The old adage that “misery loves company” is played out on a daily basis in the media. Harsh words and feuds, which were often spoken in private, are now public domain. Twitter wars are commonplace, with the POTUS leading the charge.
But it’s not just words tossed around. Reality show throwdowns continue to be the accident we can’t look away from. Shows like the Bachelor and the Real Housewives franchise provide opportunities for otherwise unknown individuals to attain instant celebrity as a result of their expletive calling, hair pulling and wine glass shattering escapades.
It can all be a bit unnerving but illustrates the importance of conflict in story telling. Without conflict, there is no plot. The greater the conflict, the more compelling the plot.
Conflict is commonly explained as the main problem in any story. It represents the struggle between opposing forces or characters as they navigate through the story line. The overall problem in the story is the main conflict. It is the thing the main character must overcome in order to grow, change or succeed. This is often referred to as the hero’s journey. Within that main conflict exists minor conflicts. These roadblocks thrown up along the way make the hero’s journey more difficult. The more complex the plot, the greater the number of minor conflicts and the grander the task of the author in resolving all of them.
Conflict within a story falls into two categories: internal and external.
Internal conflict is a solo activity, a struggle that takes place within the character’s mind as they try to overcome the problem. It can be communicated by the narrator or as inside thought.
External conflict requires a partner. In overcoming the conflict, the main character must struggle against another force. External conflict can take a number of forms.
- person vs. person (Lord of the Flies)
- person vs. nature (Moby Dick)
- person vs society (Fahrenheit 451)
- person vs. supernatural (The Walking Dead)
- person vs. technology (The Giver)
All of this conflict can be overwhelming when plotting a story. Graphic organizers can be helpful for clearing up any confusion. In dealing with person vs. person conflict, a Character Pressure Map is a wonderful tool for seeing just how the interaction between characters impacts the plot.
To create a Character Pressure Map, draw a large circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Insert your main character’s name there. Then, like the spokes of a wheel, draw lines out from the main character to corresponding circles for other characters in the story. Those lines can turn into arrows that show the direction the pressure or conflict is exerted. Each character in the story has their own circle and connection. While this method works particularly well with person vs. person, it can also be adapted to each of the other external conflict categories.
So the next time you are reading, or writing, a story and having trouble figuring out who did what to whom (and whether it really matters), create a Character Pressure Map. The conflict will become as real to the reader as it is to the characters.