Story Conflict: Do You Have Enough? by Ciara Ballintyne

Conflict is what drives a story. You might have heard it said a story should begin in the middle of the action, which is often misunderstood to mean literal action, like a car chase or a fight scene. What it really refers to is conflict.

Most writers recognize very early-on that conflict is required – the protagonist needs a villain to fight, or a mystery to solve. But conflict goes beyond this. It’s not enough to have this over-arching external conflict. A character needs internal and external conflicts, and there needs to be multiple conflicts. Ideally, the resolution of each successive conflict should up the stakes and increase the pressure on the protagonist – push them towards an untenable situation or impossible decision, force them to act in ways they never would have previously considered. It’s almost impossible to create this kind of situation without having both an internal and external conflict.

So what is the difference between internal and external conflicts?

An external conflict is fairly readily understood – these are physical obstacles to the character attaining their goals. It could be another person (Die Hard), a force of nature (The Day After Tomorrow), a beast (The Ghost and the Darkness), society or cultural restraints (Romeo & Juliet), technology (Terminator), or fate itself. You need to have at least one of these. You could have many more, or you could have multiple conflicts of the same kind. Man vs man is easily the most common. If you only have one external conflict (one, total, not one type), your story may be overly-simplistic.

In my novel, Deathhawk’s Betrayal, the key external conflict is man vs man (or woman vs man in this case), but there are easily five of these types of conflicts, each consisting of the protagonist, Astarl, against another person, each of whom have different reasons and goals for opposing her. She also has an external conflict with society.

Internal conflict is more complex. Internal conflict is man vs himself, and consists of any kind of mental or emotional impediment to what he wants. Think of Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, which he must overcome to attain his goal – that’s an internal conflict. Internal conflicts can also arise from cultural, ethical or religious beliefs. If those beliefs dictate the character behave in a certain way, and those beliefs are challenged, or the character encounters someone with different beliefs, an internal conflict arises.

Internal conflict forces a character to grow and change throughout the course of the book. These are the conflicts that truly challenge a character as a person.

This is why it’s important for your character to have flaws. A perfect character won’t have any internal conflicts. A perfect character won’t be challenged to grow. Back story is what gives your character flaws and internal conflicts.

How can you identify your conflicts?

Some writers can do this intuitively, but for others there are a variety of tools. The one I like to use is a simple Goal Motivation Conflict (GMC) chart. This is a simple grid matrix used to identify, for each of your characters, their goals (what they want), their motivation (why they want it), and the conflict (what’s preventing them from getting it). Don’t assume each character only has one goal – there may be one primary goal, or a first goal, but additional goals may develop along the way. For example, Astarl wants to heal her father – that’s her initial and primary goal throughout the book. That latter changes, and she has additional goals – she wants to help a friend, she wants a romantic relationship with a man she can’t have, she wants to find the man trying to kill her, and there are ‘sub-goals’ – things she must achieve to get closer to achieving her ultimate goal.

Each goal for each character must have a motivation. This isn’t essential so much to conflict, but to creating believable characters. If there is no reason for that character to have that goal, then their actions won’t ring true. If you find a character’s goal lacks motivation, you had better find one quick! Motivations may breed conflict where two characters’ motivations clash.

Once you’ve got the goals for each character, and the motivation for each goal, you need to identify what’s preventing the character from attaining that goal. If the answer is ‘nothing’, you have a big problem. Anywhere you find nothing preventing the character reaching the goal, you need to create an obstacle. Why? Because without an obstacle, there is no story! If Astarl healing her father was as simple as asking a duke for a loan of his magic item, and he said yes, none of the subsequent events in the book would have happened.

Some obstacles are generated by other character goals e.g. Astarl wants a magic artifact, but so do at least two other people, each of whom is trying to prevent the others getting it. This is a classic man vs man external conflict. Some conflicts will be created by the character’s own feelings and beliefs. So, Astarl is prevented from a happy relationship with her lover by her own fear of men. At the same time, he is also sabotaging their relationship, because of his own internal conflicts arising from a sense of duty and obligation.

A GMC chart can help you to build a workable plot by assisting you to work out where you have conflict or a lack of it. Not enough conflict? Pile more obstacles in the way of your protagonist.

All the conflicts need to drive your character towards the ‘Black Moment’, where all seems lost.

The ultimate conflict is to force your character to choose between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable, or to put your character in a situation where he is forced to do something contrary to his nature.

Meet Ciara

Ciara Ballintyne is an Australian writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the newly-released Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.

Follow Ciara

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Ciara Ballintyne (Website)


New Year/New Goals

Here we are at the threshold of another year, and 2011 will soon be behind us.  Did you get everything accomplished that you set out to do in December of 2010?  Isn’t it funny how the new year always brings hope for change, which reminds us that as much as some of us kick and scream over it – it’s in our makeup; we could not exist otherwise.  And, as I’m writing this I just had a powerful revelation, because I’m one of the people who has a strong dislike for reform.  As much as I hate to admit it, my carrying on is due to fear; ever since childhood, that is something that has frightened me.  However, once I settle in, I’m okay.  Do you know anyone like that?  Are you that way?  Either way you look at it; in the  long run change is good.  I can think of two reasons why that is – 1) it matures us, and 2) it makes us appreciate the growth.  So, let’s give a rousing salute to a new year and yet another chance to grow a bit more, shall we?

I’m not going to get into resolutions, and which ones we have to keep this year that we didn’t last year – where #10 on the list is “Stick to Resolutions.”  I am one who believes will power won’t make you hold true to those promises, but that’s not today’s topic.  Because, you see, a new year won’t give you a new life, you’ll have to make the best of the one you have.  However, a new year does bring new goals.  All of us who want something have to have ambitions.  Do you have any set for this coming year?  I have, but I’m always left wondering, are the things I have in mind what’s written in that big Book of Life?  Because if not, then, it’s not happening.  And, if you believe that, then no force from anywhere will bring it to pass if the time isn’t ripe.  Did you ever notice that?  You did everything possible, but you still couldn’t get circumstances lined up where a certain thing would fall into play.  If you’ve ever questioned it – I believe your answer is; inopportune timing.

I believe we are always, gently nudged in our intended direction.  I’ve talked about this before – see my Right Place – Right Time post.  Yes we’re approaching another year – you’re holding on to that wish list, hoping to step through 2012’s portal with guns blazing; raring and ready to go, just remember – timing.  Because, whether you know this or not, you can force a matter.  Let’s reflect for a minute.  Did you goad something in the past that now – after looking back – you wish had been left alone?  If you had left it, I can say with utmost certainty; things would have taken an entirely different route, which would have been the intended direction.  Afterward, you had to then, wait for things to get back on track, and hopefully they did or you got tangled up again in trying to force it another way.  I’m reminded of Abraham and Sarah from the bible.  How much did she get ahead of God by choosing her hand maiden to bear a child by Abraham, instead of waiting on God.  If you know the story, you know it didn’t end well at all.  Again I reiterate, if you’re not sure of something, let it be.

So, when you step over the new year doorstep, do it gingerly; take your time, steady yourself.  Try and get a lay of the land, and then, take another gander at that list of goals, reminding yourself daily – not to get ahead of the plan.  Believe me, I am one who knows first hand how difficult that is; when you want something in that way.  But, settle down and cool your engines.  We as a society have become so drive through – very, I need gratification now.  But, when you do that, what happens is – you miss the journey, and that is as important as the destination.   So, with all that said, I wish everyone a very Happy New Year.

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