The Beating Heart of a Story

As I’ve mentioned, over the last few weeks, Scot Noel and I have been discussing the pieces submitted to the art contest he sponsored and to which I contributed.  Now that the judging is over and I’ve chosen which of the winning pieces of art I’m going to write my story around, I’ve been thinking about the big difference between creating a visual image and telling a story…  As I see it, the heart of that difference is conflict.

Man Against....

Man Against Man, Nature, Self….

Leaving out conflict is a mistake many beginning writers make.  They have an image in their minds and think that verbally presenting that image or writing an anecdote about the characters is a story.   This limited presentation may work for a visual image – but it isn’t enough for a story.  At the very best, you may end up with a vignette – but a vignette is not a story.

(Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines a written vignette as: “a short literary sketch chiefly descriptive and characterized usu. by delicacy, wit, and subtlety.”)

By conflict I don’t mean sword fights, shoot-outs, or car chases.  Those are just the physical outgrowths of conflict.  Two quotations illustrate this beautifully.  Carl von Clausewitz said: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  Zhou Enlai memorably riffed off of this with: “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”  In other words, you can have lots of conflict without a single sword being drawn or shot fired.

(In fact, you can have shots fired and swords drawn and no conflict at all – for example, in a training or practice session.)

There are three basic forms conflict can take in a story.  I’d like to talk a little about them before moving on to the hidden flaw that undermines many a story.

A novel will often have all three forms of conflict.  In sexist days of yore, these were termed “man against man,” man against self,” and “man against nature.”  That’s still a pretty good shorthand, if you understand “man” to mean “intelligent, sentient entity,” which is a real mouthful.  “Person against person” doesn’t have the same ring, and the alteration sounds even worse with “person against self.”  “Human against human” is a dangerous limitation for those of us who write SF/F.  So, for the nonce, let’s stick with “man.”

(Seriously, I worked over these with a word-loving friend for quite a while.  The best alternative we could come up with was “individual” and that just lacks the snap.  I’m open to suggestions!)

“Man against man” superficially seems pretty obvious.  Your protagonist is competing against a person or persons, right?  Most people immediately envision stories involving physical contests, battles, or the like.  However, “man against man” conflict isn’t limited to arena fights or races.  A detective tracking down a murderer or thief is involved in a “man against man” conflict.  Two people competing for the same promotion or love interest would be “man against man” stories.  War stories – no matter how high tech – are still man against man stories.

An interesting twist on the “man against man” conflict is when a character has a secret and someone else wants to learn it.  Secret identities create immediate conflict because the one with the secret has something to lose if the secret is revealed.  However, more subtle secrets work, too.   In her Stephanie Plum novels, Janet Evanovich creates a lot of tension – and occasional humor – around Stephanie’s continuing search to learn more about Ranger.

Evanovich is very skillful at raising the ante.  Every time Stephanie learns something about Ranger, she realizes there is more to learn.   Remember this if you want to use a secret of any sort to create conflict or tension in a story.  Once it’s known, it no longer serves.

“Man against nature” conflict goes far beyond the struggle to be the first to climb a mountain or reach the South Pole or kill the ferocious dragon or man-killing tiger.  (In fact, if the dragon is intelligent, then the story is actually a variation on a “man against man” conflict.)  Any time characters need to struggle to overcome a physical challenge, you have a man against nature conflict.

Frodo and Sam laboring to cross Mordor, then to climb that interminable stair…  Jack Aubrey struggling to sail the Surprise through a keel-cracking storm…  Gully Foyle putting on a patched space suit to venture into vacuum to gather bottled air and supplies…  These are just a few examples of memorable “man against nature” conflicts.

One way to differentiate “man against nature” conflicts from “man against man” conflicts is that the opponent is either non-thinking or restricted to a limited “animal” cunning.  A storm doesn’t care if it sinks the ship – no matter how much the sailors personify it or blame bad luck or whatever.  A man-eating tiger just wants a chance at an easy dinner.  It’s only humans who decide the tiger is on a vendetta to get even for a burned paw.

“Man against self” is the sort of conflict that changes a cardboard character into a three-dimensional human being.  SF in particular is prone to one-dimensional characters – in part because SF is the home of the “idea story.”  In too many idea stories, the characters become nothing but props for the exploration of that idea.

