So if conflict is the basis of drama, how does a writer wield his knife? Not all fictional conflict is alike. Here are three examples of conflict I witnessed and ways to employ your authorial tool:
1. On a bloated, overstuffed plane from Nice to Rabat, tempers flared. A man refused to yield his perch to the rightful seat owner, passengers refused to sit down during takeoff, and two women faced off when the plane landed.
Put your characters in a confined space and let them sort out their conflicts.
2. When I shared a petite taxi after arriving in the city center from the airport, a woman refused to pay, argued with the driver and left slamming the door.
Write conflict that’s sudden and surprising.
3. On a freighter from America to North Africa, conflict simmered between a passenger and crew member, brewed in a low-level mix of overly polite words, until after 10 days it exploded into a shouting match.
Build conflict slowly to increase tension.
Life of Pi is the story of a boy who shares a confined space with a tiger – a lifeboat. Yet when Pi first lands in the boat he shares it not only with the tiger, Richard Parker, but with three other animals, all of whom Richard Parker eats. The conflict starts quickly and violently. But most of the tension builds as the reader follows Pi’s tactics and strategy to keep Richard Parker on the other side of the boat during the course of a long sea journey.
If you’re dealing with physical conflict, such as a fight, make it fast. Real fights generally last seconds, it’s over, there are teeth on the floor. Sudden conflict can be effective because it’s a surprise. But if you build conflict slowly it increases the tension because readers are bonding with a character or characters and will want to know the outcome. More importantly, the emotional impact of conflict upon the character you’re following will stay with you for a long time, far longer than physical conflict.
The end of Life of Pi is emotional and moving. After seven months, Richard Parker leaps away from Pi when they land and never looks back. Who would have thought a boy would grieve for a tiger’s companionship? But Pi “wept like a child,” and the reader grieves with Pi.
Don’t be afraid of conflict, establish what’s at stake if a character prevails or loses, go to the raw place of emotions, and increase the stakes to sharpen the tension. The story’s central conflict should be present throughout your story or novel, and when conflict lags, stories flatten.
Conflict in fiction creates an arc.
Exciting stories rest upon conflict.