis. Superman’s got to find a way to save the city from the tidal waves of water. He’s not fast enough to evacuate everyone.

Act 4: Man vs. Man – Superman fights Luthor-in-a-kryptonite-fueled-battle-suit. It’s a full on brawl.

Okay. Those are the basics.

But what about making each element exist in conflict with each other element?

  • Luthor fighting against city hall to gets his anti-Superman legislation passed.
  • Luthor fighting with the weather in his attempts to create a man-made tsunami to destroy Metropolis.
  • Luthor fighting with his own ambition and hate of Superman. His rage is getting in the way of his plans.
  • Society fighting with the weather as the general public try to survive the impending tsunami on their own.
  • Society could be fighting with itself as citizens argue over this anti-superman legislation.

There are a lot of different ways to mix and match. Explore your options.

So, you’ve got four categories of conflict to choose from:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Society

One of these categories serves as your main conflict type.
The others, serve as your sub-conflict types.

All of them, are played out over the course of your four act structure.

Keep in mind, all four types can be present during the entire story.
It’s just helpful to designate specific acts that emphasize specific conflict types – in order to maximize your conflict’s expression.

Or do it however you like, it’s your story.



Desire: The Driving Force of Your Story

The driving force of any story is a strong desire line. What’s that?

A strong specific desire your character has, and the path forward that takes them closer and closer to it.

How do you build a strong desire line?

First, you give your main character a clear desire – a goal that they are trying to achieve.

This desire could be a tangible thing:

  • A big-ole-bag of money
  • A cure for a disease
  • A dream house

Or it could be an intangible desire:

  • Love
  • Redemption
  • Respect

The best desires are both.

Your character wants respect, and the way to get that is to win the big race.
So the clear desire is to win the race. But simultaneously, it’s about what winning that race means – the respect of his family and friends.

Desire lines give the audience something to invest in.

When the audience knows the character’s desire, they can root for them to achieve it. They can picture what it will look like if the hero succeeds or fails. And if that desire is something that hooks your audience, then they’ll be rabidly curious to see what happens in the end. Will they succeed? Will they fail? Your desire line paints the stakes of your story in technicolor.

But what makes a good desire line?

What kinds of desires do audiences care about?

Primal desires.

Primal desires are by far the most effective. Because they are inherently understood by every human being on the planet. They elicit powerful emotional responses:

  • Survival
  • Freedom
  • Love
  • Sex
  • Shelter
  • Food
  • Water
  • Sleep
  • Air
  • Sunlight
  • Meaning
  • Revenge
  • Justice
  • Legacy
  • Knowledge
  • Redemption
  • Forgiveness
  • Respect
  • Power
  • Acceptance
  • Recognition
  • Inspiration
  • Spirituality
  • Etc, etc, etc…

This is where you start. In building a desire line, nail down something primal.

The audience should never be asking themselves “why does she want that?” If it’s primal, it’s obvious. They’re deeply emotional drives and needs. No one is ever confused by why someone would want love or respect or survival. These are universal. Desired by everyone.

So start with something primal. Then give it a tangible expression.

Say: a desire for revenge.
The tangible expression: killing his wife’s murderer.

So how do we integrate this desire into the story? How do we roll it out? How do we execute the desire line?

You have one main desire that persists throughout the entire story.

And then you take this main desire and break it down into smaller, sub-desires.

An effective tool for creating these smaller sub-desires is to think in terms of “if, then” statements.

Let’s say your overall main desire is to break out of prison.

IF your main character wants to break out of prison, THEN he has to convince his cell mate to join in on the break-out plan.

Once this first sub-desire is achieved and the cell mate is on board, you move on to the next sub-desire.

IF they want to break out of prison, THEN they have to dig a tunnel… and so on.

These smaller desires act as steps towards achieving the ultimate desire.

You can think of the desire line structure as following the four act structure we’ve already discussed.

One desire per act:

  • Act 1 – Establish the main desire.
  • Act 2 – A necessary sub-desire on the path to the main desire.
  • Act 3 – Another sub-desire.
  • Act 4 – Full steam ahead on the main desire.

The audience will see the main desire achieved or lost by the end of the story.

You can incorporate smaller desires along the way if need be, but having it broken into acts this way is a good basic framework.

