by T.S. Garp
For the Writer's Workshop...An analysis of the element of conflict in the short story.
Conflict in Short Stories
While there are many elements to any short story, one of the most important to consider while writing is conflict. As we write stories, characters and their development can take radical turns even during the creation process. Often even the final plot and theme barely resemble what we originally intended, changing dramatically once we “put pen to paper”. Rarely, however, do we stray far from the conflict we had in mind. I have always felt that characters are pliable, you can mold them to do what you want. Change a character trait and you have altered a story’s path all the while heading in the same direction. Conflict is foundational. Change the conflict and you are on a new road altogether. I would argue that, outside of the point of view that we select for a story, most of the time spent thinking about our tale should focus on the conflict of the story and its ultimate resolution. Because of its importance, it is my opinion that conflict should be considered a particular element all its own and not just subsumed by plot.
So what is conflict? Simply put, it is the struggle between opposing forces. As you will see, I also believe that there is one main factor which captures the essence of conflict, but we’ll come to that in a minute. First, we need the basics.
Any Google search regarding conflict in short stories will garner you decent results. I gleaned the following from http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/engramja/elements.html:
There are two types of conflict:
1) External - A struggle with a force outside one's self.
2) Internal - A struggle within one's self; a person must make some decision, overcome pain, quiet their temper, resist an urge, etc.
There are four kinds of conflict:
1) Man vs. Man (physical) - The leading character struggles with his physical strength against other men, forces of nature, or animals.
2) Man vs. Circumstances (classical) - The leading character struggles against fate, or the circumstances of life facing him/her.
3) Man vs. Society (social) - The leading character struggles against ideas, practices, or customs of other people.
4) Man vs. Himself/Herself (psychological) - The leading character struggles with himself/herself; with his/her own soul, ideas of right or wrong, physical limitations, choices, etc.
The above synopsis is a good, succinct outline regarding what conflict is. It is not, however, very good at telling you how to write excellent conflicts into your story. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that either, but I hope I can help with your thought process as you attempt to create a conflict worth reading.
What the above outline lacks is the reasoning behind the cause. As you work the details of your story, ask yourself “What makes for a good conflict?” When you develop your conflict keep in mind what the driving force is behind the struggle. What pushes the character in your story to overcome whatever obstacles get in his/her way, and why do we, as the reader, need to understand and care about those struggles? Make the conflict appealing by revealing, through characterization and narration, what the basis for the struggle actually is. And what lies behind conflict can be summarized by one word: Want.
It is one of our many jobs as authors to create situations where our characters crave something and then thwart, either temporarily or permanently, those needs. Realizing that why we care about a character has more to do with understanding what they desire than with their appearance or their mannerisms will result in a better crafted tale. What is important is that by making a character’s wishes clear and having them resonate with your reader you will naturally write more compelling stories and cause your readers to ask that all important question: “What happens next?”
Make every character want something. It is what drives the action from one point to another. Even the flattest of characters should need something, should have some purpose, whether it's something to eat or the need to leave the scene. By creating and frustrating a character's needs, you impart flow to the story, build suspense, and allow for a satisfying resolution, good or bad.
Creating a believable conflict through the development of your characters’ needs, whether it’s your protagonists desire for life, love, or inner-peace, or your antagonists desire for power, control, or destruction, could have the biggest impact on whether or not your story is as effective as possible. Make your characters yearn!