The critical fictional element
Whenever I talk to a writers’ group I always ask, “What one element MUST all good fiction, and even most nonfiction, possess?”
Usually I have to give a series of hints before getting the right answer from somebody.
The correct answer is CONFLICT. And it follows that the more intense the conflict—the more that’s at stake for the protagonist—the more interesting the fiction (or nonfiction) will be.
Why is this true? It’s because each of our lives is a series of conflicts. We want to attend two conflicting events on the same evening but we must choose only one. Or we have the choice of two job offers, or two or more potential homes or vehicles to buy. We need to get to a distant city fast, but we fear flying, posing a possibly intense conflict. We have a hard time getting along with a person at work, a common stressful conflict. We want to live as long as possible, but we know we must die one day—the ultimate conflict we all face. Each of us is constantly confronted with conflicts ranging from minor to major, and how we resolve those conflicts is largely the measure of us.
Thus it’s understandable why we’re endlessly fascinated by conflicts others must face and resolve. It’s why we follow the news each day, why we root for sports teams, and why we can’t ever get enough of good conflict-based fiction in books, movies, and TV shows. It’s why we love to see our heroes and heroines overcome long odds to prevail.
There are only three broad categories of conflict. 1. Person against person. (A sporting match, a political contest, a love triangle, a protagonist against a villain, an activist against The System, any war ever fought.) 2. Person against nature. (An attempt to scale Everest, an epidemic, a farm family contending with drought, a trek through a desert or jungle, a dangerous voyage.) 3. Person against self. (Someone fighting addiction or mental illness or doubt or fear or despair.)
If you want to write a riveting short story or a novel, choose one of these categories and pack it with as much conflict as you can conjure up. It’s the surest way to build wide readership. The only constraint is believability. The conflict must always be plausible within the story context. And of course the conflict must, in the end, be resolved.