I’m not referring to the actual conflict of your story. That will be specific to what you’re writing about. What I intend to discuss here has a lot more to do with picking what type of conflicts are present in your story, their dominance in your story and how many characters these conflicts effect.
I am of the opinion that a story is a story because of the presence of conflict. Conflict creates choice – the character either chooses to do something, or he/she doesn’t. In that choice, you get to know the character a little better, the story moves in a direction.
Conflict and Decisions
I believe you can measure the conflicts in a story by the number of decisions made. Conflicts and decisions are tied together. You have small conflicts and big conflicts, and small decisions and big decisions. Small conflicts tend to focus more on the internally made decisions “do I brush my teeth or rush out the door to work?” There is an external pressure here, of time (there’s generally always some sort of external pressure that brings out internal conflicts, IMHO), but the conflict is largely “do I want to be late” vs “do I want to be clean”.
Small conflicts by their nature prompt small, largely reversible decisions. If the MC decides to forgot brushing their teeth, they can pick up a stick of gum at the station. If they decide to brush their teeth they can call ahead to let work know they’ll be late or they can apologise when they get there. The consequences aren’t generally long reaching.
More on when they might be later. For the moment – small conflicts = small decisions with consequences that are largely manageable.
Big conflicts, in comparison, result in big decisions. They can involve both internal and external conflicts, but the external pressure is often a lot larger. The increased external pressure means that the character has less influence on what’s going on. They must therefore put more effort into rising to the occasion.
By far the most important thing about big conflicts, however, is that they result in big decisions. These decisions have consequences that can’t easily be taken care of. For example, if while hurrying to work with their teeth I brushed, our MC sees a mugging and wades in to help, the consequences of their decision aren’t easy to control. Their decisions effects more than just them. It effects the person being mugged, the muggers and our MC.
These people will react in a variety of ways, creating a chain response of consequences that is not easily done.
So you have big conflicts and small conflicts, and this big decisions and small decisions. But where do they fit in terms of narrative?
Deciding which conflict fits and when
As I see it, it looks something like this: Big conflicts require big decisions, and have big consequences. Little conflicts are the opposite – however, they can build, and create more conflict as the story progresses. Small conflicts involve less people, and tend to be fairly easily rectified. Big conflicts either involve a lot of people, or the decision made will effect a lot of people. Both can be external, internal, or a combination of the two.
But at the end of the day, a big conflict leads to a decision that has a significant impact on the character’s lives and the story. It is, in it’s own way, a point of no return. If you have nothing but big conflicts in your book then, the character is just not going to be able to deal with them all.
If though, you had nothing but small conflicts in the book, you would eventually reach a tipping point.
When little conflicts have disastrous consequences
You can’t have anything but big conflicts in a story. It’s would just be unmanageable and the character would either bed dead or suffering from psychotic shock within the space of the first act. You can, however, have a build up of small conflicts. When things pile onto of each other, they create stress, perhaps leading the character to make a disasterous decision that turns a small conflict into a large one.
So where do you put these conflicts in the story?
The character should always be in conflict. It’s what keeps things interesting – it keeps the reader reading to figure out how the character is going to deal with them. So how to order them?
Basically, one conflict should lead to another. They shouldn’t just pop out of the air. Neither should they all be solved with the blink of an eye. Neither should they all be impossible to solve. It’s about striking the appropriate balance between small conflicts and big conflicts, and about making sure you don’t repeat yourself too much. If conflict A is essentially the same as conflict B, it’s not interesting, because we’ve already seen the character deal with that. We know what’s going to happen.
It’s about pushing the character along without pushing them into a deep dark hole of depression. It’s about making them make decisions that are going to affect their lives and the lives around them. It’s about seeing where they go with the conflict that’s presented to them.
Feature Picture Credit: Attributed to Simon de Bakker (theJoSoS) via Flickr at : http://flic.kr/p/Lnyfo Used under creative commons, some rights reserved by the creator