There’s plenty of literature on the art of storytelling, and in every book I’ve read, there is one common concept that is paramount to the art form- conflict.
I’m serious, just about every writer will tell you that conflict is the key ingredient to any successful story. You can have the most intriguing characters in the world, but without conflict, there will be no plot, no story, and more important- no readers.
Think about the last time you had a really good story to tell your friends. I mean a real barn burner. The one you whip out at every party because you know it’ll kill. Now, what’s that story about? Is it about the time nailed a job interview, or hit the game winning homer in little league? Hell no! At least I hope not. I bet that story is really about the time you spilled mustard on your blouse right before that big job interview or the time you thought you hit a homer, but it was actually a pop fly that fouled out somewhere behind the bleachers and you didn’t realize it until after you had rounded the bases. Embarrassment and personal disasters equal conflict! Everyone has a story like this. I know I do. Do you want to hear it? Of course, you do!
So, when I was young I was in the Boy Scouts with one of my best friends. We’ll call him Billy. One year our troop planned to take part in a canoe race with a lot of other troops in the area. Now, Billy was an experienced canoer. I mean he really loved it. So, of course, he wanted to take part in the race, but he needed a partner. Naturally, he asked me if I had any practice in a canoe. “Sure,” I said. “I’m great in a canoe! Let’s do this thing!” Had I ever been in a canoe? Nope. But, it’s just paddling, right? How hard could it be?
Well, a leisurely regatta this was not. You see, in the days leading up to the race our county set a record in rainfall for the year. On the day of the race, the river was high and the water was fast. I wasn’t equipped for normal canoeing much less white water canoeing! When we hit the first section of rapids we were able to navigate it- barely. Billy was in the back, steering, and was able to manage the deluge with a little help from me. He realized that I had exaggerated a bit on my canoeing resume. When we got to a second section the water was more turbulent. We hit the rapids and our canoe careened toward the bank of the river putting us on a collision course. Billy did his best to steer us to safety, but the current was too strong. I did the only thing I thought would save us. I pulled my oar from the water and jammed it into the riverbank in an effort to halt our momentum. Rather than stop the boat, the effect was an uppercut, to me, from the paddle handle. I fell backward into the boat. As I thrashed around to right myself I grabbed the edge of the canoe and leaned a little too much to one side. I capsized the boat taking my friend into the water with me.
We both made it back into the boat. Lucky for us, the water wasn’t too deep. We forged on for an hour or so before we decided to stop for lunch (this was a long race) only to realize that our sack lunches had been swept down the river when the boat flipped earlier. Thinking it was a good time to put some distance between Billy and me, I told him I was going to swim for shore to relieve myself. As I disembarked, my foot caught the side of the canoe and it capsized again. I glanced back just in time to see Billy’s face, a mix of shock and anger, as he was unwittingly hurled back into the depths for the second time in a day.
By the end of the race we were exhausted, hungry, and soaked to the bone. I could tell Billy was not happy with me as we loaded our canoe onto its rack. I wondered if this would mean the end of our friendship, but before he could say a word an official ran up to us and handed us a small, plastic trophy. You see, despite all our disasters, we had actually come in first place in our heat. All our troubles were forgotten, and I, for all my mistakes, was forgiven. Billy and I reveled in our victory.
This is a favorite personal story of mine because it’s chock-full of conflicts. My lying, the unexpected rapids, Billy’s anger with me. It was one disaster after another, and it makes for a great yarn!
In his book Story, Robert McKee notes that nothing can move forward in your story except through conflict. To McKee, conflict is to story what sound is to music. It is the medium through which your story moves. What’s the reason for this? Well for McKee it’s because a story is really just a metaphor for life, and life is full of conflict. You get up and go to work every day because you’re in conflict with scarcity and you need money to pay for your food, shelter, clothes, iPhone, Master’s Degree, whatever. Or, maybe you have all the money you’ll ever need. Then, McKee, says you might become bored. Boredom is the internal conflict we all suffer through when we lose our desire. Conflict is how your story can connect to, and reflect your readers’ everyday experiences.
When writing your story you must maximize conflict. Every scene should introduce and develop a conflict. As the writer, it is your job to constantly throw obstacles between your character and her stated goal. Without conflict, your story isn’t a story, but a chronicle of events, a journal or diary. Take my story about the canoe race, and remove all the conflict from it. Then it becomes this: One time I participated in a canoe race with a friend and we won. That’s not a story. It’s just me bragging, and that’s no way to entertain people.
Anyway, that’s all I have on conflict for now. If I missed anything please leave me a comment below. I need all the help I can get. Also, do you have any tips on how to insert conflict into a story? Let me know, and thanks for reading!