Friday, January 31, 2014

Conflict is at the heart of it all.
     All worthwhile fiction (and even most good non-fiction) is based on conflict.  And it follows that the more intense the conflict, the more interesting a story will be to us.  The only constraint is believability.  Without conflict, without something important at stake, and without plausibility (at least within the context of the story, as in most science fiction and fantasy, wherein the writer first establishes a world or a society with its own unusual rules; think Dunes trilogy or Jurassic Park), there is no story at all.
     There are only three types of conflict:
1. Person against person.  Nation against nation.  One mud-slinging political party against another (with hands every bit as soiled).  Sherlock against Moriarty.  Arnold Schwarzenegger in some tough character or other, with his shirt ripped off, against anybody who gets in his way.  A righteous crusader against those evil, greedy polluters.  Jack or Jill ordinary citizen against the establishment in any of its myriad forms.  Harry Potter against Voldemort.  McDonalds against Burger King.  Spongbob Squarepants against Mister Krabs.
2. Person against self.  Somebody trying to kick an addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or baseball, or cupcakes.  Anybody wrestling with an inner demon named cowardice or egotism or apathy or greed. (A while back, I wrote a short story titled "Nobody Ever Blames Fred," based on the premise that society always punishes a person for transgressions committed, while nobody ever blames that evil little voice in the brain, which voice the perpetrator claims prompted her or him do those bad things in the first place.  In my story the voice is named Fred.  I intended the tale, at least, to be humorous.)
3. Person against nature.  Think of an article, for example, titled "How I Became an Alligator Wrestler." Consider cliff-climbers, surfers of monstrous waves, skydivers, storm chasers, NASCAR drivers, New York taxi drivers, golfers.
     Many top writers blend these conflicts within a story.  Captain Ahab, for example, wrestling with his soul-clutching obsession while chasing an elusive whale, often through stormy seas.
     Why do such stories of conflict fascinate us?  I think it's because each of our lives is filled with daily conflicts--we need to get to Cleveland quickly for some reason, but flying frightens our pants off; or we're craving a big wedge of pecan pie with ice cream but we've already broken two bathroom scales recently; or we need a new vehicle because the current one won't stop making unearthly noises, but we're not sure we can manage the payments; and of course we want to live forever, but we know one day we'll die--and how we face and deal with these personal conflicts is largely the measure of us, isn't it?  We're fascinated, therefore, by how fictional or exemplary real protagonists deal with their conflicts, overcome their obstacles, win through to their successes and happiness.
     So a good place to start a story or a magazine article would be to focus on, or to construct, a conflict.  And make it one with dire consequences should your real or fictional protagonist fail.

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