So:

  • Lock down a primal intangible desire.
  • Give it a tangible form that an audience can get emotionally invested in.
  • Create at least 4 sub-desires on the way to achieving it.

You’re all done.



Moral: The Meaning of Your Story

The moral of any story is the meaning.

The reason the story is being told.

The point.

But what does that mean practically?

A “moral” is a value judgment being made about an aspect of human behavior.

An opinion, that takes a look at some human action/state/behavior and decides if it’s positive or negative.

Ex: “Killing is evil.”

That’s a very simplistic one, but you get the point. It’s a definitive value judgment being made about human behavior.

Usually the true moral of a story won’t be completely revealed until the end. It’s in the final resolution of your tale that the final moral judgement is communicated.

But how do we do this?

How do we bake a moral into our story?
Just have somebody say “killing’s bad” in the final scene while a beloved character dies?

No.

First you need to craft a “moral statement.” A full moral statement is a judgement, with a justification.

Ex: “Killing is evil because it never solves a problem, it only causes more pain.”

We’re making a judgement: killing is evil.
But we’re also giving a specific reason that this is so: because it never solves a problem, it only causes more pain.

Now that we have this full moral statement, we’ve got to find a way to weave it into the fabric of our story. How do we do that?

We look at the core idea behind that moral statement (the issue of killing), and come up with different ways to argue the various sides of the issue. At the end of the story, we’ll land on the side our full moral statement references.

By the end, our story will have “argued” the various sides of the issue to such a satisfactory degree, that the full moral statement, and its judgement, won’t feel like a subjective opinion anymore. It’ll feel more like an objective fact.

So how do we do this “arguing” through the structure of the story?

There are three different methods:

  • Pro/Con
  • Inverse
  • Four Point Alternation

Pro/Con

It’s what is sounds like.

You have a moral statement, and you explore the positive side and negative side.

Ultimately falling on one side of the argument, by the end of your story.

What’s that look like?

  • You give some attention to the idea that killing is evil.
  • You give some attention to the idea that killing is good.

You explore both the “pro” and “con” of your moral statement idea.

By the end, you completely communicate your moral statement by falling on the side of the argument that you originally intended and designed. In this case, you fall on the side of killing being evil.

And you demonstrate this fact in the end, with the “because” – it never solves a problem, it only causes more pain.

Inverse

You pit one idea against its inverse – the opposite, contradictory expression of the idea.

What’s our first idea?
It’s about killing. Specifically that killing is evil.

What’s the inverse?
It’s not that killing is good.
That’s pro/con type thinking.

Okay, so what’s the real inverse?
It’s that keeping people alive is evil.

So:

  • You give some attention to the idea that killing people is evil.
  • You give some attention to the idea that keeping people alive is evil.

Then you end your story on the moral statement you crafted before you began:
Killing is evil – because it never solves a problem, it only causes more pain.

Four Point Alternation

This is the most complex form of moral argument.

You have one idea, and you put it in direct conflict with another, separate, idea.

Let’s say “killing is the source of all sorrow” vs. “selfishness is the source of all sorrow.” Two different ideas. Notice that in this argument, the source of sorrow can’t really be both. It’s got to be one or the other.

Okay, well now we have two points of argument. But it’s called “four” point alternation. Where are the other two points?

Well, we take these two ideas, and we apply either the pro/con method, or the inverse method, to both of them.

For our example here, let’s use the inverse:

  • Killing is the source of all sorrow.

and (its inverse):

  • Keeping people alive is the source of all sorrow.

vs.

  • Selfishness is the source of all sorrow.

and (its inverse):

  • Altruism is the source of all sorrow.

We now have four points to argue. That’s a packed moral argument!

As you go through your story, you weave these ideas into your plot, your characters, and your scenes. Each movement forward is making one of these four arguments.

By the end of your story, you land on one statement as the ultimate truth.

To sum up!

Four Point Alternation:

The most complex form of moral argument. Very effective when you have two different ideas in direct conflict with one another. You get to explore each idea, and each idea’s positive and negative sides.

The Inverse Method:

Better when you want to focus on just one central concept, and explore it in full.

Pro/Con:

Best when you want a more simplistic examination of just one idea. And suss out whether it’s good or bad.

