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.