Tag Archives: conflict

Just Under the Surface: Subtle Conflict


In our culture, the bigger the explosion, the better it sells. Action movies rule the box office, and readers ferociously consume romance, fantasy, and thrillers for the intense conflict. Our sensory input sure loves the loud conflicts. But what does the mind love? What does the brain crave? Subtle conflict. Tension between two lovers because of the faint scent of perfume on the collar. A character’s chest pain that doesn’t seem to subside. A character’s gnawing feeling to return home. These are sometimes called “minor conflicts,” but can change the entire ending to a story and leave readers breathless.

When we think of conflict, we think of some pretty violent words: fight, war, blood, feud, anxiety. Okay, maybe I just have anxiety when I think about conflicts and confrontation. But here are words we don’t usually think of right away when it comes to conflict: sleuth, spy, unreliable narrator, slow, time, patience. When does a plot twist truly blow your mind? When the hints and foreshadowing have been so subtle that you didn’t piece it together until it was right in front of your face. This kind of conflict takes time and patience to build.

In subtle conflict, the author dives into character motives, changes in the environment, and/or a slowly-shifting political climate. Not as flashy as a war, say, but an extremely effective tool when planning a book’s climax.

One of the best examples of subtlety in contemporary literature (that I can think of) is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens, the protagonist, is a butler in England that takes great pride in his work. He is very loyal to his job and his employer to a fault. Stevens tells about his day-to-day duties through his own rose-colored lens in such a boring way that you begin to question why you’re reading the book in the first place.

And then, something small, almost inconsequential, strikes you as amiss. Very slowly, you begin to piece together that not everything is how Stevens perceives it to be. By the end of the book you realize, through no major conflict, what the conflict truly is: Stevens lies to himself, seeing only the best in his employer and his life. He is the conflict; he refuses to see things as they truly are.

While I don’t expect very many people would describe The Remains of the Day as “exciting,” or “thrilling,” I describe the book as being “artfully written,” and “beautifully subtle.” When I finished the book, all I could say was: “Wow.”

While anyone would agree that strong conflict is necessary in a compelling book, that doesn’t necessarily mean those conflicts have to be loud and in your face. They can be floating just under the surface, slowly building pressure and tension until the climax.

Fire-breathing dragons are cool, and explosions are nice. But don’t forget the subtle conflicts that can truly make your story memorable, unique, and blow your readers’ socks off.

About Kristin LunaKristin Luna copy
Kristin Luna has been making up stories and getting in trouble for them since elementary school. She writes book reviews for Urban Fantasy Magazine and her short story “The Greggs Family Zoo of Odd and Marvelous Creatures” was featured in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All alongside Peter S. Beagle and Todd McCaffrey. Her horror story “Fog” will be featured on Pseudopod in May of this year. Kristin lives in San Diego with her husband Nic, and is working on a young adult novel.

Close Conflicts of the Romantic Kind

Here on The Fictorians, we’ve been talking conflict all month—internal, external, character vs …, writer vs…, but we haven’t yet talked about romance. Time to change that. Now, I’m a Fantasy guy, both as a reader and a writer. The reading came first, of course. I started with Tolkien, Brooks, Hickman, McKiernan, and Eddings back in the day, gobbling up epic tales of elves and dwarves and dragons, magic and mysticism, and good versus evil on a planetary scale. Man, I loved that stuff. Still do, actually.

Over the years I’ve read a gazillion books, but the stories that stick with me, the ones that hold a piece of my soul, are those that not only satisfied my need for the magic, but also spoke to my heart. I love stories that explore the spark, the attraction, between two characters. A strong romantic storyline, carefully fed and nurtured, can turn a good story into a magnificent tale that brushes against the reader’s soul.

And what writer doesn’t strive for that each and every time he puts words to paper?

