Tag Archives: plot devices

The Six Types of Conflict in Fiction

I’ve talked before about the importance of conflict in a story. This is all well and good to know, but what forms, exactly, can conflict take in a story?

At its most basic, conflict in a story takes one of six different forms.

  • Man Against Self. In a story about inner conflict, the character from whose point of view the story is told fights mainly against him- or herself. Think of Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; Louis struggles against his own ambivalence regarding his new vampire nature. The risk you run in detailing this sort of conflict, of course, is a far too introspective tale, but because it focuses on human nature, it can also be the most rewarding to write.
  • Man Against Nature. This type of conflict focuses on an individual who seeks to overcome natural elements: he or she seeks to scale a mountain, or survive three days in the wilderness, or cross an ocean. One of the most notable “man against nature stories,” of course, is Jack London’s Call of the Wild. These types of stories tend to be Realist in tone; when it comes down to it, humans simply cannot overcome Mother Nature – not for long, anyway.
  • Man Against Society. Probably the favorite of the bohemian artist set, this sort of narrative usually pits a misfit against a conformist society. He or she may seek to enlighten, liberate, flee from, or simply survive in such a society, but society as a whole wants him out of the way. Richard Matheson, in his I Am Legend, puts a fascinating spin on this conflict: only one human, Robert Neville, exists in the whole world – and all of the undead want to drink his blood.
  • Man Against Machine. Rapidly rising in popularity in our increasingly mechanized society, this sort of conflict usually depicts a human fighting against machines, which are conveyed as soulless or even demonic. Think of the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, in which the hero, Freder, battles the man-killing machines of the dystopian Metropolis. These types of stories usually fall in the sci-fi camp.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice.Man Against God. In a story featuring this type of conflict, an individual fights a capricious or cruel god or gods; mythologies of many people focus on this sort of conflict. Many times, the hero or heroine overcomes the gods either through trickery or sheer valor, but in other stories, the hero fails and is condemned to eternal punishment. For example, take Orpheus, who wins the right to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, as long as he does not look behind him as they leave the Underworld. But, of course, before he can lead her all the way out of Hades, he turns to look at her, thus violating the agreement – and losing her again.
  • God Against Everybody. Possibly the most sweeping type of conflict concerns a god dead set on destroying all of humankind; again, these stories usually fall in the mythological camp. Think of the many mythological destruction narratives, such as an Egyptian tale in which the gods, annoyed with the amount of noise humans make, decide to send the goddess Hathor down to wipe out the pestilence of mankind. Today, these types of stories would be classed as fantasy, though they need not be.

Endless variations on these conflicts exist, and of course, there’s no reason multiple conflicts can’t happen within the same story. And no matter how complicated the plot, at the core of any good story, you’ll find a conflict driving the action.

Put Muscle in Your Story With Conflict

Today, we’re going to talk about the importance of conflict. The fact is, conflict drives a good plot, and without it, your story has no muscle.

In her book Outlining Your Novel, K.M. Weiland identifies five different types of conflict that you can write into your novel. These are as follows: personality conflicts; unexpected situations; “high stakes”; inner battles; and outer battles.

Personality conflicts, of course, consist not just of the classic struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, but also all the minor personality conflicts that can ensue along the way. And minor conflicts your protagonist should have in spades – even with those of your characters who seem to be on your main character’s side. If you want your readers to root for your hero, no better way to make that happen than by pitching what seems to be the whole world against him.

Arthur Dent, much bemused by his adventure.Unexpected situations are just that and open the door to new situations for your main character. Perhaps, like Arthur Dent, your protagonist just goes down the pub to have a pint with his friend, only to be whisked away on an intergalactic quest. How could his horoscope have predicted that? Think of the most unpredictable outcome possible for the most mundane of situations – and write it into your plot as a startling twist.

What about high stakes? Weiland explains that when high stakes are involved, a task that otherwise would be doable becomes nothing short of heroism. Suppose, for example, that your hero must simply deliver a mysterious load of cargo to Epsilon Eridani. Easy enough for your dashing, young captain – until he discovers that his cargo is actually the cryogenically frozen Princess Malaguena of the Galeron tribe, and the fate of the entire star system depends on her successful delivery. Your young captain might sweat a bit now, but no reason to stop there – now an entire gang of reivers is after him, determined to kill him, capture Malaguena, and bring about interstellar war. High stakes indeed!

Finally, consider inner and outer battles. Of course, outer battles are easy to plot. Fight through the enemy, scale the castle walls, and behead the evil Lord Ulmar. Those conflicts are a dime a dozen. What’s more intriguing is the inner conflict taking place within the hero or heroine. Suppose the heroine is torn between her loyalty to her family and her loyalty to what she believes is right? Suppose she knows her father is a monster, but she still cannot convince herself to betray him? How strong are blood ties? There you have inner conflict.

All of these kinds of conflict can be present in varying degrees in your work of fiction, and all of them invest readers in the outcome. Nothing is more boring than a novel in which everybody gets along; amp up the conflict, and put muscle in your story.