Fantasy and Mystery share with SF the great danger of characters being reduced to “types” – and not just mythic archetypes, but characters right out of central casting: the burly barbarian warrior; the sly, silent thief; the wise wizard stroking his long beard as he expounds some bit of lore; the tough detective whose weary eyes have seen too much; the gangster, street-smart, but curiously naïve; the prostitute with a heart of gold…

Giving these characters some internal conflict makes them more real – and provides some interesting potential plot twists.  What if your burly barbarian warrior is terrified of fire because he saw his family burned alive?  What happens when he confronts a flame-belching dragon?   Will he crumple or will his strong sense of duty to his companions keep him going?   What about a thief who, rather than being sly, is perfectly direct about why he turned to crime – and who hopes to earn enough money to run for parliament and set the social order right?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a great example of not only a character, but an entire series, being defined by a “man against self” conflict.  Peter suffers badly from shell-shock.  (They hadn’t invented the term PTSD then.  Anyhow, his problem really is related to shelling and trench warfare.)  When he returns to civilian life, he copes by focusing on various hobbies – the most absorbing of which is solving crimes.  As the series progresses, Peter recovers somewhat, but he never gets over a certain guilt that he is sending men to the gallows to distract himself from his own personal horrors.

Take care not to overweight your character with too many problems.  Not only do you risk alienating your reader, you risk turning your character into someone incapable of acting – or worse, a parody.  This last is fine if parody is your intention but, if you had hoped to create a tragic, Byronic figure who has turned to drink and is incapable of commitment, and instead end up with someone the readers see as a self-obsessed drunk who runs through girlfriends as fast as he does bottles of cheap gin…

Overweighting the character with internal conflicts isn’t as much a problem in SF and Fantasy, where rich world-building and complex challenges provide a balance, but I’m seeing it more and more in mystery fiction.

I’ve been talking for a while, so I’ll save a great example of a story that – despite being only novelette length – features all three forms of conflict.  Then I’ll finally discuss the hidden flaw that undermines what might seem like a story full of conflict…

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12 Responses to “The Beating Heart of a Story”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    So, conflict, violence, and survival are too simplistic?

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Yes. I went out of my way to state that violence is only the outgrowth of conflict, not really what I’m talking about at all.

      The same applies to all the rest… There are many more stories that involve “Nature” than mere survival.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Odd thing is that interpersonal violence is the odd one out there. Very often, dealing with personal issues involves (in large part) accepting the problem as a worthy challenge, not beating the objectionable behavior into submission. Human issues with nature very often involve accepting the challenge(s) Nature throws their way (although residents of Las Vegas Nevada, among others, believe in the unrealistic fantasy of conquering nature, rather than, say, changing their behaviors to accept the challenge of living sustainably in a water-limited desert). In both these cases, seeing the other as an opponent to be beaten often doesn’t work.

      Conversely, interpersonal violence involves one person beating another (This might be summarized by what one martial artist said: “Hitting people is wrong. However, hitting them and having them get back up again is worse.”). It’s the only one where “versus” generally applies. With the other two, opposition is often a route to failure.

  2. Peter Says:

    How about this for a rephrasing: “There are three basic kinds of conflict: with others, with the self, and with nature.”

    Sometimes the easiest way to fight The Man is to rephrase slightly.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I see we’d agree about how to handle “gender neutral” language!

      Your suggestion works great for that paragraph, but I don’t find Conflict with Others, Conflict with Self, Conflict with Nature, quite as catchy. I think it’s because “with” doesn’t have the verbal resonance of “Against,” and while Conflict Against Others works nicely, Conflict Against Self sounds (to me and I admit I am very tired right now) a bit like one of those old comic routines where someone hits himself on the head with a balloon.

      Still… Hmm… There’s potential. Other thoughts?

      • Peter Says:

        I think “Conflict Against the Self” works better than “Conflict Against Self” – less Abbot and Costello, more Jean-Paul Sartre.

  3. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Peter — Good point, but not as catchy an aid to memory.

    Ah, language! I have a marvelous discussion yesterday at Bubonicon about the evolution of the word “provocative.”

  4. Paul Genesse Says:

    Excellent discussion of conflict. In my presentations at conventions, conferences, writing groups, etc. on the topic of conflict, I say the “Man Against Man” phrase and the other standard ones, then deride them as sexist, and choose to say “Woman Against Woman” etc. as turnabout is fair play.

    This adds to the complexity of my presentation as my brain wants to say the more familiar “Man Against Man”, but saying “Woman Against Woman” is a lot of fun for me and the crowd.

    I don’t think there is a better phrase than has already been discussed here. The word “Against” is brilliant in all cases. I just like putting the word “Woman” in there to shake things up, and why don’t you try it, Jane, during your next presentation. The men in the crowd will be ok, and the women will love it.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ll keep that in mind, Paul…

      Of course, with me being a woman, some people in the audience may decided I’m being Aggressively Feminist, whereas you are designated an Open-Minded Modern Man.

      Language — especially as related to gender — is SO complex!

  5. Paul Says:

    We need a him/her noun – but nobody really wants one.

    • Peter Says:

      Singular “they” was the accepted gender-neutral English pronoun from at least 14th Century Middle English (you can find it in Chaucer) until it fell out of favour in the mid-19th century under the influence of prescriptivist British grammarians.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I still use it that way. Probably picked it up from my mother, who, being a working-class Brit, wouldn’t have been informed that it was out of favour.

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