Key Types of Conflict: Which One Best Fits Your Story?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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Conflict is EVERYTHING in writing a fictional story. As they say–no conflict, no story. An example might be the difference between describing what happened in your average day (blow by tedious blow) versus sharing the same story but with a driving conflict that smacked you in the face and you had to deal with an escalating problem. A life altering conflict–such as a weird neighbor moving next door or the water that supplies your city suddenly turns into poison.

Conflict Needs Obstacles – Readers love reading about a good fight or a conflict they can relate to, especially if the conflict escalates or there is a sense of urgency to it. Conflict isn’t just about two people fighting or a man or woman against a villain. It’s about throwing obstacles in the way of your main character(s). Make them worthy of a starring role by testing them throughout the story. Conflict needs to be substantial with enough threat to drive the action, to see what the characters will do.

Conflict Won’t Mean Much Without Empathy – It’s key to get the reader engaged in your story through empathy. Conflict wouldn’t mean much if your characters don’t earn sympathy from the reader. Readers will lose interest in unlikable characters. It’s hard to be in the head of someone the reader can’t stand or a character with no redeeming qualities.

Conflict can be Boosted by your Cast of Characters –  What do other characters in your story think of your protagonist? Even a dark anti-hero can give the reader a good impression if a child loves him or a dog follows him everywhere. The people in the life of your hero/heroine can shed light on who they are and make them easier to relate to. Who has their loyalty and why? A cast of well-placed/well-thought-out characters can be strategic to support the protagonist in a conflict.

Conflict Needs Higher or Escalating Stakes – Conflict shouldn’t be something that two people can simply sit down and talk about to fix. Resolution should be hard and challenging. Try pitting two characters against each other who both have admirable opposing goals. Add major roadblocks that escalate based upon each character’s actions. The story should get complicated by their choices and they should pay a consequential price for what they do.

The essence of most conflicts can be in the list below. If you have others to suggest, please list them in your comments.

Classic examples of well-told stories with major conflict are: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Robinson Crusoe, Schindler’s list, Animal Farm, 1984, Moby Dick, The Help, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Key Types of Conflict:

1.) Person against Person – A conflict between two people or one person against a group. Typically the opposition or villain is the alter-ego of the hero/heroine. This opposite nature allows you to explore the internal weaknesses of your hero/heroine. Don’t waste an opportunity to cross over conflicts with friction that adds tension, but you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with your cleverness. If done right, readers will get it. (See Person Against Self.) For an example of person against person, try any Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis is against ANY arch nemesis.

2.) Person Against Society – A conflict that confronts the law, major institutions, society & culture, or government. It’s David against Goliath, a struggle that feels daunting and is all the more celebrated when the little guy finds a way to win–or more crushing when the hero/heroine must give in. The Help or the Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale are good examples of an oppressive society, culture, or the law.

3.) Person Against Self – A conflict that’s internal where a person struggles with physical weaknesses, prejudices, self-doubt, or personality flaws they must overcome. I would argue that even if you HAVE a main conflict, this should be another facet to your story. Giving a character a weakness or flaw to overcome can make the overarching conflict stronger by testing them. Schindler’s List is a great example of a story where the protagonist must confront his own beliefs and practices to do the right thing.

4.) Person Against God/Religion or Fate – A conflict between a person and their faith, their God, or Free Will versus destiny. This category might feel similar to a conflict of a person with Self or Society, but I like to isolate this conflict because religion and the idea of Free Will vs fate is a compelling one. (I’ve woven this thread through many of my books because it intrigues me.) With Death being the narrator in The Book Thief, it can be an example of how fate played a hand in the character’s lives or how God views the struggles of mankind–friend or foe or bystander.

5.) Person Against Nature – A conflict of a protagonist against the forces of nature (from weather to terrain to battling against the animal kingdom). Nature could also mean the embodiment of one formidable creature, as in Moby Dick, or a species such as in The Birds by Hitchcock.

6.) Person Against the Supernatural – A conflict with the supernatural realm. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an example of a Supernatural conflict. An example of crossing over conflicts is to combine the supernatural obstacle with your protagonist’s views on God or Fate or them battling elements within themselves (Person Against Self). Many people have the belief that the Supernatural ties to the afterlife. The religious aspects complicate the story, but they can be damned compelling.

7.) Person Against Science/Technology – A conflict between a person/humanity against Science or Technology. It’s a given that people generally are skeptical of innovations. Why not make them fearful of them? Create a diabolical villain who creates a technology that is harmful or dangerous for humanity, or discovers a way to rule or manipulate mankind with a new Science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would fit in this conflict element.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What conflict on this list applies to your present project? Explain how.

