Conflict that Resonates

Hi all! Julie here!

I’m in the process of outlining the sequel to my debut YA novel, Ivory and Bone, so I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict and the purpose it fills in a story.

“Joe went to the store and bought a dozen eggs,” is not much of a story, mainly because it doesn’t contain any conflict.

Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. He picked up a second carton, but slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. He picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, Joe was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts.

That second example is a story (albeit a boring story,) because it has conflict. But it is boooooring. And at least part of the reason this story is boring is because the conflict doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t tell us anything about Joe, his character, or the choices he makes. It doesn’t make us care. It doesn’t resonate.

I’ve been thinking about these concepts as I consider the conflicts my own characters encounter. There are so many ways to put an obstacle in your character’s path, but they won’t all serve the story equally well.

Let’s go back to Joe. All of the obstacles he encountered to buying the eggs were impersonal and did little to develop or reveal Joe as a character or make us care about him (except, maybe, for his final decision to buy doughnuts instead of eggs!) They also held no hint of something interesting about Joe and his quest for eggs that was yet to be discovered.

But what if we revisit those obstacles and tweak them just a bit?

Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. Looking up, Joe spotted a man running away down the frozen foods aisle. The man gave one quick glance over his shoulder, and Joe thought he looked like his grandfather, but that was impossible. His grandfather had died just last month of coronary heart disease complicated by uncontrolled high cholesterol, and Joe did not believe in ghosts.

Joe picked up a second carton, but he slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. As he lay sprawled on the floor, Joe noticed that a sign emblazoned “Caution-Wet Floor” had been folded and set to the side, where it wouldn’t be noticed. Had someone intentionally sabotaged the dairy aisle?

Joe picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. A strange chill ran over Joe’s skin, as he wondered if someone—or something—was determined to thwart his quest for eggs.

Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, he was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts, hoping he had put the trauma of the dairy aisle behind him.

Joe’s story is finally becoming a bit more interesting, because the conflict is beginning to take on some meaning. We know that Joe recently lost his grandfather. We know that eating eggs may have contributed to the cause of his grandfather’s death. We know that Joe’s obstacles may have been more than coincidences, since there are signs that the cart and the ice cream puddle may have been deliberately intended to thwart his progress.

To us as readers, Joe’s struggles become more interesting when we see the personal meaning behind them. The conflict now reveals a bit about his character. It raises questions in our minds about the source of the conflict and what may come next. We care more about Joe—we may even relate to him and root for him.

Consider the first book of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. The inciting incident occurs when the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is sent to the Games. It would have been enough if Katniss’s name had been pulled from the bowl at the reaping, triggering the main conflict of the story. But instead, the name of Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is pulled from the bowl, and Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place.

This is a fantastic example of conflict that resonates. If Katniss’s own name had been called, the story would have gone in the same direction. But because she volunteers, the conflict now tells us about her character, it makes the struggle she faces more personal, and gives us cause to relate to her and root for her. It’s a small choice that makes a huge difference.

What are your thoughts on conflict that resonates? Can you think of other examples from books or movies? Do you strive for meaningful conflict in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


4 Responses to Conflict that Resonates

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 17 2015 at 7:39 am #

    Like everything else in a story, the conflict has to start with the characters. Sticking a civilian in the middle of a war zone reeks of conflict, but if the civilian has no good reason for being in the war zone in the first place (i.e., if being in the war zone isn’t internally meaningful to him) it just feels like something an author created to put the MC in harm’s way, which isn’t interesting to me. Most ‘action/adventure’ stories make this mistake. I’m much more interested in Joe’s conflict than I am in a conflict that Joe just happens to be in. I recently saw The Expendables 3. The first extended action sequence almost put me to sleep. The last did not. Why? Because the members of the old team had reunited and were riding in to rescue the members of the new team, and bonding under fire.
    Sam, Pippin, ans Merry are much more interesting even than Frodo himself. He got chased out the Shire, but they chose to accompany him and support him. Sam stays with that choice throughout the story, while Merry and Pippin go in other directions and make other choices.
    One of the reasons I’m not all that interested in Harry Potter is because I didn’t see him facing any of these conflicts (Maybe he did later but I stopped with book 4). Sure he’s got Voldemort after him, but he himself is a full-blown hero even when the books start. Ron and Hermione are much more interesting.

    • Julie Aug 17 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Hi Marc! I agree with you so much! I love your example from the Expendables–that’s exactly my reaction to those sequences. “Bonding under fire” is a great way to describe that type of conflict, where things really get interesting because you care. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Justin Aug 17 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    Sometimes the smallest changes have that impact. I recently read a 100 word story that was entered into an online contest, where the main character was making out with a girl and “staring into her emerald green contacts.” It blew me away that such a common character description could be made so much more interesting with a single word change. Some authors loooove to go on about their mc’s eye color, but a character just having green eyes doesn’t tell you as much about her as knowing that she chose them does.

    • Julie Aug 17 2015 at 3:43 pm #

      Hi Justin! That is such a fantastic example of the difference one small change can make–in this case, a single word! Thanks for the comment!

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