Storytelling Class — Conflict and Tension

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was conflict and tension.

(Well, okay, that’s not quite true. This one was actually a few weeks ago. I wrote it up and promptly lost it in a drafts folder. Here it is now, better late than never.)

We always start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write?

What Did We Read?

Well, it’s been a few weeks, but back then I was finishing off a re-read of Scott Pilgrim on my own time, finishing Dune with my oldest child at bedtime, and I was dabbling in the comic Preacher on Kindle Prime.

Meanwhile, Freya was reading a Long Walk to Water, reading the second book in the Wildwood series with my wife at bedtime, and wrapping up the final book of Harry Potter.

What Did We Write?

I worked on Razor Mountain and worked on some short story ideas—one about time-travel performance art and one about the confusion of being unexpectedly reincarnated.

Freya continued to work on Amber and Floria.

Conflict and Tension

The main topic for the week was conflict and tension.

A lot of writing advice and literary analysis focuses on conflict as the engine that makes all stories work. I think people like Lincoln Michel have made pretty good arguments against that being true.

For one thing, a lot of literary analysis ascribes the label of conflict very broadly. Man vs. man, man vs. nature/god, man vs. self, and so on. Many of these can be better described as “tension.” There may be a conflict between two or more people with antithetical goals, or there may be tension between a person with a goal and a particular force or situation that makes that goal difficult to achieve, like societal norms or physical constraints.

Even though conflict and tension don’t drive all stories, we’re going to talk about them today because they do drive a lot of stories.

Heroes and Villains

Stories about heroes fighting against villains might just be story conflict in its most distilled form. This is mythology. It’s classic fantasy. It’s superheroes. It gives us two great focal points in the hero and the villain, and secondary characters can be placed clearly on one side, or live in the ambiguous space between.

People Who Just Don’t Get Along

Conflict doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as good vs. evil. It can be much more nuanced. Most of us run into interpersonal conflicts in our daily lives, and just as we (usually) wouldn’t ascribe hero status to ourselves, we don’t treat those who disagree with us as “villains” either. These conflicts aren’t about right and wrong. They’re just people disagreeing.

All it takes for conflict to happen is two or more people who have goals that are at odds with each other. They may even have the best of intentions, they may hold no malice for the other, but only one of the two can achieve their goals.

Person vs. Other

Conflict gets less conflicty when it’s no longer about people who are at odds with one another.

Person vs. Nature is a story like “The Martian.” It has only one or two minor cases of interpersonal conflict. Most of the story, everyone is working together. The tension comes from Mark Watney being trapped, alone, on Mars, and everyone trying to get him back home and safe.

Person vs. Self is about a character’s dissatisfaction with themselves, trying to become something different (or fighting an inevitable change all the way). My favorite discworld novel, Going Postal, has a surface-level conflict between the protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, and his business rivals and the city’s autocrat. But the deeper conflict of the book is Moist, an inveterate con man, slowly becoming a responsible, honorable, and even kind of nice human being.

No Versus at All?

Other things can drive a story that don’t involve conflict. Kishotenketsu, for example, suggests an entirely different framework for evaluating stories. Form and language can drive more literary-minded stories. However, I’d consider those kinds of structures to be extra challenging modes of the craft.

Conflict and tension are great story engines, easy for readers to enjoy, with infinite variations available to the author. Conflict is the reasonable default for most stories.

That’s it for this week’s topic. We took a short break from these “classes”, but summer is almost here, and summer vacation along with it. With less school work, we’ll be trying to take more opportunities for reading and writing just for fun.

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