Levels of Conflict, by John Vorhaus
By John Vorhaus on Jul 25 2013 at WriterUnboxed.com
Whenever I have a problem I can’t solve, I immediately try to break it down into smaller, component problems. And I keep breaking problems down until I find one small enough to solve. This is a strategy I use over and over again when trying to get to the heart of the conflict of a story or scene I’m writing. For the sake of organizing my thoughts, and making sure that I get the most out of the moment, I don’t think of conflict as one thing, but rather as three things: global conflict, local conflict, and inner conflict. These concepts, if not these exact terms, are probably familiar to you, but let’s review them anyhow, for the sake of the eager youngsters reading over your shoulder just now.
GLOBAL CONFLICT is the character’s war against the world. This conflict is characterized by impersonality. The forces that the character is fighting against are not aware of, and have no emotional connection to, the character in question. Sources of global conflict include nature and natural forces, political or governmental structures, military or police, and “disinterested parties” such as landlords, meter maids, and surly waiters. The global conflict in the movie Twister is, you guessed it, those darn twisters. What’s the global conflict in the story you’re writing now?
LOCAL CONFLICT is direct interpersonal war between characters who have a vested emotional interest in one another’s lives. This would be every close pairing you can think of: parents and children; siblings; lovers, friends or spouses; roommates, cellmates, office mates or any other -mates (including running mates and coffee mates). The hallmark of this conflict is the direct emotional interest: Local conflict takes place between people close enough to care. Often this manifests as clashing goals or desires, where one party to the conflict wants A, and the other wants not-A. The local conflict between Sam and Frodo at the outset of Lord of the Rings is the question of whether or not Sam will be allowed to join the quest. Can you identify lines of local conflict in your current work? What’s at stake and who wants what?
Can you identify lines of local conflict in your current work? What’s at stake and who wants what?
INNER CONFLICT is the character’s war within. This often takes the form of Life’s Big Questions: Am I okay? Am I making good choices? What will it take to survive? What will make me fulfilled? It’s also often a function of conflicting inner desires: I want to eat this donut but I don’t want to gain weight. It can equally be a conflict between a selfish desire and a selfless one. Han Solo’s desire to settle his debt with Jabba the Hutt causes him to leave the Rebel Alliance to its battle against the Death Star, but his desire to help his friends brings him back. That’s inner conflict in action: the conflict drives the choice, and the choice drives the act. The easiest way to grasp inner conflict is to create an equation containing the word “but” and assign values to either side. I want to save the world but I don’t want to get up from the couch. What are some of the big “buts” of your characters’ inner conflict?
There is some utility in being able to define the different levels of conflict in your story, but there’s great utility in knowing how these lines interact. More often than not, the global conflict triggers the local conflict, which in turn churns up the inner conflict. Suppose you had a mother/daughter cancer story. The presence of the cancer would be the global conflict, and the introduction of this element would be this particular tale’s specific trigger. As the mother and daughter come to terms with the new reality of this global conflict, they will have local conflict – interpersonal war over what the disease means, how to deal with it or treat it, maybe even whether to acknowledge it. And in turn each character will have inner conflict, expressed as self-doubt: Am I doing the right thing, making the right choices? As an exercise, you might experiment with this sort of conflict map for one of your own tales. If nothing else, it will show the places where conflict is absent – holes you can fruitfully fill.
There is some utility in being able to define the different levels of conflict in your story, but there’s great utility in knowing how these lines interact.
In a well-told story, all three levels of conflict are present. In a less-well-told story, only global conflict and local conflict are present. We call this sort of story a cartoon, as can be found in, say, the ongoing battles between the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Global conflict is certainly present, in the Coyote’s battles against gravity, explosives, and unexpectedly solid objects. Local conflict is also present: The Coyote wants to catch the Road Runner but the Road Runner does not want to be caught. Inner conflict, however, is absent: Neither character ever doubts his cause or course of action, and that’s why it’s a cartoon.
To lift your own work up to the highest level of storytelling quality, simply go deeper, ever deeper, into your characters’ inner conflict. The greater their war within, the richer and more emotionally satisfying your story will be. This, of course, requires that you have both an understanding of, and commitment to, emotional truth.
In the meantime, if you ever have trouble figuring out who’s fighting about what in your stories, recognize that you have a tool you can count on – breaking down problems into successively smaller and more manageable ones – and the reliable template of global conflict, local conflict and inner conflict. This alone should get you out of some of the writer’s binds we commonly find ourselves caught up in.