Creative writing & the value of conflict

Recently, I wrote about having a bad weekend and actively working to learn from the experience. I have set a very specific writing goal over the next two months that should see me through to the end of my next novel. Sure, I'd like to see more writing than the goal, but the target is good enough for now. As I sat down to write, I noticed the connection between the two events. Just as conflict in life is necessary for growth, conflict in story is needed to create an interesting narrative.

A rule in modern fiction writing is that conflict drives a story. Without conflict, there is no motion. While a story generally has an overarching conflict, movement through the story should always be provided by smaller, scene-by-scene conflicts. These conflicts should usually touch on the main conflict; however, if every scene relates only to the main conflict, the overall impact will be flat and uninteresting.

Conflict should arise naturally, not just result from irrational poor choices or contrived circumstances for the sake of the plot.

A mistake I find in less satisfying works is conflating conflict with an actual dispute. This mistake often manifests in the form of characters acting inconsistently for the sole purpose of contriving a dispute. Television writing is notorious for this. Characters will get into an argument over some inane issue, and it is not long before the characters and story devolve over the course of a series to justify the direction of the story. Understanding the difference is where the real art of storytelling is found.

A famous bad example is the trope of a leader who issues instructions to ranks of followers and inexplicably chooses not to explain their Real Plan(tm), which then leads to subordinates "taking matters into their own hands." In adventure fiction, this usually leads to some silly side quest that ends in disaster. We see this in The Last Jedi with the nonsensical Po and Finn storyline. Side quests or tangent sequences are not bad by themselves; the key is the motivation and actions must be consistent with the setting and the characters. If not, then the inconsistency must be clearly explained to the reader.

Conflict is necessary in every scene, but a conflict does not require confrontation. Conflicts can be internal or external, they can exist between a character and their "inner demons," their circumstances, the world around them or even with inanimate objects. There are almost infinite possibilities. Multiple characters can face a mutual conflict without confrontation, such as with characters who struggle to communicate, struggle to be honest, or struggle to understand something.

As much fun as I had writing the action scenes in They Call Me Princess, one of my favorite scenes is a conversation between the two main characters. It is filled with internal and external conflicts on the parts of both characters as they strive to understand how certain revelations may change various aspects of their lives, as well as their relationships with each other and everyone else.

Understanding conflict as a tool of storytelling is critical to elevating the skill of writing. Understanding conflict as a tool of learning and growth is a challenge it can take a lifetime to understand.

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