Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Does Conflict Mean that Someone's Mean?

Writing Wednesday

We've often heard that conflict is the heart of a story. In fact, I've said that story is conflict. But that seems out of character with a season that is, nominally (shopping mall melees notwithstanding), about good-will. Perhaps the disconnect arises from an assumption that in order to have conflict someone has to be mean.

I spoke recently with a writer who was concerned that she didn't have enough conflict and was afraid she couldn't fix it because she didn't like to write about mean people. I pointed out that because they've found ways to justify their actions, even the most hardened criminals don't believe themselves to be bad people.

Worrying, however, about whether people are good or bad, nice or mean, muddies the storytelling waters and actually introduces a subtle bit of moralizing.

How so?

Some of the best writing advice I ever heard was that story and conflict arise from two simple questions:
  1. What do each of your characters want?
  2. What are they each willing to do to get it?

If you have two characters who each want the same thing (a thing that only one of them can have) and who are both willing to do a great many things to get it, you have automatic conflict.

And the beauty is that neither of them has to be mean. In fact if they're both driven by worthy motives you'll have a much better conflict than a simple good vs. bad scenario.

After all, the parents grappling in the stores for the last trendy toy are only in the melee because they want to do something nice for their kids.

Image: Simon Howden /

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