Conflict and TensionJan 25, 2021
Conflict isn’t always THE Conflict. Each of our characters will experience some kind of Conflict within your story – some of which directly impacts the plot, while others are more nuanced and subtle. But these are the seven types of Conflict in fiction, along with examples:
- Character versus Character: The characters of Gus and Call, Texas Rangers, in Lonesome Dove: each man wants something different and both have long conflicts with each other over those differences.
- Character versus Society: The Help by Kathryn Stockett – the Characters of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are in Conflict with the racist attitudes and laws of Civil Rights-era Mississippi
- Character versus Nature: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter – a fictionalized account of her family’s hardships during the deadly Dakota winter of 1880-81
- Character versus Technology: Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn could be betrayed by technology – the cameras in the home where she is (spoiler) hiding – but instead, she turns the tables and uses that very same technology to craft a false narrative of her time in ‘captivity’.
- Character versus Supernatural: In the YA novel The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, young Louis Barnavelt moves to his uncle’s home after being orphaned, only to discover that the former owner, an evil wizard, has left a doomsday machine hidden in the home. Louis must face the spirit of that wizard in order to find the clock and stop it from destroying the world.
- Character versus Fate: In S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Ponyboy knows that the world looks at him, his brothers and their friends as trash. But it doesn’t keep him from desiring a more stable life, or from loving those who stick up for him.
- Character Versus Self: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – Sophie is haunted by a terrible decision she was forced to make years before, a decision that impacts her relationships with others and leads to another tragedy
The major Conflicts of your story have to create Tension – the emotional partner to Conflict. Conflict without Tension is empty and unmemorable. Tension should also be what your readers experience when they read your story. You want them to be emotionally vested in what happens to your characters and Conflict and Tension are great ways to employ that.
As an example, let’s look at Conflict from the perspective of the story The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams.
Adams is best known for his international best-seller Watership Down.
The Girl in a Swing is a sort of haunted love story. The main character, Alan, is a fussy British china merchant who impulsively marries a beautiful young woman that he meets in Denmark on a business trip. Alan has no real romantic experience and is utterly shocked to learn that the stunning typist he meets in Copenhagen genuinely returns his affections. To the surprise of Alan’s family and colleagues, he marries Käthe just weeks after their meeting.
Käthe, who is German-born, dives into her life with her new husband without a look back. She leaves Copenhagen to join him in England and she is thrilled when Alan proposes they elope and invite nobody to the nuptials. The couple then enjoy a passionate honeymoon marred only briefly by a strange visage in the nearby lake that rattles the new bride, but she recovers, and they return home where Käthe endearingly makes herself useful in Alan’s china business.
The Conflict of The Girl in a Swing is that Alan does not know the lengths that Käthe went to in order to become his wife – or does he? The readers certainly have no idea what Käthe has done, but we follow the story and the tension that Adams created – the images of water, the issues of sin and forgiveness, a small green pillow that appears and disappears, and then the eerie phone calls and disturbing reveal.
Paradoxically, Alan may actually know, somewhere, deep down inside, what Käthe did to be with him, and he may bear some moral responsibility for her actions. After all, he rather liked the idea of his new wife belonging totally to him, with no attachments to her past. Alan also knows that he did not probe Käthe more about her prior life because he feared losing her. Perhaps that makes him complicit in her crimes.
Adams did a masterful job of drawing readers into the love story and then the tension of The Girl in a Swing – literal tension at times, when the haunting seems to become real – but without giving away the twist.
What do your main characters want, what gets in the way of achieving this, and how can you draw your readers into the Tension that this creates? Can you tell your story in a way that surprises, engages and even shocks your potential readers?
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