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Monday, November 6, 2023

What Exactly is Conflict? Conflict's True Form

When we think of the word "conflict," we often think of battles, arguments, or big chase scenes. But just as we would often do well to broaden our view of what an antagonist truly is, we will often benefit from broadening our understanding of what conflict truly is.

As I've talked about previously, your protagonist should have a goal (to obtain something, or to avoid something, or to maintain something), and the antagonistic force is what is opposing that goal. It will block, push away, or create problems as the protagonist pursues the goal.

This is what creates conflict.

And it doesn't have to be a shouting match or fistfight.

What conflict simply is, is the protagonist encountering, dealing with, and addressing the antagonist.

For example, say Character A needs to obtain important information (goal) from Character B, but Character B is too distracted by his toddler to give it (antagonist). Character A is trying to get and hold Character B's attention, but she keeps getting outdone by the toddler. There are no flying fists. There are no mean words or harsh disagreements. But it is still conflict.

Similarly, a couple may be having relationship troubles. Character A wants to talk about it. Character B doesn't. When they each pursue their goal, it creates conflict--even if they aren't ultimately addressing their actual troubles.

Another example. Character A wants to be healthy, but a pandemic is sweeping the globe. Character A gets the illness. Character A is trying to get healthy, while the illness is "trying" to make her sicker. That's conflict.

With that said, though, not all conflict is equal. A conflict about a character having to brush his teeth when he doesn't want to, is, generally speaking, not very interesting. But, in the right situation, it could maybe be made to be interesting, if we tie a lot of consequences (stakes) to it. And the best conflicts are about struggling to reach an important goal.

Conflict is what creates rising action.

The protagonist pursues the goal.

The antagonist stands in the way, blocking him.

The protagonist has to stretch to find a way to deal with that (simplistically speaking).

Usually, he must try harder to overcome the antagonist. However, sometimes he may choose to go a different way--to change the goal or plan he is pursuing. Each option has costs or risks and consequences.

But soon enough, he runs into an antagonist again.

He must try harder to overcome the antagonist. Or he must choose a different way--to change the goal or plan he is pursuing. Each option has costs or risks and consequences.

And then he runs into an antagonist again. . . .

If we were to zoom in on the rising action of basic structure, it would be like climbing steps on a staircase.

That is, if costs, risks, and consequences are getting bigger. If the antagonists are demanding more.

If not, or if there is no conflict or antagonists, the story is flatlining.

Or worse, falling into de-escalation. Essentially, hitting a falling action when it isn't supposed to.

It's on a plateau. Or it's going "down the stairs."

Instead, the conflict should be rising--it's called "rising action." It should be escalating, having bigger or deeper consequences.

Eventually it reaches a definitive outcome.

Either the protagonist wins or the antagonist wins (simplistically speaking), which turns the direction of the plot--it creates a "climax" or a "turning point," as the conflict is resolved.

And then we go "down the stairs." The conflict dissipates, because the antagonists dissipate, because the goal dissipates (either it was definitively achieved or not).

That's what conflict is. That's what conflict does.

And just as with the goal and the antagonist, it's not only important in the narrative arc as a whole, but within acts and scenes.

Character A trying to get info from Character B, who is distracted by his toddler, is likely the goal, antagonist, and conflict, of a scene.

Everything is essentially the same, it just happens on a smaller scale.

Either Character A definitively gets the info, or doesn't (perhaps Character B leaves to feed his toddler lunch). That turns the scene. And we hit the falling action of the scene.

Simplistically speaking (because there are always exceptions and variations).

But the main thing to remember, is that conflict is the protagonist encountering, dealing with, and addressing the antagonist.


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