Fighting words: The role of conflict in fiction writing.

boxing fight in ukraine by Andriy Makhuka

So it seems I’m on a tear of giving writing advice, something I haven’t done a lot of in the past. The response to last night’s article, about the difficulty of writing beginnings, was pretty good so I thought I’d get a few more ideas out there for those of you who are fellow writers or have an interest in the fascinating process of how good fiction is crafted.

I’ve never received any formal training in creative writing. No one “taught” me how to do it. One of the few things I remember from elementary school English class, however, is a lesson that’s stuck with me my entire life: the categories of conflict in fiction. Our teacher proclaimed that all stories come from some sort of conflict, and there are three types (forgive the gendered language): “Man vs. Man,” “Man. vs. Nature,” and “Man vs. Self.” Supposedly every story ever written stems from one of these three basic premises. That was obviously incorrect–I’ve read plenty of stories that have no conflict whatsoever, and most of them were terrible–but the idea of conflict at the heart of fiction, at least good fiction, is a valid one. You’d be surprised how few developing writers give it much thought. I didn’t, when I was starting out.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t really know your story, and you certainly can’t sell it to anyone, unless you can explain succinctly where the conflict is in your idea. Indeed, describing the central conflict is a great place to start writing a query letter for a novel, and you see it in the oft-repeated advice by literary agent Janet Reid. A query letter should answer these questions: Who is your main character? What does he/she want? What obstacles stand in the way of getting it? What are the stakes–what happens if they don’t succeed? Essentially this is a diagnosis of conflict.

eyes of war completion

Although it’s a war story, the conflict in the novel I recently co-wrote with Lucas Erickson, Eyes of War, not yet published, is not about military conflict between soldiers. I would describe it as a “Man vs. Self” story.

But conflict is much trickier in reality than in theory. The three elementary school categories are somewhat useful, but it’s often difficult to identify which of them your story idea really fits into. Let’s take a hypothetical example.

Say for the sake of argument you’re a big fan of Olympic boxing. You just watched the 2016 Rio Olympics (which I did not) and you’ve got a great idea to write a short story about a boxer who comes from an impoverished background–the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, let’s say–and works himself up at great personal cost to get into the Olympics. Let’s call your hero Cacho, and he’s from a slum in Rio riddled with drugs, violence, poverty and hopelessness. Because it’s a short story you have to focus your action precisely. You choose to center your story around the climactic gold medal fight between Cacho and his opponent, a Ukrainian named Nikolai. Your idea is that you will describe the fight, but intersperse it with Cacho’s own reminiscences and flashbacks of how he got here and the obstacles he overcame to arrive at the Olympics, with a shot at a gold medal.

This is not a bad idea for a story. It’s your classic climb-from-victory-to-defeat which is basically every sports story, but that’s fine; there’s a reason why people like these stories. What’s your conflict? Given the three categories I mentioned at the outset, it seems obvious that it’s Man vs. Man–pretty literally. The frame of your story will be a detailed account of Cacho and Nikolai literally fighting in the ring. In Janet Reid’s formulation, the bare bones for your query letter is this: Cacho is the main character. He wants to win a gold medal. Nikolai, a doped-up roid-rager (perhaps he’s advanced to the finals unfairly), stands in his way. What are the stakes? Cacho’s whole climb out of the favelas and everything he’s worked for is on the line.

brasilia slum by Cauan Kaizen

An antagonist in a story need not be human. In our hypothetical example here to illustrate conflict, the “villain” is not really a man, but perhaps a system or a condition–like the poverty of this Brazilian slum.

But if you take a closer look, you may see that the conflict in your story is not really Man vs. Man. Nikolai is sort of an external force, isn’t he? If Cacho wasn’t facing off against him, it would be some other athlete from some other country. Nikolai may be a cheater and you may want to spend some time making the audience hate him–maybe his girlfriend was taken out of the Olympic Village last night in an ambulance, with the implication that Nikolai beat her up–but focusing on him as Cacho’s antagonist is, in a way, missing the point. The real meat of your story isn’t Cacho’s battle against Nikolai, but all of those obstacles back in the favela that make Cacho’s story remarkable.

Maybe there was no money to train or to even join a gym, so Cacho and his friends built a makeshift boxing gym in an abandoned basement in the ghetto so he could train. Cacho had to scrape for money to pay off the gangs who would otherwise have shut down the gym for whatever reason. Maybe he took part in a robbery to get this money, and regrets it. Is winning Olympic gold worth it? Do the ends justify the means? These are the questions Cacho struggles with as he gets into the ring with Nikolai. Cacho’s true enemy isn’t Nikolai, but the poverty and hopelessness of the favelas. If the poverty of Rio’s ghettos is something like a force of nature, or at least treated as such in your story, the real conflict here is not Man vs. Man, but Man vs. Nature.

