Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne
This post demonstrates how conflict fuels and develops a story. An understanding of our simple example will help the writer with both good story structure and the search for new ideas. It’s the ideas angle (for short stories in particular) we’re going to focus on here.
Character and conflict are the story’s two most essential ingredients. Character is used to grip the reader emotionally, yet even with minimum (clichéd) character the mechanics of a story will still work well. But with minimum conflict the mechanics of a story will only splutter along. Plot, tension and suspense will fail to materialise without a sufficient injection of conflict. With no conflict, there is no story.
Character is the heart of the story and conflict the fuel that makes the body (story) function. A body still works with a poor heart (clichéd character) but becomes dysfunctional with little fuel and fails to work at all with no fuel.
This simple but compelling perspective on the story’s mechanics can lead us on to quite a radical approach in our search for new short story ideas. Rather than searching for ideas based on character, or situation (though this obviously involves conflict), we can search for conflict on its own, in a pure form, so to speak, and without worrying too much about the other storytelling essentials at this early point.
The most amazing thing about taking this approach is how quickly we discover the prevalence of conflict in the world around us. Yes, we may even find it inside of an empty matchbox. Let’s put this to the test.
Whatever conflict we discover inside of our empty matchbox, let’s structure it into a gripping plot plan by using the 3 act plot structure, a common formula used to aid the rise of tension in the story.
We start with a set-up, where a protagonist (our hero) is introduced into a setting where a problem is about to hit him. Here we have the inner part of our empty matchbox lying face up on a table in the centre of a windowed room that has a door leading into a hallway. At the moment, the matchbox is full of light. The light is our protagonist, our hero.
What triggers the story and kicks the plot into gear is known as the inciting incident. This will be something that both disturbs and challenges the protagonist (the light on the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox). As night begins to fall, the dark (the antagonist, the baddie) begins to creep over the room, and we see the first ominous signs of dark’s desire to become master of the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox. Therefore, dark has challenged light, our hero, for possession of his territory. The conflict has begun, and light must respond to it, creating further conflict, or we have no story.
This is the main body of the story where we develop our plot by adding more fuel (conflict). We must raise the stakes here for our protagonist, our hero. Every event in this section must head toward a final and inevitable clash with the antagonist, the baddie, where either he or our hero will walk away the winner. The last event in this act will have a high point and the darkest moment. At the high point, it will look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, but then unexpectedly, the darkest moment arrives, and all he has tried to achieve now looks to be undone. It seems as if he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the story’s challenge. This is an essential moment in the story that forces the tension even higher.
Let’s see how this works with our little story. The dark has challenged the light for ownership of the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox. Soon, as night comes deeper, the dark on the inside of this part of the matchbox is strengthening its hold, and this in turn is weakening the light and driving it out of its home. But then, suddenly, the door of the room swings inward and the hall light sweeps in, vanquishing the cloying and intensifying darkness in a moment and replacing the light once more in its rightful home. This is a plot plan for a very short story we are writing, so this can be our high point. After a while, though, the door of the room pulls to and the light is chased right out of the box by an inrush of the enemy that sweeps over it with the sudden and brutal execution of a cavalry charge. The dark has settled in the box with an even greater strength as night has now completely fallen outside. To make things worse, the light outside the door goes out. This is the darkest moment in the 3 act plot structure, and it is also literally our darkest moment of the story. All seems lost. Night has come, no light is on in the house; the inside of the matchbox has been colonized by dark. Has light, our hero, lost the battle for the inside of the inner part of the empty matchbox?
The climax is where our hero has his last battle with the baddie. It is an all or nothing moment where everything he has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point.
Because our battle for the inside of the inner part of an empty matchbox will be a short story, let’s add a twist in our plan.
Suddenly, as though by a miracle, we have a cloud break and the moonlight pours in through the window, driving the dark out of the box and vanquishing it to the far corners of the room. Heavenly wise moonlight bathes the box in a warm and silvery glow. Here is our resolution. We have victory for our protagonist, our hero, the light. We end the conflict here, so the story ends here.
By looking for fresh short story ideas solely from the perspective of conflict, we can find ideas just about anywhere because conflict exists just about anywhere. Of course, our example is on an abstract level, but despite the minimum (clichéd) character involved, the mechanics of the story will still work well. We proved this by easily structuring the conflict of the tale into a basic and solid short story plan using the 3 act plot structure, which is designed to create rising tension. But if we minimised the conflict, the mechanics of the story would suffer for it. We would struggle to put together a 3 act plot structure with little conflict.
Further, at least here, our abstract idea can be used as inspiration and guide for concrete ideas. The simplest crossover would revolve around a conflict involving physical space. For instance, two people struggling with each other for seat or elbow room on a bus or train. The conflict could evolve in a subtle and possibly witty way. The matchbox story demonstrates just how subtle conflict can be. This sort of story may sound like too simple an idea, but let’s remember that it’s the conflict that fuels the story and gives rise to the increasing tension, as we have just discovered in our example, which is as simple an idea as any. And, of course, very simple ideas can make great short stories with the right injection of fuel.
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