Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Politics and Narrative Conflict

One of the truisms of storytelling is that your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist. If, like the Monty Python sketch about the self-defense class, your antagonist threatens everyone with (wait for it) a banana, and your protagonist uses his pistol to save the day, we've learned nothing* from the story because the only stretching the protagonist was forced to do involved reaching for his pistol.

Part of what makes stories superior to daily life is the presence of a clearly defined villain (that and the fact that a good story-teller skips the boring bits). You may object that there are plenty of stories where the villain doesn't have a face or is something that can't be embodied in a single person. While that's true, those stories still ultimately reveal the nature of the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) and show how the protagonist overcomes (or at least deals with) them.

Conflict is the fuel that feeds the story engine. That's why a great deal of writing advice (like the Christopher Walken cow bell sketch on Saturday Night Live) boils down to, "Ratchet up the conflict." But you can't have engaging narrative conflict if the parties and their conflicting objectives are not clear.

When story needs to motivate as well as entertain, the need for a clear-cut antagonist is all the more pressing. If you were told two stories, one with rainbows and bright flowers about puppies who learn they should be nice to each other, and one about oppression and wrongs to be righted--right in your very own neighborhood--which is more likely to move you to do something more than turn to the next story?

The crux of the motivational problem is that we live in a world whose name, if we had to follow the convention of a large, U.S.-based toy retailer, could be, "Ambiguities R Us."

I should have foreseen the present partisan and cultural divide coming: parties need an enemy--a threatening "other"--to call their partisans to action. During the Cold War, one of the partisan battle fields was a tug-of-war (pun intended) over who was strongest on defense (which was code for who would stand up to the Soviet Union). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we've had a parade of mostly Middle Eastern dictators and terrorists. The latter, as a nebulous threat, haven't lived up to their narrative potential to provoke fears entirely out of proportion to their actual activities. So now, without a strong external threat, we have no choice but to look inward and find even more fearful threats at home. In other words, our lust for narrative conflict drives us to turn on ourselves.

For a significant portion of the middle ages, an irrational fear of witches served very nicely to keep village congregations huddled together. We now look back, tut, and shake our heads at such superstitions, and then, in practically the same breath, rise up in righteous indignation at their modern counterparts.

I'm not asking for enlightenment--or even tolerance. I'm simply pointing out something that as storytellers we, of all people, should understand: we're not the only ones who go out of our way to manufacture conflict because that's what a good story requires.

* Except that you should carry a pistol if you're likely to be attacked by fruit-wielding maniacs.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Internal Conflict: Sine Qua Non

There's an entire set of words and phrases which have come down to us from Latin that we're slowly losing because a knowledge of ancient languages is no longer a hallmark of a good education. Even Harry Potter hasn't been able to resurrect more than a few spell phrases from that dead language.

It's unfortunate because some ideas are best expressed in other languages. For example, sine qua non is a Latin legal term that we must translate into the more awkward, "without which it could not be." Sine qua non, captures the notion of something so necessary it's definitional.

I thought of that phrase when in a comment on Non-character Antagonists and Conflict, Anne Gallagher said:
Sometimes I think dealing with internal conflict makes a better story. Character driven narrative rather than plot driven.

I'm also under the impression (in my genre I should clarify -- romance) there ALWAYS needs to be internal conflict for either the hero or heroine. One must always be conflicted by love.
Anne is right: internal conflict is the sine qua non of story.

Some of you, particularly if you equate internal conflict with navel gazing or whiny teenagers, may roll your eyes at that assertion. You may say, for example, that your story is about action and plot and your characters neither want nor need to take time off from dodging bullets to inventory their feelings.

I understand your objection, but answer this question: what's the common wisdom about characters and flaws?

If you said (thought) something along the lines of flawed = good (i.e., relatable and interesting), perfect = bad (i.e., boring or self-indulgent), you've been paying attention. (And if your answer includes, "Mary Sue," give your self bonus points).

So why do we like flawed characters?

Is it because they allow us to feel superior?

No. It's simply that flaws produce internal conflict. That's what people really mean when they say they find flawed characters more compelling than perfect ones.

