A Method For Generating Conflict
Position one truth against another and you'll find the foundation for a great narrative.
Long extended Thanksgiving road trips are for nothing more than opportunities to learn about effective storytelling. Trapped in a small box and surrounded by others sharing the great misery, writers can't help but be creative. Discovering this truth and the joy it brought to the artists in my family, I felt it beneficial to share our experience.
Robots and Segregation
It all began with an idea. My 13-year old daughter, laptop at hand, called from the backseat and requested that I help her write a story. Having failed to install Dramatica prior to our journey and lacking the necessary protocols for tethering,1 my aspiring writer needed assistance getting her story started on the right foot.
She knew the subject matter to be robots and segregation, but she wasn't sure how to begin. I shared a technique Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, taught me during one of his weekend workshops.2 While simple in nature, its mastery often takes several failed attempts before finally establishing a foothold in the mind of the Author. Though, as I'll explain later, this exercise can come easier for minds untouched by years of preconception and rote memorization.
Meaning is Context
Nothing means nothing without context. A grape can be round or a grape can be green, its meaning--or truth--lies in the context taken by the viewer. Insoluble arguments occur over differing contexts, not over opposites. You can imagine one character arguing incessantly that the grape is round while another demands that the grape is green. Look at it, it's round! Are you insane?! It's green! On and on this goes until one finally sees things from the others point-of-view.
The same dynamic can be found between the Main Character and Influence Character of a story. The argument between them isn't so much about seeing different things as it is seeing the same thing from different points of view. Everyone knows what it is like trying to convince somebody else of our own point-of-view. That same dynamic and same struggle happens within effective stories.
So how do we instill that into our narrative? How does my daughter start writing her story of prejudice and automation?
Crafting an Argument
The key to generating this effective conflict is finding a truism that works from a particular context, then juxtapose it with an alternate truism from a different point-of-view. Put them together in one room and you have conflict.
Step 1: Identify A Truth
The first thing to do us to single out a truth. It doesn't have to be the truth. Only a truth. Your truth if you will.
People need _______. Ask yourself, what do people need?
My daughter balked at first. At thirteen she still struggles with the self-confidence necessary to express oneself. So I offered my own:
People need to eat.
That works. But how do we make that a truth?
Step 2: Establish the Context
Remember nothing means nothing without context. People need to eat. Ok. But why? What for? Give it a context and suddenly it means something. People need ______ in order to _______? My daughter helped out with this one:
People need to eat in order to stay sane.
At the time I was losing my mind from hunger and hour three of stop-and-go holiday traffic cemented this as my daughter's truth.
Together we created a truism--a belief that generates meaning in the eyes of the beholder. People need to eat in order to stay sane. Impossible to argue with, right?
Step 3: Change the Context
Now find a context where that first truism no longer maintains its truth. I pushed the needle on this one:
People need to eat in order to stay sane unless arriving early to make Grandma happy is more important
Trust me, you don't know my mom. Staying sane might be my daughter's truth, but keeping my mother happy is mine. No better reason to justify insanity than to keep peace within the family.3
And just like that, we had conflict.
Two truths that cannot exist in the same space and time. That is the the definition of an inequity. It is also where most stories begin. Without an inequity, there can be no motivation--nothing driving characters towards a successful resolution. If your story lacks narrative drive, if you started NaNoWriMo and stopped shortly before Thanksgiving, you most likely failed to establish opposing truths. Find a context with which one of your characters believes a truth. Then find another context that argues against this first truth and place it within the mind of a different character. Establish them as the centerpiece of your narrative and your story will flow.
Examples of Truth
As with most narrative exercises, one pass is never enough. You do it several more times until it becomes second nature.
People need to chill in order to be happy unless they need conflict to feel better about themselves.
My daughter came up with this one and the next. Brilliant juxtaposition on the first if you ask me. You can already imagine several scenes of characters wanting be happy, but resorting to codependent dysfunctional relationships to gain it.
People need to reduce their carbon emissions in order to keep the air breathable unless they believe technology will save them.
I kept pushing her:
People need to sleep in order to function unless they rely on coffee to stimulate them.
Not bad. But then she hit a wall. Couldn't think of anything more. I wanted five examples and so far we only had four.
That's when my 10-year old son piped in:
People need hot dogs in order not to starve unless they are vegetarians.
Apparently someone was hungry and decided this was the best way to convince dad to face his own personal justifications. Granted, it’s not a particularly strong or universal conflict: people can avoid starvation by eating something other than hot dogs—but point taken. I didn't even realize he was listening, but in hindsight probably should have expected it from the sarcastic mind of a high-functioning autistic.
This basic understanding of generating conflict rests in all of us--even 10-year olds--as it is based on the psychology of our minds. It just takes our older more-developed minds a little more time to get back to where we started.
My daughter rose to the challenge:
People need to respect other people's beliefs in order to grant acceptance unless people prefer their privacy.
People need to respect other people’s beliefs in order for there to be peace
Perfect. And with a few slight tweaks we established a solid base for her story:
People need to respect robots in order for there to be universal acceptance unless people prefer privacy and security more.
The best sci-fi comments on current events under the guise of some future world. Unfamiliar with the refugee situation here and abroad, my daughter crafts an argument that resonates beyond robots and times to come. By juxtaposing two truths, she established the potential for meaningful narrative.
I didn't hear much from her after that; she was too busy writing.
A Basis for Momentum
Great narrative positions one truth against another. Set up an argument that cannot be resolved without one giving way to the other and you have the foundation from which to write a compelling story.