Conflict: Thematic vs. Actual
Think about the most boring movie you’ve ever seen.
After writing that line, I had to sit here a while and think really hard to remember a specific boring movie. Not because I’ve never been bored by a movie, but because they’re just not very memorable. I did finally remember, though, when my parents took my sister and me with them to see Chariots of Fire. At ten years old, I was bored out of my skull by what to me seemed nothing more than a bunch of pasty, skinny British guys running around in their underwear to melodramatic piano music. A lot of talking, not much action. Don’t get me wrong—as an adult, I’ve heard wonderful things about this movie and its themes of conflict and victory. But at ten years old, I had no understanding of the very nuanced conflict present in the movie. It was nothing like another movie we went to see that summer, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
These two movies represent two opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to conflict. One (CF) is dependent on the audience possessing a certain knowledge of history that includes understanding the social context for Jews in the 1920s. I have to admit, I had to go to IMDb.com and look up the plot summary, because I thought it was set in the 1930s against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power. The other (Raiders), which is set during the Hitler era, does hope that the audience has an understanding of Nazis but isn’t dependent on our knowledge of the nuances of history. What Raiders gives us is a hero with a goal (finding the Ark of the Covenant) and bad guys (Nazis) who keep getting in his way in real, physical ways. Both stories are built around conflict, but because of differing goals, the scope of the story, and the forces on the other side of the conflict, we get two very different stories: one that appeals to a ten year old and one that does not!
Now, I’m not saying that when we write, we must write our conflicts so that a child would find them interesting. But we do need to know our audience well and write conflicts that they will understand, believe, and relate to.
One of the books on craft that I read in grad school was Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens and I was surprised when reading it to find that more than half of this little book focuses on character development. It was through this study that I finally connected the importance of well-developed, realistic characters with the development of the plot—through their internal and external conflicts. And this is true for plot-driven as well as character-driven stories. Without the characters, even plot-driven stories would have no conflict.
There are two types of conflict in every story: thematic and actual.
Thematic conflict is the overall theme of the story. For example, in Chariots of Fire there are the conflicts of Man vs. Man (the two racers against each other) and Man vs. Society (the Jewish character against the Protestant society). In Raiders, we see Man vs. Man (Indiana Jones vs. the Nazis). In Castaway it is Man vs. Nature, which is also seen in environmental disaster movies such as Earthquake or Firestorm. In 2001 it is Man vs. Machine (remember H.A.L.?). Frankenstein, The Matrix, and Terminator are all prime examples of Man vs. Technology. See this Wikipedia Article for more themes and examples.
Actual conflict is what your characters have to go through to reach their goals, and the number of them depends on the length of your story. Let’s look at a few examples of actual conflicts from Star Wars (I was going to use Raiders but I haven’t seen it in several years):
–After a scroll of text that “tells” us that there is conflict, we are immediately thrust into the middle of a gun fight on board Princess Leia’s ship, which is seen through the perspective of C-3PO. Goal and Conflict: 3PO and R2-D2 must escape the ship before they are blown to bits or “sent to the spice mines of Kessel, smashed into who knows what!” Of course, 3PO doesn’t realize that R2 has its own goal for wanting to leave the ship and get to the surface of the planet below.
–Princess Leia is one of the leaders of the underground rebellion against the “evil Galactic Empire.” Before the film’s opening, she has stolen something that could help her cause defeat their enemy. Goal and Conflict: Leia is trying to get the blueprints for the Death Star to her comrades when her ship is overtaken and boarded and she is taken prisoner by Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader. How will she get the information to the Rebel leaders when she is a prisoner under a sentence of death?
–On Tatooine, we meet Luke Skywalker, a young man who chafes at the restrictive nature of living on his uncle’s moisture farm and dreams of one day going to the Academy (the Imperial Academy, mind you) to become a pilot. When 3PO and R2 come into his life, he meets Obi Wan Kenobi who, after the brutal murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle, convinces Luke to join him on his mission to take R2 to Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. After securing transport, they discover Alderaan has been destroyed by the empire (“That’s no moon. It’s a space station!”) and are also taken captive. Goal and Conflict: Luke, Obi Wan, Han Solo, and Chewbacca must save Princess Leia and the Rebellion by escaping from the Death Star which is swarming with Stormtoopers, weird alien creatures in garbage compactors, and the dark figure of Darth Vader. Not all of our heroes will escape.
–Someone with his own goals and conflicts apart from this is Han Solo. When he takes on passengers, two men and two droids (“and no questions asked”), he is looking at it as an opportunity to make some quick money to pay off the debt he owes Jabba the Hutt. He knows that if he doesn’t pay this off, Jabba, like any good gangster, will have him hunted down and killed. Goal and Conflict: Take the weird guys and their robots to Alderaan, earn quick money, and get out of debt. However, he finds himself drawn into a fight he never expected to care about.
What is the thematic conflict of your book? For some genres this is easier to define than others. In my contemporary romances, it is usually Man/Woman vs. Self (internal conflicts must be overcome to achieve the goal) and Man/Woman vs. Woman/Man (conflicts between the hero and heroine, as well as with others). And yes, you can have more than one thematic conflict (but too many themes can start weighing it down).
What are your main actual conflicts? These are the events that usually make up the bulk of a 5-7 page story synopsis, and the events that make the plot move and speed up to the climax.
Again, check out the Wikipedia Article for definitions and see which apply to your stories. I’d love to hear what your conflict is!