Friday, June 15, 2018

Every Story Needs a Fight


No matter who we are, no matter what we read, every story demands a good fight. Everything from the simplest character sketch to the longest series benefits from a fight, and perhaps several. Fights are as old as the written word itself and have found their way into literature in most every culture.

To be clear, my reference is not to the standard fight – punching, kicking, body slams, bloody knuckles and broken noses. The simplest understanding of a fight is a conflict between two forces, often but not always in opposition. And this exists in most anything worth reading. The most primal example is the conflict we all understand – good versus evil. While this can be portrayed in many ways, classic literature is full of examples where this struggle pulls at the heart of the story.

However, the conflicting forces do not have to be such black-and-white opposites. An easy example is when many characters fight to control one item. The different sides may each have their own motives, but it is up to the reader to pick a side. This is best portrayed when the one item represents power, and the more powerful the better. Anything that can put characters into motion is a great way to get the conflict going.

Of course, blurring the lines between right and wrong is a fine way to set things into motion. What about the conflict that arises when the pursuit of justice runs afoul of the rule of law? Authors of private-eye novels have never missed out on a paycheck when they followed this formula, and neither has anyone who wrote legal thrillers, even though they approach this disconnect from opposite sides. And as for those books that show both sides, well, that’s some good reading.

And why should it have to be two or more characters doing the fighting? One character can be faced with a situation that challenges them deeply, and makes them doubt everything they believed. Internal conflict is a very fertile ground for writing, as most every reader has experienced this intimately. Should someone hold to one’s values or sell out for a paycheck? Take the easy road or risk a new route? Spare someone’s feelings or tell them a difficult truth? The more difficult the better.

When it comes to personal conflict, my personal favorite is any scenario where the character confronts an undeniable fact that conflicts with their deepest beliefs. When someone finds out they’re adopted. When an atheist faces God. When a scientist discovers the Earth is flat. When a rational person finds out professional wrestling is not fake. Such a mind-blowing, core-shaking, fact-erasing revelation forces the character to rediscover the world, to suddenly live in uncertainty.

This change doesn’t have to be destructive. The Harry Potter franchise is based on a child discovering a life he never knew existed. The YA (young adult) fantasy genre dating back to the 19th century is deeply rooted in the discovery of a new world and grand adventures. This is still conflict, but our main character is more than willing to embrace it (even though trouble comes later).

The most important part of conflict in writing, however, is that it shows us something about the character. Think of this in real life: We go about our daily routine, getting the same morning coffee, the same commute to work, the same work, the same route home, etc. Watching a person go through their routine doesn’t reveal much to us except for whether they put cream in their coffee. Once change is introduced – the coffee store is closed, their car won’t start, work changes – then conflict has been introduced and we see how that character responds. Twenty years of the same work routine is often far less interesting than the one day where everything went wrong.

Once you develop your source for conflict, you are ready for next important element, which is…

(to be continued)

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