A long time ago, I came across this post on agent Kristin Nelson’s website. It fabulously addresses the heart of conflict, which is that it’s always personal. It also introduces the idea of conflict vs. complication. I’ve been thinking about conflict a lot lately, and wanted to examine it further since it’s is one of the hardest things to identify in writing.
So, aside from being personal, what is it? Something that goes wrong? Something that gives the main character problems? Yes...and no.
Pronunciation Key [v. kuhn-FLIKT; n. KON-flikt]
–verb (used without object)
1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
2. to fight or contend; do battle.
3. a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
6. a striking together; collision.
7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.
8. Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.
A conflict has an opposing force, something that keeps the main character from doing what he must. And there has to be something that he must do, or there's nothing to oppose. Hence, no conflict.
Let's take a look at a couple examples: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson and JUST LISTEN by Sarah Dessen.
Both stories are very similar. Both revolve around the subject of rape. An actual rape in SPEAK, and an attempted rape in JUST LISTEN. Let's try to identify the conflict in each.
SPEAK: Melinda is at a party in the middle of nowhere, drunk, just before starting her first year of high school. One of the upper classmen makes a pass at her, leads her into the trees, and rapes her despite her struggles. She gets away from him afterward and calls the police - because that's what you do after you've been raped. Except she's still at this party, with lots of underage kids drinking, and they're not happy when they find out who she’s called. Chaos breaks out, and Melinda freaks out and runs away before the cops get there. Then she tells no one what happened, preferring everyone hate her for busting the party than say the words "I was raped" out loud.
JUST LISTEN: Annabel is also at a party, drunk, in the middle of her school year. Her best friend's boyfriend follows her into an empty bedroom and attempts to force himself on her. She resists, kicking and pushing and saying "no," but he is slowly overpowering her. Then her best friend walks into the room, and the boyfriend says that Annabel jumped on him. Annabel says nothing. She runs from the room, lets her best friend think the worst of her, and tells no one what really happened. Her best friend is no longer her friend, and most of the school assumes she’s a slut.
So, where's the conflict?
The conflict in SPEAK is that Melinda needs to tell someone that she was raped, but she can't get her mouth to form the words. She needs to speak, but the trama and pain of reliving the violence of her first sexual encounter are opposing her. From what I understand, this is common in rape victims.
What about JUST LISTEN? Annabel also doesn't speak. The source of her troubles is a misunderstanding that she didn't clear up the moment her best friend walked through that door. Is that conflict? Well, what must she do? She needs to tell her best friend what really happened. What's opposing her? …? Nothing. She just won't speak, and we don't know why. Is this real conflict? I don't think so. If Annabel had spoken up right away, clearing up that misunderstanding at the beginning, there would be no story.
A misunderstanding isn't conflict because it has no opposing force. It's merely a complication.
Pronunciation Key [kom-pli-KEY-shuhn]
1. the act of complicating.
2. a complicated or involved state or condition.
3. a complex combination of elements or things.
4. something that introduces, usually unexpectedly, some difficulty, problem, change, etc.: Because of the complications involved in traveling during the strike, we decided to postpone our trip.
5. Pathology. a concurrent disease, accident, or adverse reaction that aggravates the original disease.
6. the act of forming a unified idea or impression from a number of sense data, memories, etc.
Complications are frustrating, annoying, and can drive you insane. But they don’t set out to make your life miserable. Opposing forces set out to make your life miserable, because no matter what you do, something or someone will always be there to either prevent or undo everything you need to do. That’s conflict.
I hope I haven’t offended any Dessen fans out there...if so, please forgive. :)