2.) When you think about books you’ve read with memorable conflict, what books come to mind and why?

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What Writers Can Learn from “Pork and Beans” – Guest Writer Steven Ramirez

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Photo Courtesy of Eli Duke

My guest today is Steven Ramirez, the horror thriller author of the series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. Catchy. We met on Twitter, like normal people. Steven lives in Los Angeles and has also published short stories as well as a children’s book (this scares me), and he wrote the screenplay for the horror thriller film ‘Killers.’ Welcome to TKZ, Steven.

Steven Ramirez

I first heard Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” when my younger daughter was teaching herself the bass. She would blast it every day, following along on her instrument. Eventually, I found myself listening to the lyrics. I came to love that song and now have it on my phone. Yeah, I know. Talk about late to the party. Well, in my defense, I mostly listen to straight-ahead jazz, so.

But enough about Weezer…

Trying Not to Be a Pompous Ass
As a writer, I can really identify with those lyrics. I won’t quote them here, but you can use this LINK if you want to refresh your memory. The point is, the books I choose to write are a product of my, shall we call it, pork-and-beans attitude. I really don’t give a crap about researching popular genres and writing the kinds of books I think people might like. I notice a lot of “experts” like to give that kind of advice to non-fiction authors. To me, that’s right up there with “write what you know.” Spare me. Now, on the surface, I might sound a little pompous. But stick with me for a sec. I am simply trying to stay true to myself. You know, like Lady Gaga.

I watched a lot of movies and television as a kid. My favorites were horror, sci-fi, and comedy. As I grew older, I came to appreciate thrillers. And in the last few years, I fell in love with Westerns. I guess I can thank Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood for that. I also love foreign films—especially those from Japan and Korea. As you can see, my tastes tend to run the gamut. I do lean toward horror, though. In fact, my first four books revolve around zombies and demons.

Some Really Cheesy Math
Recently, I read a Wikipedia article which stated that, as of April 2017, Amazon’s Kindle Store had nearly seven million titles available in the US. Seven million! I have no idea if that number is accurate. As of this writing, my latest horror novella is at around 41,000 in Amazon’s best sellers rank for paid eBooks. Take a look.

Now, that’s a long way from the top 100, but here’s how I look at it. Keep in mind, I am terrible at math, but I think you’ll get my point. Let’s say, conservatively, that out of the 7,000,000 titles offered at Amazon, half are fiction. I’m guessing it’s more than half, but this is just for the sake of argument. So, that’s 3,500,000 fiction titles—all genres. Now, let’s say that of those, half are free due to a promotion or whatever. That brings the number down to 1,750,000 paid titles. Still with me? Okay. Out of this number—which is shaky at best—my book is at 41,510. This is the only true number based on the screenshot above. So, that means Come As You Are is in the top two percent of paid books. Now, as I said, this whole thing is pure speculation. But at least it’s the kind of voodoo economics that lets me sleep at night. Know what I mean?

Style as Brand
What I am saying is, despite me writing what I want instead of chasing some fad because some expert told me to, I managed to get my book pretty far up the chart. Okay, I’m no Stephen King, but who is? And another thing, let’s forget about the stupid ranking for a minute. What’s really interesting about this exercise is that there are real readers out there who seem to like my work. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Getting people to read your book. It’s about creating a brand through your personal, one-of-a-kind writing style and doing your best to let those folks who enjoy that sort of thing find out about you. It’s what I strive to do every time I sit at the computer and type out another sentence.

The truth is, I currently have more ideas for novels that I could ever possibly write in this lifetime. But I promise you, the books I do manage to write will be always good. Otherwise, I won’t publish. And you may not always like the genre. For example, I’ve been toying with a time travel story—not because time travel is popular, but because I have what I think is an interesting idea and want to see it come to life. What I’m hoping is, there are readers out there who will fall in love with it. You never know.

If I had to leave you with one piece of advice, it would be this. Don’t write what you know. Instead, write what keeps you up at night—something that’s burning a hole in your gut and giving you nightmares until you commit it to the page. In other words, write the thing that comes out when there’s a gun at your head.

For Discussion:

1.) For writers: Have you built your brand on a single genre, or are you comfortable pursuing interests outside the genre?

2.) For readers: Do you prefer authors who stick with a single genre, or are you more interested in the author, no matter the genre?