Go with whichever method feels best for your story.

But you’ve got to have one of ’em. Otherwise, no matter how good your story is, it’ll ultimately be without meaning.



World: The When and Where of Your Story

World

The world of your story has four traits to consider:

  • Location
  • Reality
  • Time Period
  • Duration

Location:

This is where your story takes place.

This could be as simple as a geographic location…

Does your story take place in the – Mountains? Jungle? Big city? Small town?

Or it could be more abstract…

Like “the world of underground cage fighting” or “the world of high fashion.”

Notice that these are “locations” that aren’t tied to a specific physical space. Instead, these are largely social “locations.” Both physical and social locations are important aspects of your story world. The similarities or differences between them can be used to great dramatic effect.

Once you establish a location…

You need to pair it with a metaphor.

Why?

Because different locations have different reputations. Different popular assumptions people make. For the sake of your story, you need to decide what you’re saying with your location. What’s your perspective. What context are you setting?

The world of high fashion could be portrayed as glamorous and whimsical, or as a grotesque and soulless wasteland.

You need the metaphor. You need to keep it in mind, in order to steer the rest of your depiction of the location and make sure it meshes with the rest of your cubbies.

Reality:

Normal Realities

Most stories exist within “normal” reality. Something akin to the world we know as we go about our day-to-day lives.

Fantasy Realities

Some stories make use of realities very different from ours. Perhaps magic is real, or it’s a civilization living in space, or a realm of talking chipmunks.

These realities can be much more challenging for a storyteller because they must be built from the ground up. Every difference between “normal” reality and the fantasy reality must be consistently and coherently established and demonstrated to your audience. That’s a challenge not to be taken up lightly.

These fantasy realities can be positive (think: Toy Story) or negative (think: The Terminator.)

Hyper Realities

This is where the story appears to take place in the normal “real” world, but in an exaggerated form. There are no wizards, but our main hero somehow consistently survives car crashes and explosions that should have killed him by now. Any James Bond or Die Hard film is a good illustration of this idea.

“Mad Libs” Realities

It’s a simple fill in the blank structure.

“The world is a: [fill in the blank].”

The world of Scott Pilgrim is a: video game.

In this particular case, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the reality of the story literally takes on the structure and conventions of most video games.

But let’s say you’re not doing anything generally crazy.

No magic, no talking animals, no sci-fi, no video games rules. Your story takes place in a normal reality and it’s pretty straight forward.

Well, in cases like this…

You still want to do work to give the world of your story its own identity.

“But I’ve already decided I don’t want anything crazy!”

That’s fine. There are more nuanced ways of creating a unique reality for your story.

You can give your characters social quirks or customs. Specific speech patterns or expressions.

Think: people saying “Whendya get here?” instead of “Hello,” or always giving hugs instead of handshakes.

These give your story’s world a specific identity. These quirks are not supernatural or magical, but they ARE specific choices. Choices the audience will see enacted with consistency. Choices that give your story’s reality a particular, memorable, identity.

You could also use the attitudes or beliefs of your characters to create a shared social reality. A social context that the story lives and breathes in.

Think: the ever present religiosity of a small town.

A story that takes place there, will be significantly different from one that takes place in an agnostic town devoted to materialism.

Time Period:

Culture, technology, and politics all change greatly from one generation to the next. Telling a story set in the 1850’s is vastly different from one set in the 1950’s. This has to be appropriately handled, or your story will lose all credibility and consistency.

Pay close attention to the details, do your research, and keep it authentic.

Duration:

Your story could span two hours, two days, or two hundred years. As the writer, you have to consider and incorporate the effect time has on a character.

You can’t try to pack too much change into a single day. And if your story is spanning a few decades, you have to account for the normal change that occurs with someone over that span of time.

When designing your story, you’ve gotta keep the time span in mind and adjust accordingly.

All of these elements need your attention when designing your story world.

Once you’ve decided the pieces of your world, then you can keep them consistent across the entire span of your story.

Or you can use the four acts to your advantage and assign different worlds to each act.

Utilizing a different primary location, or time period, or reality, for each act can really help differentiate the four acts of your story.

With the right overall design, it could take your story from average, to excellent.