By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
As part of my mini-series on goal, motivation, and conflict, we’ve already talked about the antagonist’s role in building conflict in our story. This week I want to look at good conflict vs. bad conflict.
Alongside the antagonist standing in our character’s way, our character is also going to face other challenges in reaching their goal. It could be other people, it could be physical obstacles, it could be puzzles they need to solve or clues they need to gather. We call these challenges conflict.
Here’s the tricky part for many writers. As Dwight Swain said in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “conflict for conflict’s sake” is useless. It hurts our story rather than helping it.
To put this another way, not all conflict is created equal. The best way that I know to help writers understand good conflict that turns their story into a page-turner is to explain bad conflict that annoys the reader and makes the story feel pointless and slow.
So here are the top three offenders when it comes to bad conflict.
There’s a difference between characters disagreeing over how to handle a real problem that they need to solve and characters that seem to be arguing simply for the sake of arguing.
If our characters bicker over minor differences, this is bad conflict. (I’d argue it isn’t even really conflict.) If you want an argument to have any chance of working as conflict, it needs to stem from deep, fundamental differences in your characters’ belief systems, morals, or end goals. Petty squabbling isn’t interesting, and it can make our characters seem childish and stupid.
Another expression of this type of bad conflict is a character that argues or disagrees even when doing so isn’t in their self-interest. A character shouldn’t randomly pick a fight if doing so hampers reaching a much more important goal.
Our characters should get along at least some of the time.
When you’re thinking about adding an argument for conflict, consider where what they’re fighting about sits on each character’s personal value scale. Is achieving the goal more important to them than the particular thing they’re fighting about? If so, delete that argument.
If the content of what they’re arguing about is more important than the end goal, then the argument works as conflict (e.g., a character whose moral compass says I won’t kill for any reason vs. a character who believes killing in pursuit of their goal is a time where the end justifies the means).
If our characters could sit down and resolve their misunderstanding with an adult conversation, we don’t have conflict. What we will have is annoyed readers.
Misunderstandings only work if there’s a strong reason these two characters can’t talk it out. By strong reason, I mean something like one of them is a POW and can’t communicate with the outside world.
Rabbit trails are conflicts that are unrelated to the goal. These conflicts might be fascinating in a different story where they actually matter to the long-term goal, but when they only serve as a detour, they actually slow the story down and cause readers to lose interest.
Here’s an example. Let’s say we have a pair of archeologists who think they’ve located the hiding place of the Holy Grail.
Good Conflict: One of our archeologists is kidnapped by a drug cartel that plans to torture him for information because they also want to find the Holy Grail and sell it to the highest bidder.
Bad Conflict: One of our archeologists is kidnapped by a drug cartel that is kidnapping random people will the plan to force them into becoming drug mules to smuggle their product across the border.
Do you see the difference? One roadblock is random and unconnected to the larger goal. This type of conflict will frustrate the reader because they’ll want to get back to the real story. The other roadblock increases tension and keeps the story moving because the conflict is intimately connected to the larger story goal.
Do you have any questions about conflict? I’d love to answer them either in the comments or in another post.
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.
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