Writing Craft: Vol. 3: What is conflict?

What is the conflict?

When a story starts introducing elements that directly affect the outcome of the story, that’s conflict.

When characters fuss with small objects, make small talk, or think about backstory, that’s not conflict. The vital elements of character and setting are in place, and the “meat” of the story proceeds forward, leading from one plot element to the next.

You can start with conflict! But it’s very tricky to do, and it almost always involves the illusion of conflict, rather than the reality. I’ll talk about that more later.

First, let’s identify what conflict actually looks like and where it starts.

In my favorite example for everything ever (The Princess Bride), the conflict starts when the Grandfather gives the Grandson the book. Everything else may look like it’s action, but it’s really just setting up characters and setting.

Here’s what happens in the beginning of The Princess Bride:

  • We see an image of a baseball video game.
  • We see the Grandson on a bed, with a mess of toys, snacks, comic books, and medicine behind him.
  • We see a wider picture of his room, showing the Grandson playing the video game. His entire room is a mess, with lots of sports gear and posters. There’s a Santa on the wall.
  • The mom opens the bedroom door and greets her son, then kisses his forehead to check for fever.
  • They talk about how the Grandson doesn’t feel better.
  • The mom opens the window onto a snowy scene and announces that the Grandfather is coming to visit.
  • The Grandson complains about the Grandfather pinching his cheek.
  • Their conversation is interrupted by the Grandfather, who whips open the bedroom door. He has a present.
  • The Grandfather pinches the Grandson’s cheek.
  • The mom leaves.
  • The Grandfather tells the Grandson that he’s brought him a present.
  • The Grandson opens the present. “A book?

Up until this point, pretty much anything could have happened and the story would not have been fundamentally different. The characters could have been in a hospital; it could have been summer; it could have been the Grandfather telling the Grandson that the Mom was coming to visit.

The Grandson, the Mother, and the Grandfather all take actions, but those actions don’t change the outcome of the story one bit!

The first element of the story that changes the outcome is the present.

Once the present is opened, the Grandfather and Grandson start arguing. It’s not clear whether the Grandson will read the book or go back to his video game. Who will win?

The second you can ask, “Who will win?” it’s conflict. Before that moment, it’s all setup of story and character. Make sure the reader has enough information to appreciate why the conflict is important before you introduce conflict, though, or the reader will be disoriented.

Introduce conflict by having something happen to the main character of that scene (which may or may not be the point of view character; up to you), which the main character resists.

In The Princess Bride, the Grandson puts up with the Grandfather’s visit…but only up to the point where it looks like he’s going to have to read. Then he starts to resist, by arguing with the Grandfather. The Grandfather has to convince the Grandson to read the book.

Fake conflict & prologues

Many great action stories seem to open with a sudden blast of action without even a moment of character or setting to set up the story.

They only seem that way, though!

These openings usually combine writing very efficient setting and character setups that focus on the genre tropes that the story will use, plus the illusion of conflict.

I’m going to use another example here, one famous for its abrupt action opening, the movie Swordfish (2001). It’s a movie about combatting terrorists with terrorism, basically. The movie is flawed but has a memorable opening sequence.

  • The antagonist, Gabriel Shear, appears in a video recording and talks about how Hollywood makes unbelievable, unrealistic movies. In very elitist and meta-fictional language, he denies being a wannabe filmmaker (using lots of movie-making terms).
  • He discusses Dog Day Afternoon, a violent heist movie starring Al Pacino where the criminals end badly.
  • He lights a cigarillo, using a cigar cutter to snip off the end.
  • He discusses what Dog Day Afternoon should have done, if the characters had really wanted to get away with the heist, which would have been to start killing hostages right away, without mercy or quarter.
  • We see that there are other people in the room with Shear. The background is blurry but appears to be in a café.
  • He then discusses what would happen if the criminals started killing hostages right away these days, with the internet and cable TV spreading the news.
  • He waves his cigarillo, sighs, and says it’s just a thought.
  • A voice says that the movie wouldn’t work; audiences love happy endings. Shear argues that the bad guys succeeding is the happily ever after.
  • The voice says that one way or another, the bad guy’s got to go down.
  • Shear says that life is stranger than fiction and takes a sip from a demitasse cup.
  • Shear checks his watch and says he has to go, then says, “Thanks for the coffee.” He stands up.
  • We see a shot from Shear’s back, of Shear standing up in a café, facing two men, with multiple men in uniforms with rifles pointed at him. As he stands, the men lift their weapons. He is holding something in one hand.
  • He speaks to one of the men he was talking to, saying, “Stan, time to go to work. Coming?”
  • The other man stands, and Shear walks toward the men with rifles, telling them to move. He brandishes the object, which is complex and metallic.
  • The men move and Shear walks forward—at almost four and a half minutes into the movie.

And this still isn’t the first moment of conflict in the movie. It’s all setting and character, with a heavy emphasis on telling us the “rules” of the story.

Just because a scene is tense or a character is doing something active doesn’t mean that there is conflict.

Here are some ways action movies (which are supposed to be fast paced!) have used fake conflict to open the story and make it more exciting and active in feel:

  • A character interacts with something important to them, while bleeding (John Wick).
  • An alien crash lands on Earth. Then we cut to a scene from a neighborhood with people unaware of the crash (Attack the Block).
  • A shot of a dystopian wasteland, with a voiceover telling the audience just how bad things are. (Dredd).
  • A helicopter landing on sand, while a man in a white-collar shirt and tie, drinking what appears to be hard liquor, sits in a badly-kept room (Predator).
  • A police car chase, cutting between the cops, the bad guys, and a man who is listening to the police radio while rubbing his hands with something—the man who is listening is the main character! (Mad Max).
  • A character listening to a villain making a speech, while bleeding (Kill Bill).

These scenes contain a promise of conflict, but they don’t actually start with conflict. Not that the audience will remember! What we remember, as readers and as an audience, are the first moments of conflict.

To start off with what feels like a very active opening:

  • Whatever you start with should have good character and setting.
  • Hint at what is about to happen, but don’t reveal it right away.
  • Use an example of something the character normally does in that setting, that requires action but no real conflict (Guardians of the Galaxy).
  • Start with a scene near the ending (Pulp Fiction, Fight Club).
  • Start with a bang…that the main character can’t fight back (Children of Men).
  • Start with a scene from the past…which means the character can’t fight back (X-Men).
  • Start from the villain’s point of view (The Dark Knight).
  • Start with the murder of someone who isn’t essential to the plot (Scream).

In fiction, prologues and prologue-like first chapters are examples of fake conflict. They’re usually meant to get the blood pumping while giving context to everything that follows.

Think about fake conflict as giving your readers a taste of what types of real conflict they will encounter in the rest of the story—a promise that will hook the reader and give you time to introduce more elements of the story at a slower pace.

(Next time, we talk about reader check-ins!)

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