Posted April 01, 2017
The Architecture of Narrative
Conflict and Goals
Conflict is the lifeblood of every narrative, whether fiction or memoir, film or television. Every published novel is driven by conflict. Every movie, and TV shows such as comedies and dramas, documentaries, sports shows, the news, political debates, soap operas, American talk shows, reality shows built on competition, all these draw on conflict to make them watchable.
The idea of conflict as the driving force of narrative is difficult to put to use. New writers nearly always avoid it. Even experienced writers will hit a brick wall with conflict at some point. I have known published authors who will put their characters through gruelling ordeals, as long as these are self-inflicted. They won’t allow their characters to block or thwart each other, not for any reason.
The notion of conflict seems negative to some people. It seems to be all about anger and hatred, fighting, insults and rejection. This is far from the case.
Conflict happens all the time in everybody’s life. It is so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think of it as conflict. Some forms of conflict are so enjoyable that we pay to go and see them. Any kind of competition involves conflict. The Australian Tennis Open is a site of conflict. So is Formula One racing and the Melbourne Cup, not to mention the Olympic Games. Tattslotto. Bingo. Poker. Slot machines. Computer games. Scrabble.
Here are some other common forms of conflict in everyday life:
- On the way to a party, dressed in her best frock, Lisa falls over and grazes her knee.
- Running to catch a train and missing it.
- Giving birth.
- Two young mothers sitting at a café with their preschoolers. The mothers are deeply involved in their conversation. The preschoolers tug at their mothers’ sleeves, saying, ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ Their mothers continue their conversation and don’t respond to their children. But the kids don’t give up trying to get their mothers’ attention.
- On the way to work, Lisa ducks into the supermarket to buy a few things for lunch, some grapes, a small tub of Greek yoghurt, a bottle of water. Usually, it’s a breeze to collect these items and walk through the checkout. But this morning, five people have lined up at the cash register, and through the glass doors, Lisa sees her tram pull up at her stop.
- Lisa’s cat keeps bringing dead mice into the house, or worse, a living mouse with a bloody stump where its left leg used to be.
- Carrie wants sixteen-year-old Jordan to clean his bedroom and he won’t. So Carrie cleans it for him, and when he comes home from school, he trashes his room to get it back to the state he likes.
- Greg’s dog barks every time his neighbour comes out to mow the lawn. Greg has introduced Towser to the neighbour, but Towser still barks.
- Chain smoking.
- Sugar addiction. Now put that with dieting and the conflict twists diabolically.
- Greg has signed up with LinkedIn, a networking website for professionals. He spends a few minutes inviting his friends and colleagues to join his network. Then LinkedIn sends him a message saying Julie Greig has checked out his profile. Another message comes through to say Vincent Khoury has also looked at his profile. Now Greg is paralysed. If he visits someone’s profile, LinkedIn will note his visit and tell the recipient. It’s like living in a totalitarian state where privacy has been abolished. But if Greg doesn’t visit other people’s profiles, how can he make use of the services they offer? How can he network?
- Greg’s teetotal father and step-mother are down from Queensland for a weeklong visit. Every time Greg snaps the cap off a bottle of beer, his father frowns. So he sneaks out to the garage every night for a tipple. Lisa tells him it’s his home and his right to drink a beer after dinner if he feels like it. ‘It’s only a beer, for heaven’s sake,’ she says. Greg knows she’s right. But still he sneaks out to the garage to tipple.
- A head cold. The flu. Constipation. Allergies. Leukaemia.
- Jeff has just been handed an important contract that he needs to read before he signs. He gropes in his pocket for his reading glasses and finds he has left them at home. Now what does he do? Does he hold the contract at arm’s length and try to read it? Or does he ask the person who offered him the contract to read it aloud? Can Jeff trust them to read what’s on the page? He’d rather do it himself. Maybe he can ask for a delay in signing. But the contract has been hanging around, unsigned, while Jeff was on holiday. He has to sign it as soon as possible. What to do?
- Lisa doesn’t have her transport ticket with her, so she takes a chance the tram inspectors won’t catch her. At the next stop, five of them climb aboard.
- After a visit to the toilet, Lisa walks around the supermarket for ten minutes before a woman kindly tells Lisa that her skirt is tucked into her pantyhose.
- In fact, anything that causes embarrassment.
- Jordan slams the front door every time he goes out or comes home. Brad yells at him, ‘Close it gently! I don’t want to have to replace it again.’ He keeps on slamming it.
- A lovely Moor Park apricot tree grows in Greg and Lisa’s backyard. Every summer they salivate in anticipation of the fruit it will yield. And every year, the birds get the apricots first.
