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Worlds Apart June 2009

The Work of Writing IV


At the end of last month’s column I introduced the concept of conflict in relation to plotting, and I’d like to devote this month’s article to that subject since it is so central to the question of plot in fiction.


Conflict lies at the heart of fiction, historical or otherwise. Readers love it and it is the stuff of which suspense, intrigue and character development are made. Conflict is universal in the human experience and thus it is something readers can identify with; they can sympathize and empathize with characters in conflict situations and are drawn into the story you are by their desire to see how the conflict is resolved.


To begin with, therefore, let us understand the concept ourselves. The word has many interpretations and definitions as can be seen from this quote (http://dictionary. conflict):


–verb (used without object)


to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash   



to fight or contend; do battle.



a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.



controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.



discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.



a striking together; collision.



incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.



Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.


The origin of the word is to be found in the Latin verb confligere, which means to strike together, and it is clear that over the centuries, many uses have been found for this versatile word. It therefore provides a great deal of scope for the fiction writer.


Broadly speaking, one of the most common conflict themes is the struggle between good and evil. This plotline can be found in innumerable works of fiction, and some of the greatest novels of all time have been structured around it. Leo Tolstoy’s  War and Peace, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and the mega-famous Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling are all examples of this, and additional ones are legion.


If one is writing philosophy, concepts of good and evil can be dealt with in the abstract, but this does not usually work in fiction. In a story or novel, good and evil have to be represented by some person, place or thing. Evil does not have to be personalized as an evil individual as such, although that vehicle is often used, but can be an impersonal force or influence such as a bacterium, a hurricane or an approaching meteor. While readers may well be desperate to see if the hurricane strikes or the meteor hits the earth - and in those questions lie great opportunities for suspense, action and excitement - the major element in the story is always the struggle against evil in whatever form it is found. In War and Peace evil is personified in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte; in A Tale of Two Cities it is impersonalized in the form of the French Revolution.


Conflict between people is a vehicle that is extremely attractive to readers of fiction, and although the struggle between good and evil can be seen here as well, it does not always follow that one of the characters in conflict must be good and the other evil. One can find such interpersonal conflict everywhere, and a multitude of stories have been written about it in the workplace, in politics, in religion and within families, to name only a few.  Readers can easily relate to this sort of conflict whether it is subtle or overt. Everyone has some experience of it, and so find themselves drawn into stories that place characters in situations of conflict, struggle or confrontation.


Probably the most interesting conflict context for readers, and one of the most challenging to represent in fiction, is the circumstance of individual characters in conflict with themselves. There are many tales told of people who are, for example struggling to “do the right thing” when it would be far easier not to, struggling with their sense of duty when tempted to abandon it and so on. In my short story Rich! A man finds a briefcase full of money and the story tells of his twenty-four-hour struggle with his conscience, his sense of honesty and his dreams of a carefree life in which he can do everything he ever wanted. It is by no means a complicated plot, but the elements of conflict and struggle make the tale intriguing and provide a context within which to develop a study of the man’s character. One person who read the story emailed me and told me she kept asking herself “What would I do in that situation?” She found it easy to identify with   the main character and share – vicariously – in his personal conflict.


More about conflict next month.


Write on,