SPOILER ALERT: The post will contain spoilers for the various works of Stephen King including: The Shining, The Ledge, and The Children of the Corn.
What is storytelling without conflict? Dull. If there is no conflict happening in your story then there will be no reason for your readers to keep turning the page. It may be tempting to create a perfect dream world where you can escape from reality but that is only serving you, not your audience.
I’ve expanded upon the four main types of conflict into six categories to better explore the types of conflict that exist in fiction. I’ll be using the brilliant writing of Stephen King to highlight the different types of conflict. Keep in mind, you don’t have to stick to one type of conflict. Many great writers are able to weave several forms of conflict into their stories to make their tales all the more tantalizing. Before you start on your next writing project, take a look at these types of conflict and choose the best one(s) for your story.
Person vs Self
This form of conflict involves the protagonist fighting some part of themselves that they don’t like or holds them back from achieving their goals. I find this type of conflict to be the most relatable as your readers probably have some part of themselves that they have to do battle with as well. While Person vs Self might be able to draw up sympathy from the reader, you don’t want to make the character do nothing except wallow in their problems. Instead, you want your character’s issues with themselves to drive the plot. Show the reader how your character’s flaws bring about action in your story.
A great example of a flawed character who makes a story compelling is that of Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s The Shining. Jack moves his wife and son to the Overlook hotel to start a new chapter (pun intended) in their lives. Jack intends to use the isolation to focus on his writing and to repair the troubled relationship he has with his family. Despite his best efforts, Jack slowly gives into the worst parts of himself: alcoholism and rage. Not only does he fail to write his book, he resumes drinking and turns his anger on his family. In the end, it’s Jack’s inner struggle that brings about the evil forces of the Overlook hotel and ultimately his demise.
Person vs Person
This form of conflict is simple: one character has to fight against another character to achieve their goal. In order to write a compelling Person vs Person story, you must know the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of your protagonist and their nemesis. Don’t spend all your time crafting an amazing hero if your villain is a simple straw man who is no more complex than a Bond villain caricature. An example of a bad Person vs Person story can be found in Jaws. While the shark may be the “true” villain of the story, there first exists a Person vs Person conflict between Police Chief Martin Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn. As the talented writers at Cracked have pointed out, there is no mayor in the world who would favor keeping the beaches open when there are shark attacks happening left and right. This villain’s motivations seem unrealistic and one-dimensional and clearly exist just to foil the protagonist’s plans.
Now, for a story that gets Person vs Person right, look no further than the short story, The Ledge by Stephen King. The strengths and weaknesses of the protagonist, Stan Norris, and the villain, Cressner, are not only well-crafted, they contrast each other perfectly. Stan has been having an affair with Cressner’s wife and he calls Stan to his penthouse apartment. Cressner tells Stan that he can have his wife and a very large sum of money if he walks around the thin ledge of the high-rise building. If Stan refuses, Cressner threatens to frame him for heroin possession by having one of his henchmen place large amount of it in his car. Stan has no choice but to take the harrowing walk around the building. Right off the bat, these characters oppose each other: Cressner is rich and powerful while Stan is poor and at the mercy of Cressner. At first it seems Stan is in a losing game but he has strengths that Cressner does not. For one, he is in much better physical condition than Cressner which allows him to survive the walk around the ledge. On top of that, he is much braver than Cressner. When he returns from the ledge, Cressner reveals that he already killed his wife so the walk around the ledge outside was pointless. Overcome with rage, he wrestles the gun from the henchman and forces Cressner to walk the ledge. Cressner can’t hide behind his money and power anymore. In this Person vs Person conflict, these two characters motivations, strengths and weaknesses work with each other’s to make a gripping story.
Person vs Society
Person vs Society is one of my favorite forms of conflict. Great works of fiction like Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Attwood’s The HandMaid’s Tale all center on well-crafted Person vs Society conflict. But you don’t have to stick to dystopian fiction to have a Person vs Society conflict in your story. All you need is your protagonist to have values and goals that run in contrast to the society around them.
The Children of the Corn by Stephen King follows a couple on a road trip who become stranded in rural Nebraska. They soon discover that the society of this almost deserted town is entirely made up of children believe in a strict form of Christianity and kill all the adults in an effort to appease a monster-like deity who provides corn for the town. After the couple and several of the older children are sacrificed to the monster, one of the girls from the town contemplates burning the corn down and escaping from the society she lives in. But she knows she can never go through with it because the monster can read her thoughts thus preventing her from ever rebelling. King wrote this story to show how strict adherence to religion can lead to brutal outcomes. Both the young couple and the girl at the end of the story want to fight against the society that surrounds them but King does not let them win. It’s up to you to decide whether or no your protagonist will be able to break free from the society that controls them.
Read Adventures in Storytelling: Conflict Part 2 to learn about Person vs Technology, Person vs Nature, and Person vs the Supernatural conflict. Best of luck in your writing adventures!
Follow me on twitter @TeaWriteRepeat