All interesting fiction relies on conflict or a problem that the protagonist must resolve.
Conflict lies at the very heart of plot and is the essence of story, but what exactly is conflict? The common perception is of two men brawling in a bar or two armies slugging it out on the battlefield, but conflict comes in many shapes and forms, some so subtle that they are almost unrecognisable as conflict.
Let us take the case of John, who is married to Jill. He wakes one morning, washes, has breakfast and goes to work in his office. Having finished work he goes home, eats dinner, watches TV and goes to bed. There is no story here, merely a sequence of events that could be of interest only to a sociological documentary maker.
Competition: Inner and Outer
If we say that John is in competition with his colleague, Bob, for a senior position we have the inklings of a conflict. But perhaps, deep within him, Bob fears that he will not be able to cope with the responsibility the senior position will bring. We have now added an element of inner conflict.
John worries that Jill no longer loves him. Conflict. Bob’s wife, Thelma, is an old flame of John’s and he worries because she still flirts with him. Conflict.
This is essentially soap opera writing but the writer must realise that with every tier of conflict that is introduced the reader increases their interest in how the story will resolve. This tale can go in many directions.
John and Bob’s boss, Tom, is gay and is in love with both of them. It will break his heart to have to decide which merits the senior post. Conflict.
Jill threatens John that she will leave him if he doesn’t get the promotion. Conflict.
Thelma offers John an illicit renewal of their relationship if he will let Bob get the job. Conflict.
Bob says he will step aside for a cash reward. Conflict.
Ridiculous? Perhaps, but it is the writer’s job to make them credible. In traditional storytelling John’s efforts to get the senior job would be the primary conflict and the story would proceed with all his attempts being thwarted. This is called rising or escalating conflict, so that our protagonist has to use greater and more varied efforts to achieve his aims and resolve the conflict. Only at the conclusion would he succeed and, at this point, all of the other sub-plots would be wrapped up too.
The writer’s task is to not only have an adequate level of conflict but also to introduce conflict that is believable within the world he has created and also original and surprising enough to make the narrative fresh and interesting. Just changing the social status of the characters can add interest. Imagine that John and Bob are princes vying for a kingdom or colonels in an army hoping to be promoted to general, or astronauts competing to be the first to set foot on an alien planet. All of a sudden a tame, domestic, titbit takes on colour and added dimensions, but it is not the change of circumstances which makes the story work, it is the conflict.