I’m not talking about writing a Romance novel, but a sci-fi/fantasy story with romantic elements. There’s a big difference between the two. A novel classified as romance is subject to what I call the “Three Laws of Romance”:

  1. The Law of the HEA – the story must have a “happily ever after” ending.
  2. The Law of Astronomical Odds – the odds against the characters realizingtheir HEA must be so astronomical, the reader cannot possibly foresee how they could ever get together.
  3. The Law of Forever Apart – keep the budding lovers apart for as long as possible. Once they get together, the story is over.

These three laws constitute an emotional contract between the Romance writer and the reader. Before reading the first word, a reader has their story-level expectations set. She buys into the formula and looks to lose herself in the unique twists and turns the author takes to reach that HEA.

Once a writer drops the “big R”, introducing a romantic subplot off the main sword and sorcery epic, the laws vanish. Anything goes. As a writer, this is where I live. I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel.

Badges? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Let’s talk about developing the romantic conflict. For writers who consider planning/outlining a four-letter word, the romantic storyline is something that develops organically, something that the characters “feel” while the words flow from the writer’s brain to his fingertips.

But I’m a hard-core plotter. I have to know what to do when or I’ll leave something out. In the early stages, while developing each primary character’s internal and external conflicts, I consider a third type—the romantic conflict. Which characters will fall in love, or like, or lust, depending on the needs of the story? How will it happen? Will it have a HEA? When will it happen? Writing in a land with no “Big R” laws, I can do whatever I want. I can string the reader along, plying her with stolen goblin kisses behind the ale casks and furtive cyclopean smiles from the high window in the wizard’s tower, only to have one of the characters turned into a coconut in the last chapter. While that might add a kick to a refreshing adult beverage, being turned into a fuzzy, hard-shelled fruit wreaks havoc upon a budding relationship.

That’s a mean example, but makes my point. Being a romantic, I would never do that to my readers without a significant amount of foreshadowing to cushion the blow. I want the guy to get the girl, or the elf to get the elf maid, or the whatever creature to get the blue whatsit. The key here is to consider adding that dash of romantic conflict to any plot.

Romance, love, attraction, they are all inherent in the human, or quasi human, condition. Fully resolved characters will encounter this at some point in their existence. Embrace it. Develop it. Write it. Give the story the added spark.

No Evil Required

Evil exists in the world. In fact, to some degree it exists in all of us—a dark side that usually only emerges in our most private thoughts but may occasionally peek into the light of day. For the most part, we don’t let this happen. Indeed, for the most part we are good people. In evolutionary terms, goodness propagates itself more successfully; evil is inherently maladaptive.

The worst kind of motivation for a villain is intrinsic, deep-seated evil. They’re evil because they were born that way. Or they crave power obsessively. To me, this almost never rings true. I suppose there are some people like that in the real world, but they must be a rare breed. Most people think of themselves as more or less good—not necessarily saintly, but closer to Mother Teresa than to Adolf Hitler.

Intriguingly, even the people who really are closer to Adolf Hitler probably view themselves as being closer to Mother Teresa, and this is fertile ground for growing conflict in our stories. First of all, a villain is not the same thing as an antagonist. You don’t need a villain to tell a good story, but you probably need an antagonist. What’s the difference? Well, think about it this way. Sometimes you just have two fairly normal people who just happen to want very different things… perhaps even diametrically opposed things… and thus the clash happens. (Exhibit A: Sad Puppies vs. Social Justice Warriors; no evil, moustache-twirling villains here, but a hell of a lot of conflict-enriching antagonism.)

When building a story, try setting up a conflict between two or more sides in which every side could be anchored by a strong, relatable protagonist. The only difference between a protagonist and an antagonist is often the fact that the protagonist gets the primary point of view; if you swap things around, those two characters can easily switch roles without changing the fundamentals of the story.

As a thought experiment, it could even be interesting to try actually writing the story from different points of view. Walk in your antagonist’s shoes; make them the protagonist and see what happens.

Indeed, conflict requires no evil. Just opposition. And effective, relatable, compelling opposition is rarely in short supply.