The Godfather, Part II is based partly on the 1969 novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo. The conflict in that story is not about rival gangsters. It’s about Michael Corleone’s struggle with his own conscience–Man vs. Self.

Now, having decided this, you can change your story idea to focus on this conflict. In this iteration, does Nikolai need to be a bad guy at all? Forget all the doping, roid-raging and girlfriend-beating. Wouldn’t it focus your reader’s attention on the real conflict if you present Nikolai, not as a villain, but as a kind-hearted stand-up guy, even an admirable one? Maybe show a scene before the match, at the Olympic Village or something, where Nikolai does Cacho some act of kindness, or otherwise makes clear that Nikolai’s a good guy. This sharpens the conflict because now Cacho has to beat the utter crap out of this honorable and admirable person in order to win–another, higher price to pay to reach his goal. In addition to sharpening the conflict, you’re making the characters deeper and more three-dimensional. A grim, violent, roided-up Slavic boxer from an ex-Commie country is a stock character out of one of the lesser Rocky sequels. Presenting Nikolai as a deeper character with less stereotypical attributes will make the story seem more real.

Furthermore, by getting to the root of the real conflict, you’re starting to build a skeleton for how your story will progress. Obviously the gold medal fight will be the climax. You also have to have that earlier scene where Nikolai and Cacho interact before the fight. The real substance of your story, though, is Cacho’s flashbacks and ruminations of his life in the favelas and what he had to do to get here. You’re going to have to show Cacho and his friends, perhaps as teenagers, building the makeshift gym, maybe out of corrugated metal and scrap plywood. You’re going to have to show a gang enforcer threatening to destroy the gym unless Cacho and friends pay tribute. You’re going to have to show Cacho and his friends robbing a convenience store to get the money for the tribute, and you’ll have to demonstrate Cacho’s remorse–perhaps his mother throws him out of her house because she’s afraid he’s becoming just another hood from the ghetto destined for a life of crime. These are the cards you’re going to have to deal out to make the story work.

The 2014 film Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh about the life of painter J.M.W. Turner, is an example of a story that lacks conflict. Consequently, while a beautiful film, it is very unsatisfying.

How you arrange them, in what order and how you craft the transitions, is obviously going to come with the writing. (Personally, I would open with the Nikolai-Cacho scene, then show them getting into the ring, then embed the flashbacks in sequential order throughout the fight as it progresses). But you now know what scenes you need and you have a firm idea of why each scene is needed. You’re ready to sit down and start writing. But remember how we got here: we engaged in a careful, skeptical analysis of where the real conflict in your story idea lies.

Hopefully this has been helpful to you. Keep writing, keep thinking and keep trying new ideas. If you can master the idea of conflict, you’re well on your way to being proficient at fiction writing.

The header image in this article is a photo by Andriy Makhuka and is used under Creative Commons 4.0 (Attribution) license. The image of the Brazilian slum is by Cauan Kaizen and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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6 Comments

  1. Nice article. It’s hindered a little by an incomplete knowledge of narrative theory. There are more than three basic conflicts. There are at least six.

    Person vs. Person, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. The Supernatural, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Technology

    (Some people add Person vs. Fate/Destiny or Person vs. God–but I see those as subcategories of Person vs. The Supernatural.)

    So while your advice is spot on, you have to bend over backwards to claim Cacho’s story is Person vs. Nature because you weren’t aware of the category Person vs. Society.

    1. Three categories of conflict, however imperfect they are in a theoretical sense, have stood me in good stead for nearly 35 years. I’m less interested in modern “narrative theory” than in writing a good story. 🙂

      1. This isn’t some newfangled thing. You just obviously forgot a few of the basic grade school categories. No need to get defensive. Clearly, you had trouble categorizing your own story (Cacho) in your three categories, so they don’t seem to be standing you in good stead.

        Also, there’s no need to put sarcastic quotation marks around “narrative theory,” which is not modern–it began in ancient Greece. That stories have a beginning, middle, and end is part of narrative theory. It’s just a term you use to describe ideas about the nature of stories.

  2. Excellent article. Conflict is what keeps the reader engaged with his/her characters. A character that just rolls along through the story without facing any conflict is usually a boring character. How they deal with conflict is usually what defines them and makes the story interesting.

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