- It’s two minutes until Midsomer Murders airs on TV. It’s Carrie’s favourite show. She’s brewed a pot of tea and placed a slice of deliciously moist, no-flour, low-sugar orange and poppy seed cake on a flowered saucer. She sets them on the coffee table and reaches for the remote control, which is always kept next to the TV. It isn’t there. Carrie looks on the floor around the TV. Then she checks under the table it stands on, in case the remote control is lying on the DVD player underneath. She lifts the sofa cushions. She gets down on her hands and knees and checks under the sofa. She glances at her watch. Oh no! Midsomer Murders has just started. ‘Jordan!’ she shouts. ‘Have you got the remote control?’ He shouldn’t have it in his room. He knows the rule. But he’s taken it there in the past. He’s at that age when everything is a struggle between the two of them. Maybe the best thing to do is watch an old episode of Midsomer Murders on DVD. But no, dammit! Rules matter! Without them, life is chaos. Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, she strides to his door and knocks.
- Rod has finished writing his MA thesis with an hour to the deadline. He has to get it to his supervisor by five o’clock. He’s printed it out, stuck it in a red folder with his name on it and put it into his backpack. He feels confident. It’s only an hour to the deadline, but that’s more than enough time to get it to his supervisor. He walks outside to his bicycle. It’s only twenty minutes to the university. But he finds the back wheel has a puncture. With no time to repair it, he strides to the railway station two streets away. The moment he gets there, an announcement over the PA tells him the next three trains have been cancelled. He runs to High Street and flags down a taxi. He’s got twenty-five minutes to the deadline. He should make it. But when he opens his wallet to check the money situation, he finds ten cents and a note from his beloved, telling him she has borrowed fifty dollars for a spot of shopping.
Conflict occurs when two parties meet through clashing goals.
If you look at the list of everyday conflicts, you will see this over and over again. Jordan likes his bedroom to be messy but his mother wants him to keep it tidy. A traveller hopes to avoid paying for her tram trip home, but is caught by the inspectors whose job it is to catch fare evaders. These are straightforward situations, with human beings on either side of the conflict.
Then there are conflicts between the self and the body or mind. Any addiction is a conflict between the self and the mind. With addiction, the site of conflict is sometimes the body, although not always. In a sugar addiction, alcoholism, addiction to painkillers or tranquillisers or nicotine, the conflict is played out on the body and the body suffers for it. Any addiction of this sort will leave its mark on the body, such as weight gain, decaying lungs, headaches, weight loss and many other symptoms.
A gambling addiction leaves no mark on the body, yet it can be as destructive as chain smoking. It affects everyone associated with the gambler. Thus, while the primary conflict is between the healthy self and the unwell self, the self that needs to gamble, there are a host of consequential conflicts, that is, conflicts that arise as a consequence of this primary addiction. A gambler might leave his steady job in order to devote his days and nights to playing poker at the casino. He might steal from his friends and family to get the money he needs to gamble. Whenever a conflict is strong, it has consequences for others.
Look at the dieting conflict. Maggie has been dieting on and off since puberty. She doesn’t like her little pot belly. Her mother and sister have pot bellies, too. In fact, all the women on her mother’s side of the family have a pot belly. Maggie can’t accept hers, though, and diets to get rid of it. She avoids foods that put flesh on the belly. She goes on the Atkins Diet. She goes on a liquid diet. She goes on the grapefruit and snow pea diet. She stops eating sugar. She stops eating fat. She stops eating potatoes and bread and pasta. Nothing works. The pot belly shrinks a little, but as soon as she stops dieting, it grows back to its normal size.
This is a conflict. Maggie doesn’t like her body as it is and diets to try and change it to something she can like. A lot of women diet for this reason. In every case, it’s an example of conflict between the self and the body.
Illness is a conflict between the body and an invading virus or bacteria, or a genetic disorder that appears at birth or later in life, or a malignant cell mutation, cancer.
If you turn any of these conflicts and look at them from the other side, you will see that the conflict still applies. The rhinovirus—let’s call him James—has invaded Lucy’s body. James wants to settle in and make a home for his vast family, every member of which is called James. But the moment he enters Lucy’s body, her immune system fights back. It’s a messy battle with sneezing, a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat, the works. Lucy loses her voice. Lucy develops a hacking cough that keeps her awake half the night. James is fighting hard to stay in her body but at last, Lucy’s immune system kills him. But James is a sneaky sod and has left clan members on every surface Lucy touched before her symptoms appeared. Thus, though James has lost in her body, he is able to infiltrate other bodies.