Internal conflict gives us greater insight into character. There's nothing to learn from a perfect character: if we can't compare and contrast the thought processes that early in the character's development lead to failure and later to success, we can't apply any lessons to our own behavior.

Internal conflict also creates a greater degree of verisimilitude (because who among us doesn't have a seething mass of contradictions swimming around in their brain case).

Internal conflict and the expression of character flaws arises from uncertainty. If your characters are certain about how to resolve the problem, you don't have a story you have an instruction manual.

Ergo, conflict is the sine qua non of story.

That said, stories where conflicts at different levels reflect and reinforce each other are the most interesting because their resolution can be the most satisfying.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conflict: Inner, Personal, and Universal

In a discussion about narrative conflict, someone suggested that there are only three kinds of conflict: inner, personal, and universal, where personal is conflict between persons and universal is conflict with forces larger than your social circle.

As I played with the idea, I hit upon the exercise of characterizing the kinds of stories you get when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict in terms of the nine combinations of the inner, personal, and universal dimensions.

In the following table, read from the protagonist's row to the antagonist's column. For example, if the protagonist's concerns are primarily internal and the antagonists are personal, you have a coming-of-age story or a story about establishing one's place and identity.


InnerPsychologicalComing-of-age; Establishing one's place and identityThe socio-path or super man
PersonalIntervention and healingRomance, mystery, thriller, speculative fiction, etc. (i.e., Most kinds of narrative conflict)Rebels and underdogs
UniversalFatalist and extremistsOrder vs. chaos (anti-rebellion)Epic and political struggles

What I found most interesting about this exercise is that the primary locus of conflict in most stories falls in the center square (personal vs. personal). Many other stories fall on the diagonal (inner vs. inner or universal vs. universal). Asymmetric stories (e.g., personal vs. universal), are rarer.

I suspect this is because as social animals inter-personal conflict is the easiest to understand. Even if your story depends on another kind of conflict, your narrative will generally be most effective if you can put a face on the enemy for your readers. Your band of freedom fighters may be up against an empire, but your readers will identify with the dark lord who makes finding them his personal quest than with the legions of faceless soldiers he deploys. Similarly, readers will find a psychological struggle more accessible if there are other actors who symbolize the inner conflict.

It's also interesting to consider where different genres cluster in the matrix. For example, romance and mystery generally land in the upper left quadrant while speculative fiction and thrillers land in the lower right (with all, of course, overlapping in the middle).

Stories, clearly, aren't limited to one kind of conflict, so this analysis is only useful when we're considering the primary mode of conflict. Still, the moral of this story is that conflict is best when it's personal.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Organic Conflict

Writing on the Utah Children's Writers Blog, Julie Danes pointed out that conflict should not be contrived.

What is a contrived conflict?

In comic books, bad guys are bad because they're bad. Slap on a label like, "Nazi," or, "Terrorist," and your job is done. Other examples include oppressive clergy, greedy corporations, and government conspiracies. It's conflict by definition, which is the height of contrivance.

Another kind of contrived conflict is what I call irrational conflict: characters at loggerheads whose differences could be resolved with a rational, five-minute conversation. Romances are particularly liable to this kind of contrivance when the author can't think of a better reason to keep the leads apart. Yes, misunderstandings occur in real life, as do coincidences, but as a general rule (because you don't want your readers rolling their eyes) you're only allowed one of each.

Of course, it's not that some kinds of conflict are contrived and other are not. Any conflict where the reader sees the puppet strings, or worse, the puppeteer (author), is contrived. Readers need and want to believe that the conflict in the story arises organically from the mix of setting, plot, and characters, and that the conflict couldn't have played out any other way.

When I think about organic conflict, whether it arises from characters or plot, I imagine the parties to the conflict as forces of nature. Picture what happens when a surge of the restless sea meets the immovable cliff. Or when the speeding car meets the brick wall.

The most compelling conflict feels inevitable: notwithstanding everyone's best efforts, the collision occurs.

Unlike the watered-down food label, "natural," organic conflict is a much healthier, and a much more satisfying choice.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /