“Never goes smooth. How come it never goes smooth? ” – Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly
The thing that makes a story is conflict. You can write about people waking up and eating their meals and working and having children and dying of old age in their beds, but if nothing happens to make the characters’ lives complicated, it’s not much of a story. We can all agree on that. But a single conflict, dragged over the course of 300 pages of novel, just won’t do. A good conflict has layers. The first time something goes wrong is only the icing on the conflict cake. The characters have to go deeper, experience more hardship and sometimes fight against their own people before everything is settled and the conflict is resolved for good. Generally I tell people they need to read, read read in order to learn what works and why it does. The best way to learn what sorts of conflict grip readers is by reading, but occasionally other media can help too.
Anyone who’s been a SF/F fan for more than twenty minutes should be passingly familiar with the Joss Whedon space-western Firefly. One of the reasons it’s so compelling is the writing. Most of the time television shows only have room for one major conflict, because 42 minutes of screen time just isn’t very long. Whedon always managed to serve up complex multi-layered stories, and he did it by never letting up on his characters. If you’re having trouble coming up with conflict or if you’re just not sure how to segue from one level of conflict to the next, watching an episode of Firefly isn’t a bad idea.
Let’s look at the episode “Bushwhacked“.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to talk about the episode all the way to the end. If you haven’t seen it yet, sorry. Where’ve you been for the last ten years? And don’t say you’ve been busy. I will roll my eyes at you.
Before the episode opens, we’ve got conflict. Simon is a young doctor who risked everything to rescue his genius sister from a government installation, and is thus constantly on the run from those same government agents. The sister, River, suffered awful experiments at the hands of the government scientists, so now she’s both a genius and completely nuts. The captain, Mal, and the companion, Inara, are in love, but can’t admit it to each other. Mal’s right-hand, Zoe, is married to the pilot, Wash, but her loyalty to Mal often causes issues in her marriage. Kaylee, the engineer, loves Simon, who can’t relax and love her back for fear of failing his sister. There’s a religious man, the Shepherd, who is more than he appears to be, but is unwilling to share his past. And there’s Jayne, the loose cannon who works for the captain but only as long as the money’s good. Every character has his own personal conflict. These personal conflicts give the characters depth, make them real to the viewer. I want you to stop here, and think about your characters. Not just your protagonist, but the others as well. Do they all have something to lose? Do they all want something? They should.
On with our story…the crew comes across a derelict spacecraft that had been carrying settlers to one of the outer planets. Evidence suggests that no one is alive on board, so the captain decides to collect whatever’s worth anything as salvage. It’s illegal, and if a government ship comes along, they’re going to be in trouble. While on board, the captain discovers that the ship was assaulted by Reavers, cannibalistic humans who prowl the outer edges of the settled worlds, preying on ships and outposts. So now we’re watching for the government (which is at least predictable in its behavior) and wild things (which are not predictable at all.) This is something of an environment conflict, since it involves the world they’re living in. Stop here again – what are some of the environment conflicts in your own story? Things that your characters, most or all of them, are usually watching over their shoulders hoping never to see?
The crew discovers a survivor, who’s in relatively good health physically but is emotionally and mentally broken. They take him aboard Serenity, and the doctor sedates him until they can decide what to do with him. The captain gets his engineer, pilot and right-hand together for a private talk, revealing to them something he’d noticed before. The derelict ship had been armed with a booby trap by the Reavers. If the crew tries to fly away, the trap will blow them up. If they stay, the Reavers will eventually return to kill them. The engineer manages to disarm the trap, but almost as soon as that happens, the government vessel shows up and uses a tractor beam (or something like that – it’s not specified) to hold them from running. And did I mention the survivor has waked up? He’s absolutely nuts, driven that way by the horrible things he was forced to witness the Reavers doing to his friends, something else the government would be eager to blame the crew for. Now we have a heavily layered conflict. The ship is carrying illegal salvage, flying away from a ship full of murdered people and the government is searching for the doctor and his sister. The captain could lose his ship, and they could all wind up in prison, at the very least. If they locate River and Simon, the government could possibly kill the remaining crew just to keep anyone from talking. River and Simon, meanwhile, have been in hiding. Mal had put them into suits and helped them to the outside of the ship, where no one would look. Once the government finished searching the ship, River and Simon had come back inside to get food, thinking they were safe for the moment. The trouble with that is that the survivor, taken aboard the government vessel along with the rest, has murdered the medical staff who were working on him, and now he’s run back to Serenity.
So let’s look at this. We have fugitives with nowhere to run, a government determined to arrest everyone, a captain about to lose his ship, crew and freedom, and a deranged killer on the loose. And while these conflicts came from different directions, they’ve all come together and have to be solved by the end of the episode. Solved preferably by the protagonist, because while certain problems can be solved by another character, the big things have to be dealt with by the protagonist or it feels as if he shouldn’t have been the main focus in the first place. If you’re near the end of your story (or even if you’re not, but you know where you’re going), stop here and look for the layers of conflict. Is it almost more than can be resolved? Good. If it’s not, heap some more trouble on your character’s head before it’s too late.
I’m not saying that all television shows are good examples of conflict, heaven knows. Most of them are one-note drivel. Firefly is one of the better shows, with fine writing that pays attention to the rules of storytelling. We insist that you read within your genre, because unless you’re writing for television, watching it won’t serve your needs completely. It’s a little like a Cliff’s Notes study guide. But way more fun.