MisCon 28: Creating Conflict
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Creating Conflict
Panel members: S.A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Manny Frishberg, Joyce Reynolds-Ward (Ann Gimpel, Vicki Mitchell, and Kevin Noel Olson were originally scheduled for this panel, but they were not available.)
Panel description: We all know conflict is the heart of any story, but how do you create conflict, how much is enough, and what do you do when you need more conflict? We’ll also discuss how to find the conflict inherent in your characters, plot, and setting.
JRW: Do you have any general thoughts about creating conflict? Are they big things? Little things? How do you define conflict?
SAB: It’s something the character has to overcome. The conflict can be as simple as trying to start the car. It’s anything that drives the plot.
MF: It’s the obstacle in the way of the protagonist. Conflict has to have some stake, something at risk. Conflict can be internal to the character.
BC: There are two types of conflicts. One moves the story forward. For the other, a conflict is just a conflict. Determine which conflict is important.
JRW: It’s not important if it doesn’t advance the plot. Conflict has to change and affect the character. The reader is “meh” if the characters are not different in the beginning or end.
SAB: For any meaning, there needs to be action to advance the plot. A story about refusing to eat eggs is not an interesting conflict. But what if the wife was trying to get the husband to eat the eggs, but he was refusing to eat them because they were poisoned?
JRW: There are the classic conflicts. Man versus man. Man versus society. Man versus nature. Man versus himself.
SAB: But there are many stories now. You can make interesting stories about conflict with the self.
BC: In a conflict, there is a “villain” of some sort, pushing the character forward. Sometimes it’s a human being. Sometimes not.
JRW: How do you go about creating conflict? Is there a strategy or does it just happen?
SAB: For me, it just happens, but it follows logically from the rest of the story. It forms from the plot and drives it forward. The conflict is the crossroads for the character to ask, “What am I going to do?”
MF: Many of the conflicts in my stories are internal but I have a direction for them to go to drive the story. Sometimes I initially make the character black and white in order to have more room for them to grow. For instance, the main character in one of my stories was an ambiguous character involved in a scam. In the end, he finds redemption. However, my beta readers didn’t think he changed enough. So I made the character a bastard in the beginning so by the end he finds a revelation and is changed.
JRW: Often times, I need to rewrite the conflict. When I’m plotting, I don’t see the implications (especially at book length) with the small conflicts.
BC: Conflict can be a small thing or embedded in a larger story arc. It’s only when you get to the end that you get a sense of where everything is going.
SAB: When I write a story, it’s only when I get a third of the way through that I see the overall point. What are your characters fighting about? What are the stakes? What are they going to lose? If there’s no conflict and nothing’s happening, create a bigger conflict. If in doubt, make something happen. Ramp it up.
BC: Increase the tension.
MF: I usually know the arc ahead of time. The incidents in between scenes are a shock to me. It’s only in the course of writing the scene do I figure out why things are fundamental to the plot.
JRW: In one story, I needed a conflict. The idea hit during a snow day. It didn’t change the beginning or end, but it brought the middle to life.
SAB: Where do you (the audience) get trouble in writing conflict?
Q: I like to avoid conflict in real life. So I don’t want my characters in conflict. How do I change that?
MF: There’s a problem with the term “conflict.” I think of it as dialectic opposites, like yin and yang. Conflict is an interplay between the two. Think of it as a contradiction. Shift that to change the nature of the whole.
JRW: You’re trying to resolve that contradiction. There’s a change of status between beginning and end. It could be small or large.
SAB: If you’re hesitant about putting your characters into conflict, just turn them loose. For example, let a character say all the stuff that you wanted to say. It’s hard to create conflict with people who are only nice.
JRW: But there was conflict with Pollyanna when she couldn’t positively think her problem away.
SAB: Step outside your comfort zone and what you were taught about creating conflict. Do something bad so you need to fix it. Real people aren’t nice all day.
Q: Is there an expectation in science fiction and fantasy for more conflict than other genres?
MF: Not necessarily. Conflict is just something that happens.
SAB: Conflict doesn’t have to be like those written by George R. R. Martin.
BC: There can be too much conflict, if you don’t know the people.
MF: If you start a story with conflict, no one cares. You need to care about the characters. Otherwise all the action in the world won’t move the story forward.
SAB: Some people want less violent conflict and more subtle conflicts, like in real life. We authorize other people (like cops and soldiers) to be violent for us, to carry the load for society. They can be mushy even though they’re scared stiff. You don’t have to have swords to have tension.
JRW: Like Pride and Prejudice.
Q: When is the best time to introduce conflict? Can it be too early or too late?
JRW: Introduce it in the first sentence.
SAB: Or at least in the first page. You should launch the story early, but it doesn’t have to be a gunshot.
MF: Ask what is the worst you can do to your character. One military science fiction author set the conflict at the captain’s table.
JRW: You can be very nasty to people and still sound polite.
SAB: You can have tension between ordinary people. We want to know where it goes.
JRW: In a story, you need something to trigger the next conflict. And another one after that, all the way to the ending.
BC: You can’t have conflict without character. Figure out what the character really, really, really wants. That’s what the conflict is about.
MF: Write a character sketch. What is the character’s deepest secret?
SAB: One example is the character Marcus in Babylon 5. His secret is that he can’t let go of his own pain. But he won’t even face it. Another example of a non-violent conflict is a character attempting to light a fire and knowing that he will die if he doesn’t get it. There are many ways that humans can die.
JRW: You don’t have to kill off your characters. Conflict can be about what they really want. For instance in romance, the character may think they want a person but then they discover that’s not what they wanted.
BC: It doesn’t have to be an actual death. It can be a moral death. Or psychological death. Or societal death.
SAB: Like in Stephen King’s The Stand. The society is gone. How you build your society will lead to conflict.
Q: Could there be needless conflict? Or can we just write extra conflict?
JRW: Conflict has to advance the plot. It has to do something in the story.
MF: You leave out getting out of bed and brushing your teeth because it’s not interesting.
SAB: Sometimes you have to write a lot of stuff in the draft to get the story straight in your head. You need to understand the world first and then strip out stuff. Decide what the reader needs to know.
MF: In journalism, they say that you need to know ten times as much as what you actually put into the story. Only 10% is important.
SAB: It can be hard to understand what needs to be on the page. Think about character motivation. What drives him?
BC: Sometimes conflict is about choice. It either gets worse or better.
MF: They’re all choices. Good stories make difficult choices which are understandable whether they are good or bad.
JRW: In stories, you have to keep the plot and character development in mind. If the conflict doesn’t advance them, it doesn’t belong there.
SAB: Characters are human and they handle things in human ways. How he handles it depends on experience.