Uncle Orson's Writing Class
When is Conflict Good?
October 5, 1999
The question deals with character conflicts amongst each other. Wolverton calls these conflicts prods, and envisions a rose with thorns wound together. It's most evident in the buddy cop movies, where you have two cops working together but they almost hate each other.
In analyzing Star Wars New Hope vs. Phantom Menace, I noticed that New Hope is filled with these internal conflicts. They are minor, but they are everywhere. Darth Vader and his generals bickering, the generals themselves bicker, C3PO and R2D2 never stop, Han and Leia go at it, Luke and Han to a degree over Leia's affections, etc. They are constantly bickering with each other. Han and Obi Wan.
But Phantom Menace lacks this kind of bickering, this interaction. Obi Wan and Qui Gon Jin are boring. They get along so well it's ridiculous.
The question however, is not about whether these ‘prods' are good or not. The question is ... why are they good? Why do prods work in a story? They do, we can site thousands of examples. But why do they work? What's the reason they create interest in the audience?
-- Jason F. Smith
The answer takes several parts.
First, they are only sometimes good — they are good when they're good, boring and distracting when they're not.
Second, even when they ARE good, it can be for different reasons, depending on the story.
So ... I'm treating this as if your REAL question were: When is conflict good?
This is a question that is rarely asked, because many, many teachers of writing or literature act as if conflict were the most essential element of every story. Though this is outrageously false, the fact that it is widely believed means that the question "When is conflict good in storytelling" is almost never asked.
When you are telling an event story, conflict between external opposing forces is, in fact, required. Something is wrong with the world order, and the characters bent on fixing things must meet with opposition; if they didn't, it would imply that the problem was easily fixed and there is no heroism in making the repairs. The opposition can be natural (i.e., trying to climb a mountain in the snow) and even human opposition isn't necessarily evil (the "bad guys" are really good guys who simply do not understand how vital our project is), but the conflict between the forces trying to make the change and the forces opposing it is, in fact, essential.
With character stories, however, the character is merely trying to correct his own role in life, and this does not require conflict (unless you stretch the definition to the point of meaninglessness). A woman trying to change her relationship with her in-laws might run into conflict with them or her husband; but a woman trying to change her role in her family might in fact have problems only with her own beliefs about the proper role of a woman or her false impression of what her family wants from her. This is often called "being in conflict with herself" or "conflict with her mother's teachings," but ignorance or false beliefs are not conflicts, they are mysteries, and function differently.
Idea stories do not, intrinsically, have conflict. They are mysteries (though not always called that) in which an important question is posed and the protagonist must discover concealed information or put together scattered and unconnected information in order to answer it. If people are deliberately concealing information or are opposing the search, conflict will result, but it is not the essence of the story.
And milieu stories, since they are about the discovery of a world or situation unfamiliar to the protagonist, are not about conflict at all, though in function most milieu stories rely on conflict in the subplots, often with one major conflict that keeps us entertained during the exploration.
Structural conflict is not what Wolverton calls "prods," however. The prods fall into the categories either of "complication" or "entertainment." Complication comes from events or characters that sidetrack the protagonist from the main story, without necessarily being in opposition to the character's main purpose. Or, in the case of milieu stories, the complications are used to draw the protagonist into exploring various corners of the world that he might not otherwise see. In such cases, the conflict is used like structural conflict, only for a subplot that will be resolved before the end of the main story. Think of the conflict between Gandalf and Saruman, for instance, or between Gandalf and the Balrog in Lord of the Rings. In both cases, they are distractions and perturbations, but not the main story. They allow us to spin the story out so it takes longer or feels richer or more complex. The danger of them is that if you use them too much, complication begins to feel like digression. Oh no, the reader groans, now we're going to go off on another wild goose chase.
Therefore, complicating conflicts are usually (but not always) tied to or related to the main plot in some way. Gandalf's fight with the Balrog serves the basic purpose of getting this powerful wizard out of the picture so the weaker characters are left to their own resources; but it provides the additional function of allowing him to become a kind of Christ figure in the story, transfigured and immortal when he returns to intervene (but only a little, and with godlike detachment) in the main events. Gandalf's quarrel with Saruman leads to the long denouement of the scouring of the Shire, where the distant war is brought home to the hobbits. The storyteller thus ties the complicating conflicts into the main story — with varying degrees of deftness.
Note, though, that the resolution of complicating conflicts can be quite arbitrary. The main storyline is not really affected. Whether the hobbits drove out Saruman or lost their place in Shire decides whether the ending is bitterly ironic or happy and fulfilling — but it has nothing to do (except thematically, perhaps) with whether Sauron is defeated — that was all from the plotline of Frodo and the ring. But Sam's relationship with Frodo is not a complication, for their relationship is of the essence of the main plotline — Frodo cannot make it without Sam, and the outcome hinges on what Sam does or does not do.
Which brings us to conflict-as-entertainment. The banter between buddies in 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon is really identical to the quarreling between lovers in It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby. We know they're going to get together, so the conflict is merely to tantalize us and tease us. Will they or won't they? in buddy movies, the "getting together" is: Will they unite to defeat the enemy and restore order? Here, Wolverton's "prod" becomes what I'd call the Tease — we know that Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are going to get together in Runaway Bride, but the fun is all in the delay. The candy is within reach — but it gets snatched away.
And, as with complicating conflict, it can be taken too far. The audience will say "Enough already! Do it or don't!" So the careful writer will find ways to tie the teases into the storyline in some meaningful way (hard to do and not necessary, really) or will make sure the conflicts seem motivated by genuine issues - will, in short, support the conflict with details and events that make them seem necessary and not arbitrary. However, it's all illusion. Teasing IS arbitrary. It's also fun. It's part of the wit and play of storytelling, the flash and dazzle. You use it when you feel like it.