Literature's Critical Element
Conflict, especially in literary writing, helps us decide whether to read on or not. Readers know this about their favorite books. Sometimes, writers may lose sight of it as they venture into the thickets of their stories and become temporarily distracted by character histories, setting details, and fascinating yet ultimately distracting arcana.
The ancient Greeks understood conflict and created the foundation for all drama and comedy upon this essential 'x' factor. Aesop put it in fables. Shakespeare, Woolf, and Hemingway put it in every paragraph. Tabloid newspapers put it in lurid headlines. Aaron Sorkin puts it in every line of dialogue.
Types of Human Conflict
Writing without conflict is bread without texture or flavor. Effective prose includes conflict: yin/yang, body/soul, Tracy/Hepburn, rock 'n roll, good/evil, want/need, sweet/sour, life/death, love/indifference, freedom/enslavement, east/west, hot/cold, liberal/conservative, sharp/blunt, light/dark . . . you get the idea.
There are lists of human conflict categories to aid writers, artists, actors, directors, producers, psychologists, researchers and others. The basics are Man vs. Man (universal including Woman), Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Self. Here is my expanded list:
- Man vs. Man The Da Vinci Code | Dan Brown
- Man vs. Society The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger; Charlotte's Web | E.B. White
- Man vs. Self Hamlet | William Shakespeare
- Man vs. Nature The Old Man and The Sea | Ernest Hemingway
- Man vs. Technology Frankenstein | Mary Shelley
- Man vs. Alien Alien | Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
- Man vs. God It's A Wonderful Life (Film) | Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
There are other kinds of non-human conflict, of course, such as gravity vs. inertia, star vs. black hole, dog vs. cat, wolf vs. lamb, dry hi pressure weather system vs. wet low pressure system, and heat vs. cold. For our purposes in this discussion as writers and readers, I’ll stay focused on human conflicts.
Besides promising an exciting discovery in return for your time, suggesting that there is a choice to be made creates tension. Will our hero achieve his seemingly impossible goal? Will society overcome violence to secure peace? Will our father find his kidnapped daughter? Will our heroine outsmart her stronger enemy? Will truth prevail? Will the injured find justice?
Examples of conflict in literary works
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN | Mark Twain
Individual vs. Society -- Huck’s evolving conscience and experience place him in direct conflict with the law and accepted cultural codes (slavery) as he seeks to free Jim.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT | Michael Ondaatje
Person vs. Society – Almásy, the title character, defies the state and its military apparatus to pursue his love affair with Katharine Clifton. Kip, the Sikh sapper, embedded with British soldiers, besides being in mortal conflict with the German bombs he must defuse, is in conflict with the Brits, who ostracize him because of his Indian otherness. Hana, the young nurse, is caught between childhood and adulthood, denial and coping, as she navigates the terrible romantic extremes of World War II.
BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey
Man vs. Nature – what appears at first to be a convincing case of Nature responding to humankind's abuse of forests evolves as epidemiologist Lotte Keene sets out to discover the cause of mysterious deaths occurring in the High Sierra Sequoia groves of 1,000-year-old trees.
Society vs. Nature – As Keene unravels the puzzle, she discovers that government has adapted biology for a dark purpose and lost control to even darker operators. Eventually, the government fights to defeat the killer with overwhelming force.
Woman vs. Society – Ultimately Keene embarks on her own one-person crusade against government and corporate overreach.
These conflicts are powerful, larger than life examples in literature. What about the average everyday conflicts that so many people experience in real life?
No one wants conflict in his or her life, of course. We all recognize it is present, however, and that its disruption of our peace of mind is inevitable. We know that our relationship with conflict influences how we navigate the hundreds if not thousands of small and large decisions we make throughout the average day.
- Should we wait for the light and turn left past oncoming traffic because it is the more direct route, or should we turn right, go with traffic and circle the block?
- Should we have that difficult conversation with a friend whose behavior is becoming toxic?
- Should we tell our neighbor that their television is too loud?
- Should we let a loudmouth ruin our movie-going experience that we paid too much to see?
- Do we speak up when a bully harasses an innocent person or do we keep moving?
- Do we speak up when we witness a theft?
- Do we keep to our writing schedule or make exceptions to watch certain television shows (as research, of course!)?
- Do we confront governmental overreach into our private lives to defend democracy, or do we avoid a fight and adapt as well as we can to avoid endangering our family's safety and well-being?
Any of these has enough conflict to fuel a novel.
What is it about conflict that makes it such a potent ingredient in our writing?
Literature succeeds when it explores the conflict that threatens the protagonist's ability to achieve his or her goal. Why is it that when we see someone achieve a goal, we lose interest? Whereas when we see someone persist toward their goal against all odds arrayed against them, we are fascinated?
One reason is because we are compelled by conflict as an extreme of human behavior. It brings out the best in heroes and the worst in villains. We all have aspects of both extremes in our personality. Reading a story about how another person responded when pushed to their extreme helps us gauge how we might measure up in similar circumstances.
The Anatomy of Empathy
Another important reason is that we are hard-wired for empathy*. We are compelled by how others deal with conflict. This compulsion is due in part to the functional anatomy of empathy in our nervous system. Certain underlying neural responses are mirrored in us whether we engage in conflict or observe it in others. We experience the same intensity of agitation, discomfort and momentousness whether we fight or observe another engage in combat. This compelling intellectual, physical, emotional, moral identification is one of the compelling appeals of literature. As a reader, we experience the emotional and physiological effects of a high-stakes conflict situation without injury or loss of blood. And we identify with characters as they must decide: will they or won't they? Will Abraham sacrifice his son? Will Emma Bovary swallow the arsenic? Will Jason Bourne eliminate his tormentor, or is there enough of a connection to his former humanity within him to give his enemy the benefit of the doubt that he, too, is human and at the mercy of his handlers?
Primal, decision-making processes in our brain cannot discern the difference between engaging conflict in reality and vicariously experiencing it as we read. Matters of discernment, distinguishing reality from the imagined, or recognizing the difference between dreaming and doing are assessed by a combination of other neural processes. These processes of assessing danger, risk and reward; moral drift; ethical dissonance and its ramifications, truth vs. falsity, good vs. bad are complex functions of consciousness. This insight gives the author an opportunity to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief and invest themselves in the protagonist's story, conflict, choices, risks, and rewards.
In a very real sense, we authors hold the reader’s vicarious life and death in our hands. Should we do everything we can to craft the most extreme scenario we can imagine to thrill the reader? Or should we exercise intellectual and artistic integrity to engage and support our reader’s literary experience of values and ideas in conflict?
* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)