A story has many layers. There’s the premise of what hooks you into reading, watching, or listening to it. And then there’s the conflict development that actually keeps you involved in what’s happening.
The story might start out about a boy who has superhero parents but unfortunately doesn’t have any powers of his own. There’s a lot of expectation for him to live up to his parent’s reputation and we’re curious about how he’s going to deal with it. So we take the bait and start the movie.
As it turns out, the boy actually does have some hidden supernatural abilities but he doesn’t discover them until he’s settled into a group of less gifted sidekicks in a school for superheroes. Now he has to choose between following in his parent’s footsteps and leaving his new friends in the dust or staying with his group of buddies and disappointing mom and dad.
The conflict keeps us watching even if the show is ridiculously cheesy. We can’t walk away without knowing what he chooses.
Conflict is the real story taking place.
We’re interested in what happens next but only because we care about how it’s going to impact the tight-knit group of friends. How does the conflict change them for better or for worse?
One time I was sitting behind an elderly woman and her daughter on a flight. I couldn’t help overhearing the older woman recount all of the details of a wedding she’d just attended. From the look of the dress to the food at the reception, she relived everything. EVERYTHING. And I sat there wishing for ear buds or for the story to take an insane turn. Like a little kid tripping and spilling red soda all over the bride’s immaculate dress or everyone getting food poisoning from the catered food.
That would be interesting!
It would be even more intriguing if the bride, after facing a moment of heart-wrenching disappointment, decided that it didn’t matter what she looked like and danced the night away as if there wasn’t a red stain covering the front of her beautiful gown.
The stories that stick with us and help us live better stories are the ones where the end result of conflict surprises us. Where the wronged son forgives his dad or the neglected child rises above everyone’s expectations or the group of friends rally to turn a tragic situation into an encounter with hope.
At least, those are the ones I like best.
So let’s talk about how to handle conflict in your story:
- The conflict has to directly correlate to what you’re protagonist wants
It doesn’t matter if you talk about the sister and brother fighting with each other if you don’t have context around it. Everyone fights with people they love. But it takes on new weight if you know that these two siblings are the only family they have left in the world and the rift between them is destroying the older sister’s dream of birthday parties and holidays together.
The one thing she’s always wanted in life is to give her kids a family like she never had growing up. Now there’s a wall between her and her brother that she can’t seem to fix and it’s wrecking her.
Conflict only matters if it strikes a deep chord. If we would forget about it within a few hours or even a few day, it’s not worth telling a story about.
2. Let the reader feel it for themselves instead of telling them what they should be feeling
In order to help the listener or reader feel the weight of the conflict, you have to paint the picture and then stand back to let them interpret it themselves.
Take a look at different ways of writing the same scene:
Sarah was devastated when her parent’s decided to put down the family dog. She knew it was the right thing to do but it didn’t make it any easier. It took her days to stop being sad about it and even then, she thought about it all the time. For the rest of her life, she would remember the day she said goodbye to her best friend.
Sarah gently scratched her dog, Rex, behind the ears as he looked up at her with sad, droopy eyes. He struggled to lift his head to nuzzle her like he’d been doing since she was barely walking. But he didn’t have the strength. Instead, Sarah brought her face to his and let him lick her cheek one last time before her dad lifted him in his arms and carried him away. Unable to watch while her dad loaded him into the truck, Sarah spun around and buried her head against her mother. Her chest heaved with gut-wrenching sobs as the truck backed out of the driveway and disappeared down the street.
Even though you have all the same facts, the second paragraph helps you feel what Sarah was feeling in that moment. It doesn’t tell you Sarah was devastated because it doesn’t have to. You, as the reader, already know that.
3. Tie the conflict into the larger purpose
Without a bigger picture, conflict is just pain. But inside of the grander purpose, it is the catalyst to the protagonist becoming who they’re going to be at the end of the story.
Suffering isn’t the story. It’s the way it leads to deeper understanding, bigger courage, more resilient strength, or greater grace than the protagonist ever thought possible. Sometimes it’s the beginning of the end and the conflict results in bitterness, self-destructive decisions, and isolation from everything that can actually help. Either way, conflict doesn’t let things stay the same. It forces change.
Your job as the storyteller is to show how the conflict affected the protagonist and paint us a picture to learn from.