Conflict is uber important in any short story or novel. We’ve already covered why and how, but what makes it so important?
Conflict makes people feel. Your readers should want to see your main character be successful. Or, in the case of a villian, they may want to see him or her foiled. It’s all about feeling that journey to one outcome or the other.
Let’s take a familiar example and break it down. This was my favorite story as a kid. I even had the watch with the picture you see here on its face. Loved that watch, but I digress. Here’s the deal:
Cinderella is a slave to her step-mother and three horrible and rather beastly step-sisters. The trio of witches with a “b” treat poor Ella very badly, and you begin to feel sorry for her. They even call her a name — “CINDERella.” However will she get out of this horrible predicament that her father married her into? Whatever was he thinking, stupid man? That step-mother must have had some damned fine “hidden charms” as my mother would say. We’re just disgusted by the whole sorry situation. But wait…
There’s a ball! And it’s kind of an audition for single women in the realm. The Prince is looking for a bride. We have new hope!
But it’s a long shot.
We really resent Cinderella’s mean step-family because of how they treat her. Their arrogance is unfounded and they generall suck at being people. It would be horrible if one of the step-sisters got to be the Princess! Our natural inclination is to feel anger toward mean-spiritedness, and the people in question have mean spirits in spades. We really don’t like them.
But our hope for Cinderella soon fades when we review the situation: Cinderella doesn’t have a chance, after all. She has no clothes but these Donna Karan hand-me-downs with spots all over them, no way to get to the palace because it’s way too far to walk in high heels, and furthermore, she is not even invited! We have to rethink our enthusiasm. Back in the pits for a moment, but then…
In comes the fairy godmother — a real over-achiever, a soul that can work true miracles to get Cinderella where she needs to be at the right time, in the right clothes, and in a beautiful carriage that she created from a pumpkin. How cool is that? Cinderella’s chances are looking up, and we already feel better. In the new duds, with her hair washed and done up on her head, she’s so beautiful. And kind? She even treats mice well. She’s all the things that her step-family is not that we’re certain that her life is about to change. I mean, how can the Prince resist her?
There’s a condition. Cinderella has to get to the ball, meet the Prince, make him fall in love with her, and be home before midnight or her whole world crashes back into FML It will be so bad, she’ll even be able to post daily to http://fmylife.com. But forget that for now… There’s a chance and a few hours and that may be all she needs! Our hope is shining now.
When Cinderella gets to the ball, everything is going swimmingly. We’re happy reading about her dancing with the Prince at the ball! The future looks so bright we put on our shades. But you know, Cinderella doesn’t get out much, and well… she loses track of time! When she sees the clock, it’s like a few minutes to midnight! Holy crap! We’re freaking out now!
So, we rush to the door with her, see her lose her glass slipper and BOOM! Her only chance of becoming Princess just went up in well… lizards and rats. Damn it! We’re so frustrated now. She was soooo close.
But here comes that hope again — springing eternally.
The Prince shows up at her front door the next day, carrying the glass slipper she lost! Prince-monkey has to find the woman it belongs to but well… he can’t remember what she looks like (must have been amnesia or a whole lotta Jack Black) and as luck would have it, the magic shoe didn’t become a sad-looking high-top, red Chuck again. Right? Cinderella has been looking for that all day! But it’s pretty evident that somebody does love Cinderella after all because the universe aligns…
And… the shoe fits! Princey gives her a big wet one, asks her to marry him, Ella wins, and everyone lives happily ever after (well, except for the step-people who now have to draw their own baths)!
But, we’re elated! Good has triumphed once again.
You see? How many times does our emotion change in one simple fairy tale? When writing fiction, you have to create a problem for your character or group of characters (like Mission Impossible, for example) to overcome and you have to keep making the situation worse and worse, until they’re vindicated, successful, or just all-round happy.
Unless, of course, your lead character is a villain, you’re thinking, right? Well, characters are not all good or all bad, and we’ll be discussing that soon. For now, just realize that conflict drives people to read your story. Conflict makes your story happen.