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Problems vs Conflicts

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Jul 11, 2013.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    We've all heard the advice that stories need conflict in order to provide tension. I for one think that "conflict" is a misleading word that doesn't capture all the possible sources of tension in a story. The term connotes a battle between opposing intelligent forces, a hero fighting a villain, but then there are viable stories where there is no sentient antagonist at all. In most disaster movies, for example, the characters' problems stem not from conflicts with other characters but from unthinking natural phenomena. Of course you could still construe the plot as featuring a "man vs nature" conflict, but that requires stretching the definition of conflict beyond its conventional use.

    I submit that "problem" or "challenge" would work better to address tension within a story. "Problem" still implies that the characters aren't getting their way all the time and have to move out of their comfort zone, but it doesn't necessitate a villain to consciously oppose them.
  2. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    Last edited: Jul 11, 2013
    Mara Edgerton likes this.
  3. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    If I understand the argument correctly:

    You interpret the meaning of the word "conflict" to not accurately encompass all the possible ways to create tension.

    It seems to me that writers have defined the word "conflict" to do just that. I'm not sure that there exists another word that truly fits what we need, so I feel coopting the word "conflict" for our purposes to be just fine.

    Why not just adjust your understanding of the word?
  4. Jamber

    Jamber Sage

    Hi Jabrosky,
    why not just use 'tension'? As I see it, 'conflict' is always interrelational and always expressed in the story, whereas 'tension' can be related to suspense, to a character choosing the wrong path, making a mistake, etc. You can have lots of tension building up behind a scene or even inside language itself, whereas conflict is always shown, even when it's internal to a character.

    In other words, as I see it, conflict is a way of portraying tension. It's not the only way, it's just the most accessible.

  5. Alexandra

    Alexandra Closed Account

    Don't get hung on semantics, your readers don't/won't care.
  6. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Agreed, most writers understand that "conflict" in this sense does allow for non-thinking obstacles.

    Then again, at least part of most stories probably should be against people. I can see two reasons people make better antagonists:

    One, they're actively trying to outwit the MC. Any challenge can have its surprises, but having an actual person out there waiting to catch your mistakes or throw new tricks at you simply multiplies the number of plot complications.

    Two and an extension of One, an antagonist means something to people that a physical problem doesn't. One newspaper piece explained it as

    Yes, the fuller definitions of stories tend to say "character with goal meets problem," and anything makes good story material. But the human side of anything is the best bet for holding our attention; how to forge a sword doesn't tell us as much about fixing our cars as how spotting a swindler reminds us of the guy who sold us that junker in the first place.

    And of course it goes beyond open "villains" to coping with characters that simply doubt, irritate, disagree with, desert, or beg for favors from an MC, or even the MC having to understand himself. Most disaster stories are also strongly about coping with the fellow victims that panic or try to get out first, or the cost-cutters that sent the Titanic out without enough lifeboats. (We all know zombie apocalypses are really about who you can trust in the ruins. Or Jack London's To Build A Fire is a man struggling against nature but always knowing it's his own fault for going out alone.)

    I suppose the word "conflict" sounds more human-centric than it has to be. But--as long as we remember it isn't the whole story--I think that's a good thing.

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