|Fighting is conflict, but not all conflict is fighting|
Monday, November 19, 2018
The Simple Story of Ultimate Conflict
I have been in a bit of a comic-book mood since the passing of Stan Lee, but this has its benefits for my inner writer. A common theme within the comic genre is the big conflict – a major battle between titanic powers – Superman versus Doomsday, for example (I know Stan Lee had nothing to do with Superman). Such a battle royale is an external conflict that might not apply to all stories – or any story where Superman does not exist. However, such a massive collision of power can always be found on the internal battlefield, and can be even more dramatic since the battle within the character can rage on for a long time.
Internal conflict should play some role in any extended narrative, as it provides depth and complexity to the main character. This might be a secondary issue to the main plot in, say, a thriller novel, but its existence should complement the external story. Where things get tense, however, is when the primary conflict is internal, with the external conflict secondary to that arc. It’s a lot easier to walk away from a fistfight than from the battle inside one’s own mind.
An internal battle can start from a simple external event that starts digging up all the moral issues and questions in the hero’s mind, and even forces the hero to rethink their own personal code. Let’s go through an example with our favorite hypothetical character, Tom:
Tom finds out that his coworker and lifelong friend, Phil, has been skimming a little money off the books at the large company they work for. Under normal circumstances, this is a fairly simple dilemma with a few obvious routes to choose from. Tom could report him to management, he could stay silent to protect Phil, or take the compromise route and tell Phil to stop before it gets out of hand. Simple enough, right?
Now let’s turn it into real internal conflict.
Internal conflict comes out the best when external situations run against the principles of the main character. The example above is merely an external dilemma to be reconciled. However, once we show Tom’s principles, the conflict emerges. Let’s say that Tom is passionately loyal to those around him, and the two things he is most loyal to are his friends and the company he works for. Now that loyalty is challenged, as choosing one side means betraying the other. Now the problem is not about Tom making a decision, but Tom wrestling with the internal forces that prevent one side from winning the day.
Of course there’s the compromise to the situation – talking to Phil about defusing the situation. If this is a simple escape, we can turn it into more problems, thus turning up the tension. Phil can explain that he is in debt to some very bad people, and he needs to clear the debt or those people will go after him and his family. Now Tom is forced into a different situation. Can he help his friend out of the situation before the company finds out? Or can he at least cover Phil’s track for a while until everything is paid off? And how does this make Tom feel to betray the company to which he is so loyal and devoted?
Now let’s turn it up more. The company sees the figures do not add up, and the auditors start looking into things. Furthermore, Tom is one of those auditors. Now there is the slow burn of the external conflict in a suspenseful build, but Tom’s internal conflict is magnified because he could be implicated in this as well. Now we have a tug-of-war between his friendship, his company loyalty, and saving his own bacon.
The external story could survive well on its own, using the internal conflict as a secondary arc. However, using the internal issues as the major focus brings Tom out as a complete character. When we pay more attention to Tom and how this problem tears at him, haunts his dreams, aggravates his ulcer and hurts all his other relationships, we develop a closeness to him that does not develop when the attention is on the external issues.
Every story needs conflict, and the stronger stories use both external and internal sources to push along the narrative. The point to consider as you develop the story is where the real fun leaps out, and how to work with it. Superman versus Doomsday was an easy choice for external conflict. However, most other stories carry a rich adventure within the mind.