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The Elements of Fiction: Is Conflict the Heart of a Story?

Posted in conflict in fiction, creativity, Fiction, genre fiction, Getting published, Learning to Write, Literature, novels, Storytelling, Writing a novel, writing books, and Writing Tips

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Conflict is An Important Element of Any Story

Conflict is one of the elements of fiction which no story can do without. It’s the driving force, the engine, powering and empowering drama. It doesn’t matter which medium is used – the written word, dance, music, film, a computer game, or a stage play – it is conflict which makes a story a story rather than just a series of events. That is the received wisdom. You can find that advice repeated in books, seminars, workshops, schools and many blogs like this one. But it isn’t true.

Really. It’s just not true. I’m not saying this to be controversial. Let me explain what I mean.

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Transformation is the Most Important of the Elements of Fiction

When I first started out writing fiction I bought into the idea that conflict is the beating heart of every story. There seemed no reason to disbelieve it. You only have to look at any story you’ve enjoyed and you see it is full of conflict. Conflict is ubiquitous in drama. Conflict is essential, perhaps. But it is not the heart of good fiction and conflict alone doth not a story make.

Before becoming a full-time writer I made my living as an oral storyteller, an actor both on stage and the small screen, and as a puppeteer. I was immersed in story. I didn’t write stories but I presented stories in a variety of ways for a living. If you had asked me then, before I’d begun writing, what the heart of any story was I would not have answered conflict. I would have said transformation.

Of all the elements of fiction, transformation is it’s heart.

Nessus und Dejaneira (Ovid,Metamorphoses), 1898 Wood,104 x 150 cm

Conflict Alone is Not Enough

Somehow in transitioning from oral and dramatic storytelling to writing fiction I didn’t carry that deep knowledge over. It seemed, despite having told stories for decades, that this whole writing fiction thing was something different, something new. I considered myself a complete beginner and I sought the wisdom of those more experienced to guide me. And I learned that conflict was the heart of any good story.

Dozens of stories down the line, many of them sold and published, I realize that’s not true.

Think about it. Conflict alone is no more interesting than no conflict at all. In fact, taking on this traditional advice about conflict, many new writers produce the dullest of work that goes nowhere and leaves the reader unsatisfied.

How can that be?

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Conflict Can Be Dull and Uninteresting

Well let’s make up an example. Let’s say I want to write a story about the relationship between a conservative, traditionalist father and his wayward, left-leaning, freethinking son. I might think, “Aha! There we have two clear opposing forces which are yet tied together by biological and emotional bonds. Lots of opportunity for conflict. This will make a great story.” So then I write the story, making sure that conflict is at the heart of it. And it perhaps pans out something like this:

The father expects his son to do well at school. When the exam results arrive, his son has done badly. The father confronts the son. The son says he doesn’t care about exam results. He has already decided  to leave school and make his way as an itinerant artist. Becoming angry, the father demands that his son resit the exams to get better grades. The son refuses, saying he will not be bullied into following his father’s wishes. The father threatens to throw the son out onto the street if he does not comply. The son says that’s fine with him and leaves.

Plenty of conflict there. The father and the son, opposing forces, struggling against one another. Is it an interesting story? Not really. So why, if conflict is the most important of the elements of fiction, is this such a two-dimensional story? I’ll tell you. Because there is no transformation. The father is the same at the beginning of the story as he is at the end. The son likewise. The conflict is just a lot of loud noise. It leads nowhere. Nothing changes.

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What We Need to Learn and Teach New Writers

And that is my point. I think it’s an important one. And I think we should teach new writers it is transformation which matters in good fiction. It is transformation which makes a story a story rather than just a series of events, or a room full of people shouting at each other.

If the father came to regret his son’s departure and the conflict between them led to him rethinking his worldview and having a change of heart, putting that change into action, then we would be much closer to having written a real story. Likewise if the son’s obstinate fixation with his personal freedom had been challenged by the realization of how much his father was suffering, and altered his view and his behavior, then we might have seeded the beginnings of a story within that narrative. Transformation would have occurred. The father and the son at the end of the story would not be the same as the father and son at the beginning of the story.

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A Very Sorry Alchemist

I’m not saying that a story without conflict is possible. Conflict is essential to any good story. But it is not the heart of the story. Conflict alone doth not a story make. It must lead to transformation. Such transformation can be that of a person, of a community, of the political system, or anything else. But there must be change. The more dramatic the change because of conflict, the more powerful the story will be.

It would be a very sorry alchemist who submitted base metals to the mystical furnace only to find base metals at the end of his experiment. In the same way, it is a sorry storyteller puts her characters into the furnace of dramatic conflict only to leave them unchanged at the end. The alchemy of good storytelling produces the gold of transformation.

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A  Few Words of Practical Advice

At the beginning of this blog post I suggested that if you considered any story you had enjoyed you would find it was full of conflict. And that’s true. But if the story was any good at all I’ll bet my life savings the conflict was there only to push the characters toward change; to bring about a logical but surprising transformation.

So that’s my argument. While conflict is the driver of the change it is the change itself which makes story and leaves the reader satisfied. Change can be positive and lead to a happy ending or it can be negative and lead to tragedy. But the change must be there. So, transformation is the heart of all the elements of fiction. And for those of you new to writing fiction or who haven’t thought about it this way, here’s a practical take-away for you from this:

The elements of fiction include conflict, but it is transformation which makes a story work

When you’re creating your premise, ignore the advice to base it around conflict: father versus son; rebels versus the empire;  man against nature. Base it on the core transformation: selfishness leads to compassion; fear leads to freedom; arrogance leads to humility. Then embody the first quality, state or principle in a protagonist and fill in the “leads to” part with logical conflicts which will lead to the protagonist undergoing a transformation to embody the end quality, state or principle.

