Conflict - The Author's Secret Ingredient

Literature's Critical Element

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

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. 

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and President Josiah 'Jeb' Bartlet confront each other over the killing of officials in the Middle East.  (Season 6 Episode 1)

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


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?  

I’m conflicted.


* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)


Flannery O'Connor Technique

In his recent biography entitled, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Goochdescribes how O’Connor (1925-1964) avoided using any word twice on the same page. I avoid repeating words in paragraphs, but entire pages? That sounds like a stretch. It is, and that’s the point. Fresh, inventive expression of similar ideas adds to voice, creates a more forceful narrative, and improves the reading experience. Like jogging new, unexplored miles every morning.

Flannery O’Connor 

Flannery O’Connor’s works at Amazon


Avoid Mind Reading

Except your own

Writing to the market always falls short of the mark. Besides being a soul-numbing experience (because you end up essentially writing someone else’s inspiration), it cannot be researched sufficiently, drafted, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, shopped, edited, and published in time to capitalize on the market trend.  So, you have invested valuable time, energy, and effort in a project to which you are less than 100% committed, and about which you are less than passionate.

Start with what you want to read. Do what you think is right. Draft your concept.  Outline it, write a few chapters and share it with someone whose skill, perspective, judgment, interests, and discernment you respect.  Odds are that those pages will jump to life in the reader’s mind because you care, because you’re invested in something you want to say, in a tale you want to tell.

Trying to forecast the market, or read editors’ or agents’ minds wastes your time.  It also paralyzes your writer’s instrument.  The skills that you develop as a writer are important, high performance, precision tools.  Don’t use your scalpel as a screwdriver.  Don’t use your best sagacious voice to make someone else’s hero sound interesting. Respect yourself, your ideas, and your time.  Follow your muse, your heart, and craft the stories you think matter, the ideas, subjects, and characters that wake you at 3:00 am.


Write The Story That Will Change Your Life

Why write something if it will not change your life?

Too high a standard?  Not a chance.

Care deeply about your characters, the questions that affect them, the relationships, ideals, and treasure they gamble, and your reader will care. Writing a book takes time, a year or more, sometimes much more. At the end of that time when you turn around and look back at what you’ve been doing all of that time, you want to see your book in a window on Main Street, or your characters brought to life by actors on stage, or your screenplay moving people to laughter and tears in the cinema, right?

…if a story is important to you, it may be important to a lot of other people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.

John Truby – The ANATOMY OF STORY (2007)




Creative Writing & The Money Myth

Creative Writing

What is creative writing?  Opening to an idea, following where it leads, exploring it, getting inside it and crafting a way to bring it alive through story.  Creative writing is observing a subject, its strengths, weaknesses, contexts, perceptions and misperceptions about it, wants, needs, identity, senses... the full spectrum of facts. Then writing a story, poem, screenplay, stageplay, or novel in an imaginative way that is characterized by originality and expressiveness.

Why write? Developing an idea into a concept, then into a premise, and then writing about it is Sisyphean, like hauling a wheelbarrow up K2. No one undertakes this lightly. So why do it? Often, the ambition sprouts from a fertile childhood, a sense of otherness from earliest memory, or distinctive experience. Maybe something as simple as an insatiable curiosity to learn and understand. Michael Chabon ( in Imaginary Homelands, which first appeared in Civilization) describes it:

I write from the place I live: in exile.   ...    I bear no marks or scars. I haven't lost anything that isn't lost by everyone.

And yet here I am - here I have always been, for as long as I can remember knowing anything about myself - feeling like a stranger.

For his entire life, he says he has been engaged in

One search, with a sole objective: a home, a world to call my own.

The Money Myth

Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Samuel Johnson ("No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money") notwithstanding, no writer starts writing for the money.  For most if not all of the writers I know there is never any rumuneration equal to a living wage for the work invested in a novel. "If you would be a reader, read; if a writer, write," said Epictetus.  Novelists write to learn, to understand, to experience, to entertain, to create a world in which to live. That's pretty much the sum of it.

Dramatic Structure | Aristotle

Just reviewing my notes about structure written when I was halfway through my third novel (as yet unpublished). Aristotle… good material.

Classical Unities

1. Single Place

Aristotle called this Unity of Place:  he recommended that no play should cover more than one physical space; and definitely should not get into gimmicks like compressing geography or representing more than one space on the stage.

2. Single Action, Objective, Challenge

Aristotle called this Unity of Action: he recommended that the story (play) have one main action, with few or no subplots.  Can you imagine a primetime hourlong with only one plot?  Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, comes to mind – two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for Godot by a tree along a deserted country road.  A few sitcoms have attempted it (i.e., Mad About You in which Paul and Jamie wait by the bedroom door for the baby to fall asleep).

3. Brief Time (a.k.a. ‘time lock’)

Finally, Aristotle suggested – you guessed it, in his Unity of Time – that no play should cover events representing more than 24 hours of time. Hmmm… so a season of 24 actually represents the Aristotelian ideal, right?  Each episode follows Jack through exactly one hour of his challenging existence.  That’s a time lock.  Yet, at the risk of nitpicking, while he follows one overarching action, he is all over the world trying to achieve it.  My guess is that Aristotle wouldn’t judge 24 too harshly.  The structure works.

Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is another example of the essential power of Aristotle’s Classical Unities:

1. Strategically important BRIDGE in war-torn Spain
2. Jordan must DESTROY the bridge
3. He has 3 days in which to achieve his objective… 72 hours

Apply that to just about any story and you see the pattern. There IS method!  How many times must we rediscover what we know?