Got a flabby story on your hands? No problem, I got a flashy cure: story conflict. Now, before you roll your eyes and board the Yeah-Yeah-Heard-That-Before-Got-It-Thanks train, let me check your ticket. Because story conflict is neither so simplistic, nor so easy as many writers first think.
At its most basic level, story conflict is nothing or less than an obstacleplaced between your protagonist and his story goal. Conflict is not arguments, altercations, or outright battles. Those things are all the result of conflict, but they are not conflict in themselves.
The other thing conflict is not is necessarily a standoff between protagonist and antagonist. If you simplify conflict down to just good guy vs. bad guy, then you’re missing a ton of opportunities for deepening the weave of your story—as well as quadrupling its entertainment value.
Today, let’s take a look at four possibilities for expanding your story conflict and improving your book as a whole.
Story Conflict (or “Why The AvengersShouldn’t Have Worked, But It Did”)
The Avengers was a landmark movie in a lot of ways. It did what no other movie had (or has) successfully done: tied together four different franchise characters into a single story—one that was somehow good enough to blast all box office records up to that point.
Personally, I was highly skeptical going into The Avengers. I thought the whole idea of weaving standalone characters into the same story sounded ridiculously fun. But I had major doubts about the quality of the movie that would result. How do you get a cohesive plot out of such wildly diverse characters—much less one viewers can suspend disbelief over?
Naturally, like about a gazillion other viewers, I was delighted with what director Joss Whedon turned out: a fast, expertly edited, interesting, funny story.
However, it’s not, of course, without its flaws.
- It’s not, in itself, a particularly innovative or deep take on the action or superhero genres
- Its use of the old kill-the-mothership-and-you-conveniently-kill-all-the-little-minions trope is convenient, as ever.
- And Cap’s outfit. Seriously. It’s the worst.
What worked about this story—and indeed the main reason it launched the Marvel series from interesting question mark to full-on blockbuster powerhouse—is that it put the camera exactly where it should be: on the characters and their conflict. The most interesting thing about The Avengersis (think, think, think)… the Avengers. Whedon knew this, and he crafted a tight script that didn’t get distracted by the genre’s demand for action at the expense of this all-important character interaction.
4 Variations on Story Conflict
The other thing Whedon knew was that you can’t write a solid story about a bunch of good buddies who sit around slapping each other on the back and eating Shawarma all day.
Nope, you gotta write a story about a bunch of guys engaged in full-on conflict with one another.
Just as importantly, you’ve got to keep that conflict varied, depending on which characters are involved and what their motivations are. Take a look at the four different types of conflict Whedon used to gel this difficult story and keep readers focused and entertained.
1. Moral Conflict
Most of the time, when you think about story conflict, you think about moral conflict. In most stories, this is the foundational type of conflict. This is what the story is about. It’s the old good guy vs. bad guy conflict. The bad guy possesses one set of moral values and convictions, and the protagonist opposes him with a set of his own.
In Avengers, we certainly see this type of conflict playing out between the Avengers as a whole and the villain Loki, who wants to rule Earth by force. But we also see it within the group itself. The fundamental lack of trust amongst the Avengers (always an interesting story dynamic) opens up the possibility for their investigating each other’s motives.
In particular, we see Tony and Steve prying into the secrets of SHIELD and Director Nick Fury—who, as it turns out, is creating weapons of mass destruction.
Your Takeaway: Moral conflict between protagonist and antagonist is one thing. That’s expected; that’s safe; sometimes it’s even boring. But when you can set up moral conflict amongst allies, that creates an entirely new and interesting dynamic. Because the casting isn’t so black and white, it also opens up interesting avenues for thematic exploration of the characters’ respective moral choices.
2. Physical Conflict
Moral conflict often leads to physical conflict. Words aren’t getting anyone anywhere—so push starts coming to shove. Action stories, in particular, revolve around physical conflict. But it is also present, in its own variations, in any story in which the protagonist must physically labor to move past his story’s obstacle to reach his goal (sports stories, survival stories, detective stories, and quest stories are all equally obvious examples).