Then you will have a story.

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13 Comments

  1. Danielle K Girl
    Danielle K Girl

    This piece comes at the perfect time for me. I’ve just finished editing a manuscript that is heading off to an editor on Monday, and although I’m really happy with the overall story, I did wonder if the end has enough resolution to keep the reader happy (its the first in a trilogy) – enough transformation. Hmmm, time will tell. Will be keen to see what the editor suggests as they are looking at developmental stuff as well.

    August 2, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Danielle.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad this piece was serendipitous for you! First of all – congratulations on finishing the draft of your book. That is no small step. I hope you’ve given yourself some kind of pleasant reward. It is perfectly normal to suddenly be filled with doubts just after you’ve sent a MS. to an editor. If your editor is any good, you should expect to get the book back with lots of remarks and a heck of a lot more work to do in subsequent revisions. I’m always banging on about how writing (and I mean getting a work up to scratch, getting it to be the best it can be) is an iterative process. That first pass is just one small step on the way. That’s good news, however, because it means that you have plenty of opportunity to revise and change and polish and be sure there’s enough logical but surprising transformation to satisfy the reader by the end. Even so, completing even the first draft is a milestone. In my experience every new first draft is just as difficult as the last one! Well done. Drop back and let me know how it went. 🙂

      August 3, 2016
      |Reply
  2. I agree. Conflict and transformation/change go hand in hand. That’s why it’s a shame that some authors struggle with convincing characterisation. Their characters essentially remain static throughout the piece – there is very rarely any personal growth. They fear putting their characters in potentially tricky situations (hence the Mary or Gary-Stu archetype). Don’t be a coward – show the reader how the character changes. That’s what makes for memorable and complex characters in novels.

    September 27, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Yes, transformation is the one thing that no story can do without and still remain a story.

      Of course, most transformation comes through conflict, but it doesn’t have to be fisticuffs or shouting matches! Conflict can be very subtle, very understated.

      The most convincing level of conflict is always the inner one; the protagonist awakening to her own flawed nature and struggling to overcome herself in order to redeem and transform others. That level of transformation is mythic.

      September 27, 2016
      |Reply
      • I enjoy inner conflict; that’s why I like character studies so much. I find the problem with some genre fiction is that they focus on the plot at the expense of fleshing out the character. If you make me feel for your character, regardless of how lacklustre the plot is, I’ll probably enjoy it and rate it higher.

        September 28, 2016
        |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          I quite agree.

          But there’s a solution to that conundrum, you know. It’s to ensure your plot (the story’s external arc) grows out from and reflects – in fact is dependent upon – your character’s inner need for transformation (the story’s internal arc). Then every action will have meaning and every meaning will be expressed in action – which, funnily enough, is the first rule of theater.

          September 28, 2016
          |Reply
    • So what you’re saying is, the external and internal arcs should be weaved together. Can you provide an example?

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
      • Austin Hackney
        Austin Hackney

        I’m suggesting that the internal and external arcs should be interdependent.

        Examples? They’re innumerable. Everything from Shakespeare to Chandler.

        You’ll have to do some work here and think of any story you’ve recently read which was utterly captivating and deeply satisfying. Identify the internal transformation of the protagonist. You’ll see that the transformation occurs as she recognizes an internal flaw which disables her from achieving her external goal. You’ll also discover that the conflict she encounters in trying to obtain her external goal forces her to acknowledge this aspect of herself and undergo transformation. Once transformed, she can then achieve her objective. So the internal arc of transformation and the external arc of action are intimate and feed back to each other. Does that make sense?

        I’ve made a note to do a blog post on this – with examples – at some point. Thanks. 😉

        September 28, 2016
        |Reply
      • Internal flaw = external goal ——-> transformation = overall objective.
        Gotcha! Thanks for the explanation. 🙂

        Can a character have more than one goal?

        Would you mind writing a post on the three act structure in novel-writing? It’s hard to find a good explanation that’s not confusing. :/

        September 28, 2016
        |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          There are no rules – who would write the rule book? Who would have such authority?

          However, it’s generally accepted that a protagonist should have one over-arching goal. Given that any author worth her ink is going to make it damned difficult for the protagonist to attain that goal, she may switch and change her intermediate goals on her zig-zag journey to transformation and overall goal achievement (or failure if it’s a tragedy).

          I probably won’t write a post on the three act structure.

          In essence it’s very simple:

          Act One – protagonist is in her ordinary world, unaware of her failings and her need for transformation. She desires something which she cannot get until she changes.

          Act Two – something terrible happens that makes it impossible to stay the same, and forces her to try and get what she desires, but she fails repeatedly because she hasn’t realized her need for change yet.

          Act Three – something even more terrible happens as a consequence of her attempts to obtain her desire in an unchanged state. She realizes the need for change. She changes. She achieves her goal.

          The End.

          There are excellent books and websites already dealing with TAS and I don’t have a particularly innovative personal angle on it. I’m still deciding on the overall direction of this blog, but I’m sure I don’t want it to become an instructional site populated by basic how-to articles. I do plenty of that in my day job as a copywriter! Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not quite what I have in mind. 🙂

          September 29, 2016
          |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          You are always welcome, Farrah.

          And do keep asking questions if you wish – I may not turn the answers into full-blown blog posts, but I’m always happy to help as much as I can. 🙂

          September 29, 2016
          |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          That’s what the comments are for. Conversations! 🙂

          September 29, 2016
          |Reply

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