Conflict is central to drama…we are naturally drawn to charged moments both large and small. We are not drawn to what our hero had for breakfast, unless he is on death row and it is his last meal. Alan Watt, The 90 Day Novel
The conflict that drives a story can be an internal conflict, reflecting the interplay of the hero’s multiple wants, desires, and motives, or it can be an external conflict, resulting when the hero’s attempt to obtain something that he wants is frustrated by the actions of someone else.
Psychologists often distinguish among three types of internal conflict: approach-avoidance, approach-approach, and avoidance-avoidance.
Approach –avoidance conflict occurs when an event, a thought, or an action both attracts and repels. There is something that I want. At the same time, I do not want it
I want to invest my money because my investment may increase in value. I do not want to invest my money because my investment may fail. I want to gallop through the novel that I am reading to discover how the story ends. I want to read slowly so that I prolong my enjoyment.
In my book, The Handfasting, Katherine and Steven are engaged to be married, but they have been separated for a decade. When Steven finds her, Katherine wants to see him, wants to fall in love again, wants to pick up their romance where they left off ten years before.
But, “You don’t know anything about him,” her roommate tells her. “He was a painter when you knew him. Maybe he’s a starving artist, looking for someone to support him.”
Has he changed? Katherine wonders. Will he be as nice, as handsome, as interesting as funny as he was before? Should I meet him for dinner? I want to see him; I’m afraid to see him.
An approach-approach conflict exists when there are multiple alternatives, and each one is attractive. I want to pursue them all, but I am able to choose only one.
I can go to the ball game or the party, but not both. I can read this book or that one, but not both, not at the same time.
Steven and Katherine meet one summer as they travel in England. They fall in love and they want to marry. They are young; Katherine is only eighteen, just out of high school. She wants to be a doctor. Years of school are ahead. Steven is an artist. He may go to graduate school. Years of school are ahead. They want to marry. They want to finish school. They cannot do both at the same time.
An avoidance-avoidance conflict arises when one has multiple options, but none is attractive. You want to avoid them all. “Pay the fine or go to jail,” the judge says.
Bill Wilson is a friend of Katherine’s family, and her mother wants Katherine to treat him nicely. Katherine despises Bill, but she does not want to disappoint her mother. Two options – neither is good.
In the central conflict that drives the story, Katherine is presented with a choice, and she has multiple options. It would be a spoiler if I were to be specific concerning the choice, but I can tell you that her decision will color all that she does for the remainder of her life. None of her alternatives is good. Avoidance-avoidance.
External conflicts are interpersonal conflicts. Two people want the same thing. Only one of them can be successful,
Steven wants to marry Katherine. He has waited for her for a decade. They are in love. Bill Wilson wants to marry Katherine. He has known her since childhood. He needs a wife and Katherine fits the bill. Only one man can have her.
Alan Watt indicates that conflict is central to our stories. He tells his readers – aspiring writers - to put their characters in relationships with other characters and see what will happen. Conflict, he writes, will ensue
Without conflict, a story lacks a driving force. It lacks interest. Where is the suspense? Where is the fear that the hero will have her plans thwarted, her hopes dashed? Where is the relief when a satisfactory ending occurs?
In a book I read over the summer, the seeds of conflict are planted in abundance, but none matures. Never is there any question in the reader’s mind as to whether the ending will be happy, whether it will be exactly as the hero plans.
And I yawned.
Without conflict, a story is bland, like store-bought white bread or hospital food. We all want lives without conflict, and most of us manage to make it through with few serious problems. However, few of our autobiographies would be best sellers!
Without conflict, the story becomes a simple account of events, strung one after the other, without direction or purpose. Conflict makes the story.