I’m working my way through a terrific writing book, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, by the inimitable Alexandra Sokoloff. As a “pantser” of long standing, the kind of writer whose forays into outlining before I write have uniformly ended badly, Alex’s book is especially interesting, because I’m discovering that my novel-in-progress intuitively follows many of the arcs and milestones Alex talks about.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts inspired by Alex’s book, and today I’m thinking about layers of conflict in fiction.
In a mystery novel, the central conflict of the story is usually fairly clear. And it’s usually a variant on a basic, age-old pattern: The villain wants to get away with his plan, the hero or heroine wants to stop or unmask or apprehend him or her.
But in a great story, there are so many opportunities for conflict. These generally fall into one of two patterns:
- Interpersonal Conflicts: Two characters have needs or desires which are in opposition to one another. In my novel, the main character is raising her grandchildren because her daughter is a drug addict. She wants to keep her grandchildren safe, but her daughter wants custody back. Both of them cannot get what they want.
- Internal Conflicts: These conflicts are internal to one character, between two parts of her personality or between who she is and who she wishes to be. Oftentimes, they arise from the latter. The heroine wants to get the man of her dreams, but her past experience with an abusive husband holds her back. Of course, the man of her dreams is fighting his own inner conflicts at the same time… Often these conflicts stem from a gap between who the character is and who s/he wishes s/he could be. Jane wishes she could be bold enough to express her love for John, but how could she ever let herself be that vulnerable again?
What makes a dramatic story dramatic, I think, is the interplay between these conflicts. John and Jane both want a relationship, but their own internal baggage makes each of them unwilling to trust, to let go of past hurts and make the leap. Or, Jane wants John, but he’s still prisoner to the baggage of his past relationship with Sally. Until he lets go of that, he won’t be able to fully open his heart to Jane.
At the same time as these internal conflicts are playing out, of course, the larger interpersonal conflicts are unfolding, influenced by the internal struggles of all the players. The heroine must overcome her inner fears and demons, even as her personal collision course with the evil conspiracy marches inexorably closer to a confrontation that will free, or destroy, her.
To add richness and depth to your stories, think about these layers of internal and external conflict. Think about how the interplay of each character’s internal conflicts with one another, and with the larger external conflicts, shapes the decisions each character makes. The result will be a richer, more vivid, more credible story.