Way back when I was in high school and getting regularly busted for insisting on writing my papers with a turquoise pen (it was a kind of blue!), my 11th grade English teacher gave us the usual discussion on conflict and had us write up examples.
At the time, conflict was broken into three major categories and she was adamant that all forms of literary conflict can lumped into one of them. Just in case you (like me) weren’t paying attention at the time (totally not my fault the girl next to me was so cute), here’s what we were taught were the only categories in 1988:
- Man versus man
- Man versus nature
- Man versus himself
Just as a side note, we weren’t totally into gender equality in Farmington back in the day, but this was always meant to mean mankind – as in all of us hairless apes – not just men. Although, even a quick glance at Wikipedia and the various nooks and crannies of the Internet this morning confirmed it’s still man versus stuff, so whatevs.
Anyway, my teacher insisted all forms of literary conflict would fit into one of those categories. She likely still does, even though the literary world has moved on and learned there are some other categories that should be added. For instance, a cartoon rabbit chasing down a cartoon Martian is obviously conflict, but what kind? Neither of them is a human, so that conflict would have to be shoehorned into one of the aforementioned categories. Probably man versus man.
At some point, someone realized trying to plug hot rabbit on Martian action into one of three categories was problematic. Rather than do the logical thing and realize no one really cared, they created more categories. Thus, the original three I was taught have been expanded into more.
Now, in the global scheme of things, what category of conflict something fits into is completely unimportant. This is one of those things academics fret about while the rest of us are busy playing Xbox. That doesn’t make conflict an uninteresting field of study, though. Conflict is at the very heart of storytelling. A perfectly happy tale may be heartwarming, but it’s going to be boring. Yay! They’re still happy. Wonderful. Where’s the Xbox controller?
What is important, though, is some level of conflict in a story. It can be internal or external, but it needs to be there. Personally, I think external conflict is more interesting, but your mileage may vary. Stories with conflict – especially when that conflict is resolved by pushing the bad guy out of the top floor of the Nakatomi Plaza – are much more engaging than stories about someone brushing their teeth.
Back when my high school English teacher told us to come up with examples of conflict, I went out of my way to find conflicts that couldn’t fit neatly into any one category. Irking my teachers was just one of the many useful services I provided. Her response, while I was busy arguing that you couldn’t really categorize Cthulhu as a man, was simple: rewrite the damned thing or fail the assignment.
Conflict and conflict resolution in tidy package.
I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t like my 11th grade English teacher. She was a nice person (unlike the ones from tenth and twelfth grade. Those people were unspeakable swine), I just enjoyed seeing if I could push her buttons. It was childish, but I was young and needed the money.
In the end, I relented and came up with some lame conflicts that salved her bruised ego and let me pass the class. Not any more, though. Personally – and this is just me, mind you – I think the whole idea of categorizing conflicts is a huge waste of time. Conflict doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It doesn’t need to fit neatly into a categorized box. “X versus Y” sums it all up nicely. Conflict just has to exist to be effective in a story and a good story can have lots of varying types of conflict. As long as those conflicts get some resolution that involves flying motorcycles, you’re all good.
Toss away the idea of what kind of conflict you’re writing and just write some conflict. Make it nasty or make it subtle. Make it involve chainsaws or flowers in rifle barrels. One side of the conflict doesn’t even have to show up until late in the story because the conflict could consist of “I want to find this person or thing and it doesn’t want to be found.”
Just make sure there’s some conflict.