What Are You Looking At? Writing Conflict

“Only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love.” – E.M. Forster

One of the worst sins a writer can make is to have weak conflict. I’d argue that it’s worse than having an unlikable hero or cliche-ridden text. Without conflict, a book meanders around like a bored six-year-old without friends or an imagination on a rainy day. Reading such a book makes people grouchy. Very frickin’ grouchy.

There are three basic types of conflict and your story needs each kind:

1. Internal – This is when the hero must decide between two values. A great example of this is Copland. In it, a small town New Jersey sheriff, who always wanted to be a New York City cop, discovers that the NYC officers living in his town are all dirty. He must choose between helping to expose them – some of whom he’s known since high school – and, thus, throwing away his tenuous connection to being a big city police officer or turning a blind eye to their mob ties so he continue to be a peripheral part of the group.

2. Relational – This is the conflict between two characters and how they relate to each other. Take Out of Africa. In it Karen Blixen is in love with Denys, a big game hunter who values his personal freedom above all other things. The conflict comes from their different expectations from the relationship and what they want out of life. That they love each other is not in doubt, it’s whether love can overcome ingrained differences is.

3. External – As a romantic suspense writer, this one is right in my wheelhouse. It’s the big, bad thing forcing the hero into action. In the movie Snatch, hero Turkish has to get his boxer to go down in the fourth round or face the wrath of Brick Top – a villain known to feed his enemies chopped up bodies to pigs. At the same time, half the characters are chasing after a huge stolen diamond.

What are some of your favorite examples of conflict in a movie or novel?