Come as You Are: A Short Novel & Nine Stories

Links for Steven:

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Everything I Needed to Learn About Writing, I Learned from my Fam-Damily

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage

Attribution: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage

The holidays are nostalgic for me. Family gatherings bring back memories, some good and others questionable. In 2016, I thought I would start the year off with my family memories and share how they shaped my writing. I’m calling this series – Everything I Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned from my Fam-Damily. Maybe I should consider having some of my family photos mounted to celebrate some of the better memories in my current home. My friend told me it helped him when he was writing similar reflective work he said to have your photos mounted here for high-quality prints which apparently helped with his creative process. But I digress.

Do you remember the classic Christmas movie – A Christmas Story – with Darren McGavin? It’s become iconic and a movie my family watches every year. Well, thanks to my older brother Ed, we had our own version of the Red Ryker BB Gun Rifle with the compass in the stock.

christmas-story

My brother Ed pleaded with my parents all year that he’d be responsible enough to own a BB gun pistol. After all, everyone who was anyone had one and he wouldn’t be denied. He swore he would be careful. He wouldn’t hurt anyone or kill a defenseless animal. With my brother’s deep voice and sincere demeanor, he could charm anyone. My mom finally caved and took him to the hobby store to pick out the best BB pistol anyone could ever own. I went along for the ride and was a firsthand witness to the questionable moment in my family’s history that would follow.

Ed rode back home with my mom, holding his prized possession in his hands, getting the feel and weight of it. He stroked the barrel and loaded it with its first BBs. He was ready to go.

Mom pulled up to our house and Ed got out. He turned to see my younger brother Ignacio coming up from the mailbox. I don’t know what went through Ed’s mind at that moment, but he took aim and fired a shot—at my little brother. He said he didn’t think it would shoot that far. Yeah, right. My mother grabbed the pistol and Ed never fired another round. The BB hit my other brother center mass. Great shot, Ed.

For the rest of the year, Ed worked on my mom again. He swore he had learned his lesson and would never take aim at his brother—or anyone—again. (I hoped his assurances would cover me and my sisters, but was never quite sure.) Forget about defenseless animals, Ed had leaped over that line and went straight for spilling human blood. Way to go, big brother. Ed knew he had a lot to make up for and he saved his best material for mom. She eventually caved…AGAIN.

She took Ed to the sacred place she had hid his BB gun pistol—a secret location no one had known about or would ever find—in her closet. (I did not inherit my imagination from Mom.) She pulled out the box that held Ed’s prized possession and they opened it together. Inside the box was his BB gun pistol—shattered in a million pieces and painstakingly put back together. If anyone tried to lift it, to would shred apart like confetti. (I wished I had inherited my little brother’s imagination…and patience.)

Little bro had found a way to never be a target again.

What did this teach me about writing?

1.) AIM HIGH – If the dream is yours, you’re the only one who should dictate the goals you set or how high you aim. People told me to shoot for a certain publisher or line because they perceived it would be easier. I didn’t want easy. I wanted to earn my place and wanted to sell single-title. I had my day job. I could afford to aim higher. I never regretted my decision and far exceeded my goals. You never know until you try.

2.) EXPECT BLOOD – Writing is hard. There will be blood. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Constantly strive for the best you can be, even if that means it hurts. You will be happy you did. It will mean more. This goes for project to project too. Dare to risk something you haven’t tried to push yourself. I like to write where I’m slightly off balance and not entirely sure I can do it. When I surprise myself, it means more and I can shoot higher next time.

3.) MOTHERS DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT’S BEST – They say, “Write like your parents are dead.” That means to write with abandon. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion resound in your head as you write, fearing what they will think of you after they read your work. You’ll be defeated before you even start.

4.) IF YOUR GOALS GET SHATTERED, PUT THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER AND TRY AGAIN – You writing goals can change as the market changes. Be prepared to rethink your idea of success. Be flexible when things get tougher and hang in there. If your dream to write is important to you, you will find a way to make it work, even if you’re doing it only for your own personal satisfaction. Find the joy in your writing and hang on to it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

5.) BE NIMBLE WHEN PEOPLE TAKE POTSHOTS AT YOU – There will always be naysayers and critics who will not understand what you’re doing. It comes with the territory of being an artist and creating something from nothing. But I like to challenge those who tear apart a book to write one themselves and put it up for public opinion. Perhaps they would understand the guts it takes to write. Be fearless.

For Discussion:
1.) Which of the 5 goals resonated with you the most?
2.) What keeps you going?

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