Formal Writing

Conflict and Argument

Arguably, conflict could be called the spice of life (see what I did there?).

Something I often see bandied about with writing is that ‘conflict is the most important element in a compelling story’, and that’s probably the truth.
Yes folks, we just found some rare writing advice/knowledge I flat out agree with!

The reason why I agree with it is that it’s provably true. We all know that a reward is all the sweeter when we have to work for it, and success is a greater joy when it took effort to get there.
We don’t get nearly so excited when we see someone easily win at something we know they are an expert at, as when we see a plucky underdog overcome the odds to claim the gold.
We like having someone or something to root for. We like knowing what is at stake and seeing how the characters overcome or adjust to the conflict to reach a conclusion. We do it in real life (half of all gossip is grown in the soil of misfortune, after all), so of course we look for it in our stories.

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Conflict

In terms of writing, ‘conflict’ is any struggle, challenge or opposition which affects the characters and the story. It may be between the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ or other characters, but it provides the drive and movement for the story.
If nothing ever went wrong or challenged the characters, there is no reason for the characters to break their average routines, or show us their underlying strengths and flaws.

Apparently, it is a beginner mistake commonly seen for newer writers to leave out conflict in their work, but I’m not sure it actually happens that often.
Yes, world building aficionados might focus on that instead of the plot, but I think most of us are aware that a story is a conflict of some kind, and can identify conflict in the media we each enjoy. We instinctively want to give our creations a conflict to overcome, to show how awesome they are.

I remember in school, years ago as that feels now, being taught by one of the few teachers I didn’t like. Despite the dislike she and I had for each other, I do at least still remember her teaching the ‘types’ of conflict in stories: “man against man,” “man against nature” or “man against self.”

I also remember thinking, even then, that was a bit restrictive and not quite true. Being a teenager, and thus firmly planted in consuming comic stories, I could immediately see that those three ‘types’ didn’t account for space aliens of the 5th dimension invading Earth, or for the supernatural.
It also didn’t really account for man against technology, which was a shame as there were some great stories coming out in my youth about robot uprisings, not to mention all the stories that predated my time.

Thankfully, since then, I believe the syllabus has changed somewhat. I also know that writing groups at large talk about six types of conflict as a baseline now.

  1. Person vs Person: Self-explanatory, and probably the most common type of conflict. Examples exist everywhere, run a finger along your bookshelf and most will have some kind of conflict of this type there somewhere.

  2. Person vs Nature: Conflict with natural elements, be it animals or environment. Examples include Jaws, Nation, Anaconda, your choice of shipwreck stories…

  3. Person against Self: Internal struggle. An extreme example would be Fight Club, but any struggle against an element of the character’s self counts.

  4. Person vs Society: Books where the main plot focus on antagonism with society, be it local community or larger in scale. 1984 fits this category, as does To Kill a Mockingbird, as I had to find out in school through an elongated and painful dissection of that novel.

  5. Person vs Supernatural: Characters against something unnatural. Maybe they are resisting fate, maybe an exorcism is needed. Examples range from Dracula to The Birds fit in here, and this type goes on to include large alien threats too. Thus, we can comfortably add Aliens in here. (Note that if the aliens are similar to people and engage in discourse, those stories come under type 1 in all but shape and style.)

  6. Person vs Technology: Fairly self-explanatory again. Technically, Frankenstein is one of the earlier examples of this idea, but most of us around today grew up with other variants – Terminator, The Matrix, classics by Clarke and Asimov…

So, six archetypes, and most works have some mix of all of these. One main conflict the story moves around with a host of smaller conflicts along the way, and they don’t all have to come from one type.
Often, if type 2 – 6 are chosen for the main conflict, type 1 turns up in the character’s personal relationships as things move on, and all of it leads us to a satisfying conclusion at the end.

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Argument

Part of a conflict, especially of type 1, is argument. People argue and disagree all the time, so it’s no wonder our characters in stories do too.

I appear to be something of an oddity, actually enjoying dialogue in writing. If anything, I find scenes of people talking easier than more dramatic events, and can dash out a conversation far faster than most other kinds of writing. I then go back and fill in my movement cues and dialogue tags after running through all the words.
And then I read it aloud to myself in the comfort of my living room, like a crazy person.

Arguments are one of the more fun parts of dialogue, and a great way to show off the conflicts people have with each other. A good old shouting match can be as engaging as a fight, especially if you can really get behind the people arguing, and for me, that is where a lot of ‘conflicts’ I have read in non-published works fall apart.

One side often isn’t believable.

Like most people who’ve had a teenage stint in their life, I’ve done my fair share of shouting. I’ve been on the right side of some arguments, the wrong side of others. Some are mere points of view, with no right and wrong, but all arguments have one thing in common:
At the time of the debate, both sides think they are right.

Thus, both sides must have some reason for thinking they are the one who is correct. Now, when it comes to teenagers arguing about whether they have a curfew or not, those reasons could be very flimsy, but they are still there.

In bigger arguments, less hormone fuelled, the reasons tend to be even stronger.
If I argue with my husband about whether he used up all the red paint I need or not, I’m going to be doing so from the certainty he did not ask, I did not give permission, and there is patently no paint left.
As for him, he will be arguing back with the certain knowledge I had said it was ok after he asked, and that there was definitely paint left when he was done for the day.

Lucky for me, I have an awesome husband and we argue very rarely. In the above scenario, we would probably go check, see that there is indeed no paint left in the pot I was looking in… but probably find the one he had been using, a second pot, hidden on the shelf and ready to use. And then he would apologize for not putting it back where it belonged, and I would apologize for not remembering he asked me something (probably because I was cooking at the time.)

Most of our arguments turn out to be each of us being 50% right and last all of 30 minutes. I have the best marriage.

Nevertheless! When we argue, we both have points we cling to as our truth, as does everyone else. To bring this across in writing, I find the best way to do it is to make sure the argument is balanced.

If Jose has six points that make up her argument, Bob should have between 5 – 7 for the argument to be in balance.
If I want Jose to win the argument for my plot to move on, I might give Bob only 5, or I might make one of Jose’s point more compelling.
Alternately, if Bob needs to win the argument, he might have 7 points in his favor or some damning point that makes him seem more correct.

Note that this isn’t about who is actually right… it’s about the balance in the writing. Sometimes plot happens because the wrong person won an argument, and people end up in over their heads or doing something they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Perhaps, though, Jose and Bob don’t need to have a winner to their argument. Perhaps they are two strangers thrown together in unusual circumstances, and they are both right. They must come together to overcome whatever the problem in the book is, and come to appreciate each other’s opposing views, and the different circumstances that make them think the way they do.

Well, in my case that’s easy because I just pretend it’s my other half and I. But the balance still has to be there. It makes no sense for Jose to sway to at least understanding Bob’s argument if his argument is really weak compared to hers.

Conflict builds story. Displaying reaction to conflict builds character. Balancing arguments gives believable life to imagined people.

Arguing with yourself inside your own house to check it all sounds correct… makes you a little bit nuts. And a writer.
But by all means… we can argue about it if you like 🙂

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