Conflict as a plot device

I like conflict in prose writing, I like thinking about the endless possibilities and directions that could come as a result of a clash. It is the most common mechanism for driving fiction and the possibilities are endless.

In novels its impact can be even greater than in short fiction and is essential. Sol Stein in Solutions for Novelists describes conflict as “the essence of dramatic action”. Without it, fiction is mundane and directionless and characters are flat and do not develop.

That is not to say that conflict need be particularly intense. It isn’t just about Ayla clashing with her adopted Neanderthal family and her human nature coming up against the stoic traditions of the Clan (Clan of the Cave Bear). No, it can be much more simple than that yet just as effective. It can be the disdain with which Professor Severus Snape holds Harry Potter yet feels compelled to protect him time and time again, and this disdain leads us to constantly question the true nature of the teacher right to the very end of the final book. This particular conflict in Harry Potter is not the central plot (because that is the conflict between Potter and his friends and allies standing up to Voldemort and his supporters – a situation that becomes increasingly difficult to the point of hopeless) but it adds an edge and enlivens the narrative. Snape… Anti-hero or villain? The truth is not revealed until the final book.

Sometimes the smaller conflicts can lead to bigger problems in the future. Witness Frodo at Mount Doom refusing to throw The One Ring into the volcano. The key conflict of Lord of the Rings is the desperate need to dispose of the ring that is they key to Sauron’s power, and this secondary conflict between Frodo’s addiction to the ring (which until now he largely seems to have suppressed) and doing what is right has put a final obstacle in the way.

Conflict can also be social, it needn’t be as a result of a struggle between two personalities. It is also the black sheep in a field of white. It is Simon Scarrow’s Quintus Lucinius Cato who – having no military experience – is given a junior officer’s position as a personal favour for Emperor Claudius. It is the otherwise well respected lawyer (and hunchback) Matthew Shardlake in a superstitious Tudor England that shuns cripples. It is the boy Paul Atreides, of noble birth, who must adapt to living in the deep desert of Arrakis and become the Fremen saviour.

It can also be internal. It can be an Olympic runner who gets multiple sclerosis, a musical genius who is going deaf or a person who believes themselves responsible for events beyond their control. It can be Arnold Rimmer, a man who could never live up to the impossibly high standards he sets for himself, or Dave Lister a man with brains but is just too lazy to do anything about it. These two examples complement each other in Red Dwarf and is the source of the conflict of both men toward each other.

Is it possible to overdo conflict? Fiction that just leaps from crisis to crisis is exhausting and sometimes emotionally draining and that is why we need a break from it, to advance the narrative in other ways. The reader wants to read conflict, but will always want to come up for air.

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