We all know a story should be an emotional rollercoaster, or else readers will start skimming or stop reading altogether. But what’s the most effective way to keep our prose dynamic?
By introducing conflict—on every page.
That is the secret to every famous author’s success. As James N. Frey puts it in How to Write a Damn Good Novel!, the sacred Three C's of Premise are Character, Conflict, and Conclusion. Therefore, once you have established your characters, everything else should focus on their conflicts, all the way to the conclusion.
Conflict comes in many shapes and degrees. In this series, we’ll review the four main types of conflict and how to make the most of them. They are:
Let’s start with the first type:
Man versus Self
This is your classic tortured-soul character, a being in conflict with his or her very own persona. They are battling their own beliefs, feuding with their own feelings. Within their hearts spins a Yin and Yang, and no easy victory shall go to either side.
Internal conflict can range from common life issues—such as quitting a job, moving to another city, or coming out of the closet—to extreme situations, such as taking up a weapon and avenging a murdered relative, or perhaps assisting a dying loved one with their suicide. No matter the case, the character must have a list of powerful pros and cons over which to agonize, or their inner conflict might fall flat.
Showing versus Telling
Inner conflict is tricky. It begs you to write long paragraphs of your character brooding, sulking, or peering out a window while contemplating the meaning of life.
Get your characters up and moving. Have them interact with items and with other characters. Show their conflict through actions rather than thoughts.
Consider this beat:
Mike felt terrible. He had broken up with this girlfriend. There had been a fight, and now they were no longer seeing each other. He was depressed. He wanted to call her, but decided to wait for her to call first.
Clearly, that is telling. But what about this next one?
“Are you kidding me? Get out of my life, jerk!” She threw down the roses he’d bought her and stomped them to dust.
That episode had happened last week, but it still made Mike clench his fists in anger. “Screw this,” he said, fishing out his phone. “I don’t deserve…!” He dialed her number, then hung up and threw the phone on the dresser. It missed.
In the first example, I announce Mike’s feelings. In the second example, I let you have a taste of them. That’s the difference between flat writing and engaging writing.
Degrees of Conflict
I cannot think of a more famous story featuring self-conflict than William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
From the second we meet the Prince of Denmark, young Hamlet is torn apart by one conflict after another: his bitter anger at his own mother for marrying so soon after the king’s death; his resentment at needing to hide his relationship with Ophelia; his own embarrassment at the crude behavior of his countrymen… These events drive Hamlet to near-suicidal despair, culminating in his most profound question, “To be or not to be.”
On the other hand, here’s a lesser example, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this scene, Victor Frankenstein’s creation has just destroyed his maker. Now he is relating his tale of woe for having murdered Frankenstein and his family:
"Do you think that I was then dead to agony and remorse? He," he continued, pointing to the corpse, "he suffered not in the consummation of the deed. Oh! Not the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution. A frightful selfishness hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse. Think you that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears? My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”
Though not the central conflict of the book, the creature’s path of destruction has led him to great internal turmoil. He laments that he has become a murderer, yet he was unable to stop himself because he could not bear his maker’s happiness.
Bottom line—no story should go without internal conflict. It doesn’t have to be the core or even the secondary premise, but it should be visible and vital to the overall tale.
Man Versus Self is the ultimate challenge for a character and a critical tool for character development. Never miss the opportunity to make your protagonists and antagonists conflicted. The worse off they have it, the more your audience will keep turning pages. Just remember to present their conflict in dynamic, fresh ways.
The next article in the series will home in on Man Versus Man… Stay tuned!