Never Enough Conflict

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“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.

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25 comments to Never Enough Conflict

  • Wow, more layers than an onion. Or maybe Cake. Everybody loves cake. You know what else everybody loves, parfaits. Parfaits have layers.

    Great post Misty. *shares on Facebook*

    Now, to think of my cakes, err characters in terms of layers.
    Later,
    NGD

  • *sits on the edge of his seat* So, don’t leave us hanging, how does it end???

    Thank you for this post btw. It is both timely and helpful to my current WIP.

  • Ken

    Oh, oh. Firefly!!!
    *Gets his Browncoat on* (and, no, that wasn’t a missed space there).
    You could probably teach a couple of 40 minute writing classes on that one episode alone. Dialogue, revealing character (While the two of them are hiding, Joss Whedon reveals LOADS about Simon and his sister, River’s characters without either of them uttering a SINGLE WORD), conflict, the whole shebang.

    Thank you for posting this Misty. I get exactly what you’re saying and the example (for me at least) was spot on.

    You’re also correct about reading vs watching. I’ve seen that episode several times and never once analyzed it from a writer’s perspective. It’s just too easy to fall into the “Here and the now” of the show.

    You’ve given me much to think about today.

    “We’ll rise again”

    Ken 🙂

  • Deb S

    I love Firefly…and cake. Great post, Misty. Your episode recap and breakdown did a great job of illustrating your point. It had me on the edge of my seat and I’ve seen the episode. So, yeah, conflict = good.

  • Misty, I totally agree – you could write about this TV series all year. Excellent choice as example! I once heard someone say that the only way to write edge-of-the-seat tension is to take the character and the plot right to the very edge of destruction–so bad that only actual death would be worse–and then let the character solve it. He said that when everything was at its worst was the only time that the way out (resolution) became clear.

    I am trying to learn how to write that way. Maybe when I grow up…

  • Misty> Argh! I forgot how that episode ends! 😛

    I’ve been working on amping up the conflict for my characters, esp. my MCs. They must suffer and they must suffer a lot. This is a great example of how that works. “Oh look, we’re almost out of the conflict. Oh, nevermind, there’s another, worse one…” seems to be a good way to go, or at least it can be effective.

    In a moment of Joss Whedon appreciation: I love his dialogue. One of my favorite lines from all of TV is “evil” Willow’s “Bored Now.” It’s terrifying because it blames the person she’s with for whatever violence is coming next, and it is also perfectly in character with “good” Willow, too, in a way. But that’s aside the point. 🙂

  • [Raises hand sheepishly…] Still haven’t watched FIREFLY. So I didn’t read the summary, because I really do intend to. Soon. I promise. But yeah, TV, movies, theater – lessons in conflict and plotting can come from any of them.

  • I’m so glad you guys enjoyed the post. Sometimes television writing is derided as being too low-brow to have any worth, and it’s just not true. (Especially in the case of Firefly…I’m such a browncoat.)

    As for Whedon’s talent for dialogue, oh glory yes! We often find ourselves spouting Firefly and Buffy dialogue in ordinary family conversation, just because it was so memorable. And Emily, that line of Willow’s had to be one of the most terrifying things anyone ever said. You just knew trouble of an apocalyptic nature was at hand!

  • Okay, okay, the ending… (you know it’s available on Hulu, right?)

    The government agent reluctantly agrees that Mal might be able to help find the deranged survivor, and takes him, handcuffed, back to Serenity to search. They find the man, who attacks the agent, but Mal manages to kill him in time to save the agent. The government agents release the crew and Serenity, but take possession of the salvaged cargo, since allowing Mal to profit would have been “wrong”. The derelict colony ship is destroyed as Serenity flies away.

    So no, not every bit of conflict is resolved by the end, but that’s an example of what makes a good series. River and Simon’s fugitive status remains a problem for them and for the captain all throughout the show. It keeps you coming back for more, which is what a properly-crafted conflict should do.

  • By the way, now I’m desiring cake. You’re an evil bunch, you are!

  • josephmcbee

    Great post. I love the show and I really enjoyed the way you broke it down like this. I tend to make a lot of lists and I see a nice little checklist in your post.

    Types of conflict for my WIP:

    1. Internal: Every character should have something they want and something to lose. (Maybe something they desperately want and something they are terrified of losing?)

    2. Environmental: My characters should be watching over their shoulders looking for something they hope they never see. (I loved this.)

    3. High Stakes: Raise the stakes by layering in the conflict and making it more intense.

    I can really use this to evaluate my writing. I realize all the right brained folks are doing a little head tilt here, but us left-brain creatives (not a contradiction in terms) appreciate a little structure.

    Thanks again!

  • I nearly went reaver when they cancelled the show. Loved it. Absolutely loved it.

    One more conflict in the show. Mal (and Zoe) were on the losing side of a war with the central systems. Lots of good character building there, and lots of fuel for conflict with the government.

    One of my current flaws revolves around conflict. I tend to throw a lot of physical nastiness at my characters, hence they’re always spending time in the hospital. Seems to get a bit repetitive, and I’m spending lots of revision time fixin’ that. Gotta look out for other repetitive conflict…

  • Joss Whedon is a master at making the viewer care about his characters. Give him thirty seconds, and he can get you emotionally involved with a lima bean. He does this by making characters real, and he makes them real by giving them the sort of personality traits that you classify as conflicts in the early part of his post. I’ve never thought about them that way, but it’s a useful and valuable perspective.

    This emotional sympathy for characters is essential, because if you don’t care about them as people, you don’t care what happens to them, no matter how artfully your conflict is crafted.

    So… conflict creates sympathetic characters, which in turn allows you to care about the conflict. It’s holographic, wherein each part informs each other part and the whole.

  • “early part of *this* post” Why can’t I edit my replies?! Arrrgh!

  • Whedon rocks generally, but I think Firefly is my all time favorite. Thanks for this, Misty.

  • Joining in the Whedon love. Zoe is one of my favorite bad-ass women characters ever. And Mal…oh sorry, drooling there.

    This is a very useful post. I’m revising my WIP and one of the comments I got was a need for more conflict action, faster. I kept circling around trying to find ways to start violence between the MC and the Big Bad and having it not work. What I eventually realized, and this post is helping me with, is that the secondary plot conflicts are what need to be ramped up so that the dealing with the Big Bad is harder and more frustrating.

  • Rick

    Good stuff…

  • Fascinating post, Misty. I’ve thought about conflicts between internal motivations and external goals before, and escalating the problems the protagonist faces, but environmental conflicts never occurred to me. Seems so obvious now you’ve mentioned it!

    You’ve got me thinking about my minor characters too. Everyone is the star of their own life, of course, even the bit players in a novel, but how to make them seem like real rounded people is something I struggle with. Need more conflict! And cake. Damn, I wish no one had mentioned cake. There goes the diet again …

  • Why they keep absolute drivel going for years without decent characters, plot, or conflict, but get rid of quality shows like Firefly, I’ll never know.

    Honestly, Misty, you could take any of the episodes apart this way. Every single one had so much conflict, on all levels. I so needed this post. I’m a little light in the conflict dept. and can use all the help I can get. (It also kindled a desire to own the entire series – as research, of course!)

  • Great post, Misty! I’m tempted to re-watch that episode … for research, honest. 😉

    What Sarah said – I could probably use some secondary conflict in my new WIP. I was wondering why it was giving me trouble. Everything seemed a bit too easy for my main character, this time around. Thanks for this!

  • Sarah, I love Zoe like whoa. If I were ever to cosplay Firefly, I’d want to be Zoe, except that I’m pretty sure just her legs are longer than my whole body. *laughs*

  • Razziecat

    Great post. This reminds me of a comment made by an author whose name I cannot remember (argh): “First you chase your character up a tree. Then you throw rocks at him.” I like that image: Environmental problem (rock); trouble with another character (rock); troubled past that haunts him (rock)….and so on.

  • Fantastic post. It definitely made me go back to my story and try to determine when I’m hitting my characters with conflict and what’s at stake for each character. Thanks!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for this post. I COULD NOT figure out what I was supposed to do with the next chapter of my WIP and now I know! Environmental conflict! Was worried before that I wasn’t fleshing out the world building properly in this way, and now that you’ve named it so clearly, I see I have this big gaping hole right where it ought to go. Thank you!

  • I need to throw rocks at my secondary characters. They’re not bruised enough.