1Evan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for the last two decades. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, is forthcoming this spring. He specializes in hard science fiction and lives in the vicinity of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Macro vs Micro Conflict

big dragon little knightLife is conflict.  Story is conflict.  One of the reasons we seek out great stories is for help dealing with conflict in our lives.  We learn lessons from our characters, look for inspiration from heroes that have to risk everything to achieve their goals.  After experiencing that level of conflict, sometimes our own are easier to keep in proper perspective.  If they can make sense of their crazy worlds, we should be able to make sense of our own.

Frank’s rule on conflict:  Rarely is a story with a single conflict interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention for long.

  • A corrolary to that rule is:  the more personal a conflict, the more interesting it is.

Let’s start with the biggest conflicts:  War.  One might think those would be the most interesting stories because entire nations are at conflict with each other.  Problem is, I as a reader cannot relate to a nation very easily.

Consider a few highly rated war movies:

What makes these movies stand above the rest in large part is that they have powerful personal conflicts.  War is the setting, and battle sequences provide ample fodder for physical and psychological danger.  However, it’s the deeply personal conflicts of the combatants, their personal lives outside of the battlefield, that draw in viewers and make them care.

There were war movies made that dealt only with the macro issues of conflict between nations.  Those tend to be drier and inherently less interesting outside of a pure historical, strategic, or academic perspective.  Because there’s not much story there.  It’s hard for people to relate.

But if we take a major conflict like that and populate the setting with interesting characters who have challenges similar to our own in addition to the macro issues of life and death conflict on the battlefield, that’s when we get sucked in.  We want our heroes to survive the battle, but what we’re most rooting for are their victories over their inner struggles, their fear.  We want them to survive to find a normal life, fall in love, prove there can be some kind of happily ever after.

Let’s look at some other types of stories.

Would we care so much if Luke Skywalker defeated Darth Vader if Vader wasn’t Luke’s father?  The Luke vs Vaderlightsaber duels were awesome, and the conflict between the good young jedi and the evil old killer was epic.  However, our interest was locked in and set to boiling when the story became one of redemption.  We wanted Luke to not only defeat evil, but help his father return to the light.

Titanic was such a successful movie because we cared for the primary characters.  The setting was one of a famous disaster where fifteen hundred people died.  Yet that wasn’t the main story because major disasters are not relatable at a deep, personal level.  It worked because it was a love story between a doomed couple.

The Princess Bride is a completely different type of story.  Funny, engaging, filled with epic duels and memorable characters.  But the heart of the story is true love.  Very little is more relatable than that.

Let’s shift gears again.  Rocky.  Great movie.  Classic story of a man committing his all in a bid to overcome incredible obstacles and break out of the life he’s locked into.  The fight scenes are superb, but we’re rooting for him because we relate to him.  We want him to prove it’s possible to reach our dreams, no matter how high we’ve set our sights, as long as we’re willing to throw everything we are into the struggle.

Another favorite story of mine is Knight’s Tale.  The jousting is awesome, the cinematography is often fantastic, and the setting is very interesting.  We root for William, the young knight, because again he’s trying to change his stars, change his life, and find love.  If he can do it, we can do it (hopefully with less physical pain involved).

Pride and PrejudiceLet’s consider a final example.  Pride & Prejudice.  I love to tease my wife about this and other similar stories because the level of conflict is so subdued.  There are no knights, there’s no war, there’s no desperate run through traffic to stop the wedding before the true love makes the wrong choice.  And yet, this story has held readers for a very long time and most women I know are rabid fans.  Why is that?

Because the conflict is relatable.  The conflicts are simple, yet powerful.  Everyone has to wonder about relationships, their place in the world, and what kind of life they’re going to manage to build for themselves.  Add in the romantic Elizabethan era with beautiful costumes, formal settings, and a social code that threatens to keep the characters down, and it’s a winner for the ages.

So as we build stories, make sure at their root there’s a deep, personal conflict that our readers can relate to.  Then layer onto that larger challenges with family, society, or culture.  Those macro conflicts and opposing pressures can ratchet up tension and stakes, making the personal conflict that much more powerful.

If you can do that, you’ve got a winner for the ages.