“Every story ever written is a conflict (every salable story, at any rate). That conflict is the inevitable result of the crisis faced by the main characters.”
Dennis Whitcomb, scriptwriter
Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? This premise, which our boy Dennis advanced in an essay called “Anatomy of a Story” published in The Writer back in the ’60s, still has legs. According to Dennis, here are some key elements in creating conflict:
Kick over the status quo: Every story springs from a “disturbance in the status quo” — an inciting incident that derails a character’s everyday life and leads to a crisis or dramatic situation that the character must respond to by taking action.
Make the conflict matter: The conflict impels a character to fight for something that makes a difference — the stakes have to matter. “The problem is important to the audience if the problem is important to the hero,” notes Whitcomb.
Make the conflict grow: As the character tries to achieve his or her goal, opposition and obstacles escalate, intensifying the drama. Readers need and want to root for a main character and to do that, they need to see the character struggle against increasingly tough situations and odds.
Let disaster loom: To keep readers reading, the story has to take a major dip down toward disaster: At some point, the character’s success has to seem impossible — like a tidal wave, disaster threatens to overwhelm him or her and wash away any previous gains.
Push the climax to the max: In the climax, we see the character make one final attempt at getting what he or she wants. In this moment, the character’s “success or failure to achieve the goal hangs in the balance.”
Offer readers a resolution: As the story winds down, we learn whether the character has succeeded or failed in attaining the desired goal. Al the loose ends are wrapped up and we glimpse the character’s future.
Creating conflict isn’t for the fainthearted: We need to put our beloved characters in hot water and then turn up the heat. Simple, but not easy. Write on!