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.



Character Part 5: Identity vs. Essence & Emphasized Cubby

Character Part 5: Identity vs. Essence & Emphasized Cubby

Identity

How the world sees your character.

It’s their public face. How they are perceived in a societal, general, sense.

We get a taste of this when people are referred to by their profession, or their social ties, or their surface level characteristics.

How about some examples?

  • Business woman
  • Homeless bum
  • Cab driver
  • Hooker
  • Rockstar
  • Saint
  • Criminal
  • Family man
  • Best friend
  • Husband
  • Wife
  • Delivery boy

These are all ways in which people first experience a character. The first impression. Who the character seems to be on the surface.

Notice that supporting characters are typically thought of in this way.

Defined purely by their relationship to the main character:

  • Best friend
  • Sister
  • Dad
  • Boss
  • Teacher
  • Love interest

All of these labels have socially ascribed meaning embedded within them. We all get a certain surface level idea of who the person is when we hear them.

But let’s dig a little deeper:

Essence

Who your character truly is, based on what is in their heart and mind.

What is the content of their character beneath the labels, beneath the perceptions, beneath the assumptions?

This is the soul of your character. The part that an audience identifies with and will ultimately embrace or reject.

Say:
By day, this character seems to be a successful business man.
By night, he’s actually a serial killer.

Or a much more subtle version:
On the surface, this character seems to be very refined and sophisticated.
But behind closed doors they’re actually the opposite.

No one is ever really what they seem to be. Juxtaposing a character’s identity versus their essence, adds nuance and complexity. It makes them a real person, who has many sides to their personality.

Emphasized Cubby

As stated earlier, each character has a particular role to play in the larger story. This is where the “emphasized cubby” comes in.

When constructing your story, you have fifteen different cubbies to concern yourself with. Fifteen different plates spinning at once.

How do you express all of these ideas in a clear coherent way? One sure fire way is to:

Make each character a spokesperson for a different cubby.

One character is the moral center of your story, another embodies the emotion line, another is the main source of conflict, etc.

When you anchor these ideas via specific characters, it gives them emotional heft. It allows the cubbies to fully come to life through specific people, rather than remaining abstract concepts. It also ensures that each character in your story has something concrete to contribute to the greater story as a whole.

No one gets wasted.

You can do this for every character and every cubby – give it a try.



Character Part 4: Character Web

Character Web

You want the story you’re telling to feel connected. You want it to feel organic and whole. One way to do this, is through the “character web.”

By designing a character web, you create cohesion among your various characters. They all feel like an organic part of your story. All of them connected to one another somehow.

How do you do this?

You pick one trait that all the characters can share.

This could be one of the character traits we’ve already covered:

For instance, all of your characters could be connected by the same flaw.

Perhaps they all have intimacy issues.

Then throughout the story, you have each character demonstrate a unique version or expression of this same general flaw.

  • Unwilliness to commit.
  • Fear of loss, which causes constant anxiety, which causes problems for the relationship.
  • Needy behavior.
  • Too caught up in an idealized version their partner to see the real state of their connection.

These are all expressions of the same core flaw: intimacy issues.

Each character would have distinct and specific challenges in the story, but the baseline similarity gives the whole cast of characters a sense of belonging to the same idea, the same theme, the same story.

Or maybe you have all of your characters follow the same character arc:

It’s a coming of age story.

And through the course of the story, each character matures in their own way. This maturation will be caused by different experiences, different moments, but they’ll all come out more “grown up” in the end. This gives the characters a shared element that connects them all in a web.

Or maybe give all of your characters the same ghost:

Then you can go ahead and play out the different perspectives or opinions they all have about this shared event in their past.

Say a group of soldiers all survived the same battle. And now some guy they thought was dead, has come back for revenge.

Any character trait can be used to create a web.

It just depends on what works best for your story, what trait your really want to focus on, and which one can best be integrated into all of your characters.

But once you create that web, you’ve now given your story a powerful sense of cohesion and wholeness. A sense that everything here is a natural part of the overall story.