The primary example of physical conflict in The Avengers is, of course, between the Avengers and Loki’s army—first the mind-slaved humans and then the alien Chitauri. But Whedon didn’t fail to take advantage of it amongst the allies either. The vast majority of the movie’s actions sequences feature Avenger-on-Avenger altercations: Tony vs. Thor, Steve vs. Tony and Thor, Natasha vs. Hulk, Hulk vs. Thor, Natasha vs. Clint. (It is an action movie, after all.)
Your Takeaway: The key is creating a story-centric reason for all physical conflicts. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because characters are fighting, the story is obviously presenting meaningful conflict that advances the plot.
Remember: conflict is always about the character trying to get past an obstacle in order to reach his goal. Every time he encounters an obstacle, at least one of three things need to be happening:
1. He gets closer to the goal.
2. He gets farther away from the goal.
3. He learns new clues that will help him get closer to the goal the nexttime.
Physical conflicts must also be varied (which was one of the reasons Whedon added the Maximoff twins in Age of Ultron, so he could get away from strictly “punchy powers“). You can only write so many straight-up fistfights or gunfights or swordfights before readers start skipping pages.
3. Personality Conflict
Now, we reach my personal favorite—and arguably the biggest reason The Avengers was a hit. My first thought on walking out of the Thor movie the previous summer was that it was going to be potentially very interesting to see Thor and Tony Stark in the same room together. Two egos that big? Surely conflict must erupt.
And it did.
But wisely, Whedon didn’t stop there. He sowed personality clashes amongst practically every character in the movie. This is just one big unhappy family. Nobody gets along with anybody. Everybody’s got their own agendas, their own views, and their own very large egos. And Whedon cleverly made that the whole point of Loki’s evil plan and, thus, the entire story.
Your Takeaway: Interpersonal conflict is the secret to good fiction. It’s where all the juicy stuff comes from. When everybody gets along—when the good guys are always perfectly good, perfectly happy, perfectly agreeable, and perfectly friendly—nothing interesting happens.
Interpersonal conflict is also the secret to great dialogue. I often hear writers saying, “I wish I could write Whedon-esque dialogue.” You can! Because this his secret: give everybody a reason to get in everybody else’s way, and then turn loose their personalities.
4. Natural Conflict
Finally, we have natural conflict. In some respects, we might almost call this “inanimate conflict.” It’s conflict that arises from an impersonal source—such as a force of nature, a storm, a hostile environment, or a malfunction of crucial machinery.
This is usually the least interesting of the four types of conflict, since it doesn’t involve the complexities of human interaction. But it is still a vital tool to have in your story conflict toolbag, especially for use in further complicating your already existing layers of conflict.
Whedon poured on an extra-large, extra-green dose of natural conflict at the Midpoint when Bruce Banner hulks out into a mindless green rage monster.
The destruction of the helicarrier’s engines—threatening a crashlanding—is another example of natural conflict.
Your Takeaway: The key to successful natural conflict is recognizing “non-sentient” doesn’t mean “random.” Having a random car hit your protagonist or a random tornado take out his house probably isn’t going to advance your story in a mature and meaningful way.
Note how Whedon kept both his instances of natural conflict totally pertinent to the story by ensuring they were both incited by characters. Bruce hulks out because of Loki’s plan. The helicarrier is shot up because a mind-slaved Clint comes to rescue Loki. Neither are random, even though the obstacles themselves have no personal choice in the matter.
Whenever you find yourself writing a scene that feels like it’s lacking zip or depth, consider your story conflict. Can you create a more interesting dynamic by adding or enhancing one of these four layers of conflict? Give it a try!
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Iron Man 3 made the worst possible mistake any story can make with its structure.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
- Thor: How to Transform Your Story With a Moment of Truth
- Captain America: The First Avenger: How to Write Subtext in Dialogue