In the first article of this series, we provided a key to keeping prose vibrant — by introducing internal conflict throughout your story. Now we’ll move on to the next form of narrative conflict:
Man versus Man
From quarrels with a friend, a family member, or a lover, to dueling attorneys, barroom brawls, and all the way to mano a mano mortal combat, this is the epitome of dramatic conflict.
Minor, day-to-day conflicts are the most common. It’s enough for friends to disagree on a matter in order to generate conflict. In these types of conflict, it is fine to keep the two parties on fairly equal footing. It doesn’t really matter which character the reader sides with. In fact, to make things interesting, let the protagonist be in the wrong. Let them be the illogical one, the one whose line of thinking seems skewed. They can always make amends later (or not).
At the opposite end of the spectrum lie the grand clashing of powers, the crux of all heroic tales. From Moses against the Egyptian Pharaoh to Superman battling Lex Luthor, all classic characters must bear up against a dark rival.
Never forget, the hero shall be judged by the strength of their nemesis. The nemesis should have some advantages; the fight should be skewed as if in favor of the villain. This makes the protagonist more compelling, for the greater the challenges the hero must overcome, the more the reader roots for him!
Beefing up your “bad guy” is often accomplished simply by exploiting their potential for lying, cheating, or ruthlessness. In other words, they may have a leg up because they are greedier, have weaker morals, or are willing to take greater risks. Sometimes they simply know the hero’s weakness. Whatever strength you give your antagonist, make sure it places your protagonist in the position of the underdog.
Showing versus Telling
Unlike internal conflict, interpersonal conflict is inherently easy to show. However, showing in the sense of fight scenes can become dull if overused. Even if you are writing an action novel, where physical fighting has a place, verbal sparring and subtext are often better for building suspense. The joust between an angry husband and wife, between two corporate CEOs, or between the town sheriff and the one-eyed outlaw holed up in a dingy saloon — all these scenarios are best played out through dialogue first.
Degrees of Conflict
One of the most beloved literary rivalries is that between Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty.
Keep in mind that Sherlock Holmes is the world’s finest detective. With but a fleeting glance he can determine what someone’s been up to for the past 24 hours. He solves every case as if it were a cakewalk. Therefore, any real threat to him must come from a person of equal but opposite stature. Knowing this quite well, Doyle devised just such a creature.
Here’s Moriarty, in Sherlock’s own words:
“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans.”
In The Final Problem, Moriarty confronts Holmes at long last:
‘You evidently don’t know me,’ said he [Moriarty].
‘On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’
‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he.
‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.
‘You stand fast?’
He clapped his hand into his pocket, and I raised the pistol from the table. But he merely drew out a memorandum-book in which he had scribbled some dates.
‘You crossed my path on the 4th of January,’ said he. ‘On the 23d you incommoded me; by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you; at the end of March I was absolutely hampered in my plans; and now, at the close of April, I find myself placed in such a position through your continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty. The situation is becoming an impossible one.’
‘Have you any suggestion to make?’ I asked.
‘You must drop it, Mr. Holmes,’ said he, swaying his face about. ‘You really must, you know.’
‘After Monday,’ said I.
‘Tut, tut,’ said he. ‘I am quite sure that a man of your intelligence will see that there can be but one outcome to this affair. It is necessary that you should withdraw. You have worked things in such a fashion that we have only one resource left. It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, but I assure you that it really would.’
‘Danger is part of my trade,’ I remarked.
‘That is not danger,’ said he. ‘It is inevitable destruction…”
The scene begins civilly enough but rapidly escalates into taunts and grave threats, and eventually to deeds. That’s precisely how conflict should progress in order to build suspense.
You can see the same pattern even between two good friends in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray:
After a pause, Lord Henry pulled out his watch. “I am afraid I must be going, Basil,” he murmured, “and before I go, I insist on your answering a question I put to you some time ago.”
“What is that?” said the painter, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground.
“You know quite well.”
“I do not, Harry.”
“Well, I will tell you what it is. I want you to explain to me why you won’t exhibit Dorian Gray’s picture. I want the real reason.”
“I told you the real reason.”
“No, you did not. You said it was because there was too much of yourself in it. Now, that is childish.”
The argument starts with an innocent question between friends, but Lord Henry “insists,” which places Harry, the painter, in a defensive state of mind. Harry pleads ignorance; Henry calls him out. Harry forces Henry to spell it out. Harry argues he had told the truth; Henry then blatantly accuses his friend of lying and insults him. The suspense grows from sentence to sentence, as it should.
Nothing excites a reader more than a stimulating contest of wills. It doesn’t always have to be Good versus Evil; most conflicts are much more down-to-Earth. Use dialog and action beats to convey the conflict before you go for the physical. Escalate. And remember, if you are writing a villain, make them memorable and larger-than-life. As Holmes said of Moriarty, “My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.”
The next article in the series will examine Man versus Society… See you there!