Your Mission: Frustrate Your Protagonist on Every Page

A major component—if not the most important component—of a good plot is the movement toward some goal on the part of your protagonist. He or she should have a clearly defined objective that the whole action of the story supports and which is either fulfilled or denied in the end. However, to make the story compelling, your job as the teller of your tale is to frustrate your main character’s goal on every page.

Say, for example, that your main character, whom we’ll call Panthea, aims to live a quiet life as an anchorite. This seems a simple enough goal: all she has to do is venture out into the wilderness with a couple of goats and chickens, build a hut by a stream, and get to the business of being a hermit.
Very nice, but it doesn’t make for fascinating reading.

Hermit hut.Ask yourself, “What can possibly get in the way of Panthea’s dream?” Well, I can think of a half dozen obstacles. What if she is betrothed at an early age and must find a way to escape the proposed marriage? What if she comes from a privileged family and has no basic survival skills? What if the bishop of her diocese opposes her plans on the grounds that she is female? What if all of the land surrounding her hometown belongs to the king, and she can’t live there except on pain of death? What if, once she finally gets her hut by a stream, other people won’t leave her alone? In just those few potential obstacles to Panthea’s dream, you have the outlines of an entire book.

So as the director of your character’s life, aim to get in the way of his or her dreams. Be merciless – make your character work for his dreams.

Save the Preaching for the Sunday Sermon

As a writer, you more than likely have strong opinions. And more than likely, a majority of your writing will stem from those strong opinions. You might write dystopian sci-fi to warn your fellow man of the dangers of our all becoming Cylons, or you might write fantasy stories that act out the consequences of chauvinism. Or, alternately, you might write literary fiction concerning some awful social injustice.

This is good–illustrating the human experience is the point of art. But in each piece like this, you run a risk: the risk of preaching.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from imagining a dystopian future to preaching? Usually, you’ll create a character, probably older and jaded, into whose mouth you’ll put long speeches to explain why the world has gone or is going to hell.

You know what? That’s boring.

Stranger in a Strange Land
A prime example of a character who does little besides preach is Robert A. Heinlein’s Jubal in Stranger in a Strange Land. This classic starts off in typical Heinlein fashion, all story. At some point, however, Heinlein begins using the story as a platform for preaching–largely through the (older and jaded) character of Jubal.

Throughout most of the book, Jubal goes on long-winded rants about society, art, religion, and endless other subjects. Are they on target? Yes, these speeches certainly are. As a reader and artist, I agreed with the speeches. But did I find them interesting? Not at all. Did they move the story along? Not at all.

And that’s the risk you run with preaching in a story. When you stop relying on the action in the story to do the work and instead put your ideas into sermons Father O’Shaughnessy would approve of, you’re really not doing anything artistic—you’re just ranting, and because the speeches have little action to back them up, your readers won’t be inclined to agree with you. Worse, they may abandon the book altogether.

It’s definitely true that a piece of fiction must enlighten readers. But it’s even more true that a piece of fiction must entertain. Honestly, nobody is going to enjoy reading a book that does little besides preach at you. And if your readers don’t enjoy your work, who on Terra is going to learn from it?

If You’re Going to Kill Your Villain, Let Me See Where You Put Your Machete

Once, in the halcyon days of my youth, I wrote a story patterned after the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the biblical story, Judith frees the Jewish people from an Assyrian blockade by first seducing and then killing Holofernes, the Assyrian general who is besieging Bethulia. In my story, set in Nigeria during colonial rule, my character frees her village from the rule of a vicious military officer, also by seducing and then killing the officer.

Everything went fine until, like Judith, I had my character pull out a machete and chop off the interloper’s head. The trouble was that I had not, up to that point, mentioned that the main character had a machete.

What I‘d unknowingly done was to use what’s called a deus ex machina device. Deus ex machina is a Greek term for “god from a machine,” and ancient Greek playwrights were so guilty of using it that we’ve named the device after them.

A deus ex machina device is “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition). In Greek tragedy, once the plot had tangled to the point at which the playwright had no perceivable way to bring the drama to a conclusion, a machine would bring a “god” onto the stage. The god would then solve everything with a wave of his or her omnipotent little finger. Aeschylus introduced the device, and Euripides (of Medea fame) popularized it. At times, even Shakespeare resorted to the deus ex machina.

So, why was this plot device a misstep on my part, if even Shakespeare made use of it? Because for a contemporary audience, such contrivances are lazy and unsatisfying. By failing to use foreshadowing (or, as I like to say, dropping hints), you miss out on building a good sense of suspense for your readers. These days, foreshadowing the ending is always, always necessary. (Note that foreshadowing should be subtle – you want the clues to make sense after the fact.)

In my own story that I mentioned above, any intelligent reader would experience an unsatisfying surprise when the unexpected machete makes its appearance above the officer’s neck. Because if Judith’s going to off Holofernes, then my reader had better be clued in to it by Judith’s tucking that machete into her robes prior to going to see him. That way, my reader sees that Judith plans to put that machete to work. He or she then eagerly awaits the conclusion, which is bound to be bloody.

Had I used this little bit of foreshadowing, I could have created a sense of suspense and anticipation that the story otherwise lacked – and that leads not only to a satisfying conclusion, but satisfied readers.