Conflict

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.

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Knows a thing or two about conflict.

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.

Types of Conflict

People love to categorize things.

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.

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Or, you know, when the good guys on flying motorcycles foil the bad guys in Russian tanks. That’s some good conflict resolution right there, especially when you end it with “The good guys always win. Even in the 80s.”

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.

kitt

Talking cars work, too.

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.

Embrace Fear

I’ve been placed in Amazon’s horror category for some time now. Type in Eric Lahti horror into Amazon’s search engine and all of my books pop up. Go ahead and try it.  Feel free to buy them while you’re there. I’m not 100% certain how I wound up that genre but I’ve decided it’s probably best to just embrace it and move forward. While I’ll never consider myself a horror author in the gore splattering around or haunted place realm (although I have written a ghost story: The Protectors), I guess I do have some bit of horror elements in my books. Maybe it’s just the paranormal aspects or maybe the genre isn’t as narrow as I had previously thought. Some horror books are cheap schlocky thrills while others are more ponderous; slowly building to that conclusion that doesn’t really hit you until you shut off all the lights or you’re lying in a jungle bleeding to death.

TheHorror

The horror.

Of all the horror books I’ve read (not a huge amount, I admit) very few stick with me. Some of Stephen King’s works and some of the canon from Lovecraft are notable examples. The funny thing about H.P. Lovecraft is I like his ideas but have trouble actually reading his work. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Lovecraft’s books, so maybe I need to try it again and see what shakes loose. The last Stephen King book I read was From A Buick 8; hardly a representative example of the horror genre but a fun read nonetheless. In fact, From A Buick 8 spans a lot of genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Speculative fiction are genres that it at least kind of fits into.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. It had its scary parts, but it wasn’t a gory splatter-fest; it was musings and ponderings and it didn’t give you all the answers. If that’s horror I’m happy to be included in the genre.

One of the scariest scenes in any movie is this one

AlienRises

Carrie Henn’s only role, but she totally rocked it. The xenomorph went onto to have a starring role in the abhorrent Alien 4.

You don’t see much of anything, just the Xenomorph (that’s what the cool kids call the aliens) rising from the water, Newt turns and screams. Boom. That’s it. Then, of course, Ripley tapes some guns and a flame thrower together and heads into the nest to kick some Xenomorph ass.

Now, here’s the thing about the traditional horror genre: there’s a creeping sense of hopelessness. Traditional horror with all the running and screaming and getting slaughtered is the emo kid of the movie world. I don’t think you’ll find a whole lot of people who would argue Aliens wasn’t a horror movie, but the characters were far from helpless.

ALIENS, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, 1986, TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved

ALIENS, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, 1986, TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved – Totally not helpless

Even Lovecraft’s stories featured protagonists who weren’t helpless. They used magic and arcane knowledge to fight the unnameable horrors of Lovecraft’s blasphemous world. They usually lost and lost horribly, but they weren’t helpless.

Which means horror elements can be used in place of traditional conflicts in literature. Traditional conflict falls into one (or more) of categories:

  • Person versus person
  • Person versus society
  • Person versus self
  • Person versus nature

There’s nothing in the rules that says person versus person can’t include a vampire (or a God of Dreams). Person versus nature could easily include our Xenomorphs – although it could be argued that Aliens was nothing more than an analogy for trying to shop during the Christmas season. Person versus nature could also include these guys.

straight-outta-lovecraft

So, once I wrapped my head around the fact that horror doesn’t have to mean teenagers having sex and then getting slaughtered (or given to some strange naked following woman), I realized I think I’m quite cool with being called a horror author. There can be monstrous things going on and heroes (or villains) that combat those things. I like the idea of writing about people who would see this coming at them and decide – in that moment of pants-wetting terror – to stand their ground and fight like madmen (and women).

HorrorCritter

Lotion is your friend, bro.

That’s the fun kind of horror. They may not win, but they’ll at least try. And the scary parts don’t even have to be the main thrust of the story. From A Buick 8 was a horror story, but the thrust of the story about something strange dropping into the midst of a group of people and how the people themselves dealt with it. Person versus nature and – more importantly – person versus self. The horror aspect was a backdrop for the real story. The same could arguably be said of a lot of King’s work. Someday, I hope to be good enough that people will say the same of mine.

Now, this is not to say all conflict must have a horror element to it, let alone a paranormal element. Being tied to a chair and forced to listen to Barbara Streisand songs is certainly conflict – and quite possibly horrifying – but it lacks a paranormal element. Someone between you and your love may or may not be horrifying, and unless that person is a sparkly vampire there’s no paranormal element to it.

But I’ve learned to embrace the paranormal horror elements; they’re fun to write, fun to work with, and I love the idea of interesting things inhabiting our otherwise mundane world. Even more than that, though, I love the idea of people fighting back against the things that aren’t supposed to be beatable. Even when the situation seems absurd.

Alien Wars by Byzko Wader

Alien Wars by Byzko Wader

So, there you have it. I have embraced my horror side. Don’t expect me to write any stories filled with gore, but I fully intend to keep right on tilting the windmills, fighting the unbeatable foes, and standing tall in the face of the nameless horrors. Since I started this post with Colonel Kurtz, it only seems fitting that his words – even though they represent a kind of existential horror – end it.

HorrorAndMoralTerror

Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.

How do I intend to get characters to fight these things? Well, Henchmen and Arise used a lot of guns, but it’s Chan and Crow in The Clock Man and their methods that I really want to explore. Tune in next time when I discuss the ancient and deadly art of Wuxia.