CONFLICT: LESSON 1 – DAMIEN VS. RONNIE
Conflict is the most important element of storytelling. Failure to incorporate it guarantees that your works will flop. It is a subject worth going over again and again. There are more than a few types of conflict, but the common link of all forms is that they create adversity. Conflict worsens the predicament your protagonist is in, and she must grow stronger if she is to overcome it. Let’s start with an easy scene with no conflict, and watch how the scene improves as we amp up the adversity.
* * *
Damien left the office building at five o’clock, because that’s when he got off work. Once outside, he kissed his wife on the cheek, just as he had a thousand times before.
Level 2 – Let’s add a ticking clock.
Somebody had left a time-bomb on the bottom floor. Nobody knew where it was, but word spread like wildfire – 5 O’clock it was gonna blow. Damien hurried out of the building, where his wife was already waiting for him.
“I love you babe,” said Damien. He gave her a fat kiss on the cheek, and was thankful to be alive.
Level 3 – add a human antagonist (the antagonist can be a force of any kind, it doesn’t always have to be a bad guy with a mustache)
The elevator doors split open, and Damien found himself face-to-face with his greatest fear – Ronny McDee.
“Good to see you again, Damien. I noticed your wife was waiting for you outside. It’s too bad, she seemed so sweet.”
He didn’t have time for this – the bomb was set to go off at five. That gave him about three minutes to get past this lunatic clown.
“Shouldn’t you be flipping patties somewhere,” Damien said back to him. It wasn’t until then that the words sunk in – Ronny McDee had seen his wife outside. Had he done something to her?
“Hahaha!” Began Ronnie. “I moved on from that long ago.”
“To killing innocent civilians?”
“No, fries mostly.”
“Cut the shit,” said Damien. “What happened to my wife? If you did something to her I swear I’ll-”
“Relax!” said Ronnie. “I would never harm your wife. Gentleman’s agreement.”
“Oh. Well… I appreciate that.”
“It’s nothing. Now we should really get going and work out our differences elsewhere. I’d hate to still be here when my bomb goes off.”
“Good point,” said Damien. He jogged out the office building alongside Ronny, then found his wife waiting for him there.
“Hey, how are you?”
“I’m good. The chicken’s in the oven already so we should really get going.”
“Oh, alright,” said Damien, before turning to Ronny. “How bout I come by your place tomorrow and we settle this?”
“Sure, that’d be fine. Just look for the palace with the golden arches.”
* * *
I know that the last scene got a bit wacky, but that was partly because I wanted to illustrate a point. Do you notice how the moment Ronny and Damien began speaking on friendly terms it took dedication to keep on reading? When you diffuse conflict in the middle of a scene, you require your readers to continue on out of kindness, rather than desire. We all want to see conflict resolved – but once it is, the story, or an individual scene within the story, is over. That is what happens after the climax – the conflict is resolved. But up until then, you must maintain conflict at all times, and the best writers are able to effectively increase conflict heading into the climax, something known as ‘rising tension’.
Notice also how corny this scene is? You feel like you’ve seen/read it a hundred times, don’t you?
But you still felt compelled to keep reading it.
Don’t be so hard on authors who are commercially successful. If you want to be a best selling author, you’re going to have to accept the fact that constant arguments, time-bombs, evil villains, and dames in distress are all useful ingredients worth including in any story, no matter how much of a literary ‘genius’ you’ve already discovered yourself to be. Don’t ever become formulaic, that’s not what I’m saying – just pay more attention to best selling works, and figure out why they’re best sellers. Don’t fall in line with those who praise works of literature that will never appeal to a mass-market audience, unless you’ve decided that artistic expression is more important to you than big-time sales. Neither approach is wrong, but you should seriously think about the path you’d like to take, and write accordingly. Don’t complain about the failure of the masses to recognize true brilliance. It has more to do with them not caring, anyway – the masses flock to stories that entertain them, and that’s never going to change.
Let’s return to this scene later. If you have any suggestions to increase the conflict, feel free to include them in the comment section below. It’s always good practice to find new and exciting ways to amp up the tension in any given scene. If you want to steal this scene and make it your own, feel free to do so. I don’t care.
Hope this helps!
– Thomas M. Watt
– Script Analyst for SpecScout.com
– Author of A New Kingdom