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Constructing Sources of Conflict for Your Story

Understanding the essence of narrative drive

How ironic is it that knowing about dramatic irony does nothing to make your writing more dramatic? Sure, it's fun to look at examples and get a general sense of why some stories work better than others. But try and apply what you learn to your work—and you quickly find that understanding difficult, if not impossible, to translate into action.

But it's an excellent place to start.

Dramatic irony is:

the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

We think one thing when it means something else. Those misplaced expectations develop intrigue and suspense—critical factors in hooking an audience. Initially, a storytelling technique used in Greek tragedies to grant the Audience information unknown to the characters, dramatic irony extends out now to encompass various modalities of inequity—some relating to the storyform of a narrative.

On his Cockeyed Caravan blog, Matt Bird covers Seven Types of Storytelling Irony:

Good stories are packed with irony. Hegel said that all meaning is created by the violent clash of a thesis vs. an antithesis. The more ironies you pack into your story, the more meaning you'll create.

Seeing these as essential to the development of a strong narrative, Bird then provides examples of each in action within a film—without really explaining how to manufacture irony. Bird is not alone; practically everyone who writes about story defers to the experience of narrative concepts, rather than the ingredients. And there's no more celebrated chef in their estimation, then Hegel and his ham-fisted notions of thesis and anti-thesis.

While the Hegelian Dialectic only offers a reductive, yet workable take on conflict, this recognition of a gap between perceptions is a favorable position from which to begin the discussion. Inequity is the basis of all conflict, and the "gap" is an attempt to capture this dissonance. Less a differential with reality and more a juxtaposition of justifications, this gap (inequity) lies at the heart of every Storypoint.

Defining the Gap

All meaning is contextual; to some, freedom is having enough money to whatever you want; to others, freedom is detachment from the pressures of a successful career. Change the context, and you change the meaning of freedom. That gap between beliefs manifests an inequity in the mind of the observer—one that often requires a story to work it all out.

The article A Method for Generating Conflict explores a process for crafting an inequity:

The key to generating this effective conflict is finding a truism that works from a particular context, then juxtapose it with an alternate truism from a different point-of-view. Put them together in one room and you have conflict.

To many working and experienced writers, this idea of incompatible axioms is evident, creating them even more so. Yet to those new to writing, defining a compelling narrative conflict is elusive and slightly out of reach. Examples are not enough to communicate the essence of an inequity—one must understand the ingredients before preparing a meal.

The Foundation of Narrative

All story derives from inequitable justifications. From the broader context of objective and subjective views down to the clash between base Elements, the gap between truths drives the progression of a story.

In short, inequity manifests in the mind through a simple formula:

justification UNLESS justification

This formula is the heart of every dilemma, the turning point of every scene. Capture two incompatible truths, and the story writes itself.

The Ingredients of a Justification

This juxtaposition is all well and good, and seemingly a re-tooling of the Hegelian Dialectic—except, now we discuss the composition of a justification.

To be is to be without justification. What we know intermingles with our thoughts, while our abilities and desires merely are. When we are being, we are existing.

Justifying moves us away from this zero point of Zen. What we know now becomes what we can and cannot do, our talents and natural abilities become justifications for what we need to do. Every step away from that initial existence is a footfall into justification.

Zero Level of Zen

  • Knowledge
  • Thought
  • Ability
  • Desire

First Level of Justification

  • Can
  • Want
  • Need
  • Should

We justify the zero level with its corresponding Method in the first level. Can justifies Knowledge, Want justifies Thought, Need justifies Ability, and Should justifies Desire.

Truth is merely an illustration of this justification process:

People need artistic expression to be fulfilled.

Broken down into its components, the above justification reads:

  • People (SUBJECT)
  • need (FIRST JUSTIFICATION)
  • artistic expression (BASIS OF TRUTH)
  • in order to (CONTEXT INDICATOR)
  • be fulfilled (ZERO LEVEL)

The first half is the truth:

People need artistic expression

The second half is the context:

in order to be fulfilled.

And the entirety of the statement is a justification.

The Basis of All Conflict

Conflict arises from inequity; inequity exists in the space between justifications. When searching for a Source of Conflict, pit two incompatible justifications against one another. What would be the other context that would render the above justification untrue?

People need artistic expression in order to be fulfilled UNLESS people should work a stable and well-paying job in order to be a good provider for their family.

This inequity is the basis of all great Artist Triumphant stories—where the creative abandon the shackles of the modern workforce—yet, broken down like this, we understand why those situations require a story to work them out.

No justification is more equal than the other—both are valid given their context. That is why the inequity between the two exists when a single mind simultaneously appreciates both. We can't decide which one is better. A story, on the other hand, makes the argument that only one is appropriate.

You could write a story where the artist drops his fanciful dreams and enters into the centuries-old family business. It might not find acceptance in cultures that emphasize individuality, but it may engender greater acceptance in those who favor the collective.

On Building a Story

A complete story consists of two justifications: objective and subjective. Given a set of thematic intent and narrative dynamics, the story winds itself up to manifest an inequity within the mind of the story—the Storymind. This inequity demands an unwinding, or unraveling, of one justification in favor of the other. The one that remains signifies the Author's baseline of the story—the focus of the Premise.

For instance, given the inequity above, the natural approach casts the artistic expression into the subjective and working a reliable job into the objective. The one that doesn't unravel determines what the audience leaves with at the end of the story.

In the traditional telling, the objective gives way to the subjective; the audience leaves with needing artistic expression on their minds. In another, the subjective provides a way for the objective, leaving the viewer a sense of providing for others.

The one left standing is a result of the process—not an endorsement. The Author must still cast judgment on the outcome of the unraveling. Was it a good thing that the need for artistic expression remained? Or was it tragic? And what about giving it all up to provide for the family? Was that good or bad?

The answer is left to the Author to decide based on their own beliefs and intentions. Neither subjective nor objective are inherently bad or good. Judgment exists in our perceptions—not in reality.

The Energy that Binds It All Together

This juxtaposition of justifications cascades down from story to scene. One finds this presence of inequity in every Act, and every Sequence. Where absent—the audience perceives a hole, and the story loses the narrative drive.

In the end, a complete story is merely a reflection of ourselves: a single human mind working to resolve an inequity. With a concrete grasp of the ingredients of this process, we set forth as writers to unravel the justifications of the world.