Then there are the conflicts between the self and what might be called “circumstance”. Rod who tries to get his thesis to his supervisor before the deadline is a good example. First he finds his bicycle tyre has been punctured, so he hurries to the train station, only to hear an announcement that the next three trains have been cancelled. He runs to High Street and flags down a taxi, but when he opens his wallet to see how much money he’s got, he finds a note from his partner, telling him she took all the cash he had. Rod tries again and again to get his thesis to his supervisor before the deadline, but random circumstances conspire against him to thwart all his efforts.
Lisa has been walking around the supermarket for ten minutes before she finds out she accidentally tucked her skirt into her pantyhose after using the toilet.
Lisa falls on her way to a party and grazes her knee, thus forcing her to change her plans. She ducks into the supermarket to buy her lunch on the way to work. This hasn’t caused any delays in the past, but on this particular morning, she reaches the checkout only to see five people ahead of her. As she waits impatiently, she watches through the glass doors as her tram draws to the stop, passengers get on, and the tram sails off without her. These are all conflicts between the self and circumstance.
All conflicts involve a relationship that is built on clashing goals. That means there are two sides to the conflict, such as Jordan and his mother, and the conflict can be seen from either side. That is, Jordan has a goal—to keep his room in the state he likes; and his mother has a goal—to train Jordan to keep his room in a state she finds acceptable. Or back to James the rhinovirus and Lucy: James has a goal—to survive and propagate, and Lucy has a goal—to rid her body of the invading illness. When the other side of the conflict is circumstance, it can work but it can seem one-sided. Some sorts of comedy are built on the clash between a character and circumstance. Slipping on a banana is one. Pratfalls in general tend to belong to this group of conflicts.
Sometimes, the story works if circumstance remains impersonal. But there are times when it is more useful to give circumstance a character and therefore an agenda. Religion personalises circumstance. If the gods are against us, they can be placated with sacrifices or votive offerings. We can pray to them, plead with them, and if they continue to be obstructive, we can question their motives, or submit to their decisions, or revile and reject them.
Some years ago, I had several runs of bad luck. The first one was a series of bills that taxed my meagre finances to the limit. I called this the money jinx. I found it easier to cope with these bills if I imagined that the money jinx was a spiky little devil playing havoc with my money. A few months later, the appliances in my house broke down one after the other. I blamed the appliance jinx. I imagined I could end this run of bad luck if the appliance jinx could be persuaded to move out of my house and find somewhere else to reside.
Some people call circumstance the cosmos or the universe. Thus, when things go wrong, or when they go right, the cosmos is responsible. The cosmos is open to persuasion in a way that circumstance is not. Circumstance is mechanical. The cosmos is a character who is capable of making decisions and rescinding them.
It is possible to see that, while some stories can make use of circumstance as an agent that helps to create conflict, it is far more common that the two parties on either side of a conflict are characters with goals and motives.
The network of clashing goals
Novels are built on a group of characters with a network of clashing goals. If there are only two characters in the story, it’s hard to maintain interest. There isn’t enough variety of action and interaction when there are only two characters. Not enough pressure can be applied when there are only two characters. So novels usually deploy a number of characters who are connected by clashing goals.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet wants her eldest daughter Jane to marry wealthy Mr Bingley. She plots to throw them together. When Caroline Bingley invites Jane to spend the day with her, Mrs Bennet sends her daughter on horseback. The day threatens rain; Mrs Bennet hopes Jane will be drenched to the skin and that Caroline will be forced to keep her overnight, thus throwing her together with Mr Bingley. Things work out even better than Mrs Bennet foresaw. Not only is Jane drenched to the skin, she develops a fever, thus forcing her to stay with the Bingleys for five whole days.
All does not go well for Mrs Bennet and her plans. First of all, Caroline is opposed to a match between her brother and Jane. Second, and more seriously, so is his formidable friend, Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy finds Mrs Bennet unspeakably vulgar. She would be beneath his notice, except that his pride makes him oversensitive to her vulgarity. It’s like a poke in the eye to him. How can anyone ignore a poke in the eye? Thus, Mr Darcy is unable to overlook Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity.
The only thing to do is keep out of Mrs Bennet’s way. But how can he do that when Mrs Bennet keeps throwing Jane at his friend? Wherever Jane is, so is her mother. Even when Jane is forced to spend a few days at Netherfield, recovering from a fever, Mr Darcy can’t avoid Mrs Bennet completely. She visits, as the rules of civility demand. Not only that, but she brings her unspeakably vulgar younger daughters along with her.
When he realises his friend has fallen for Jane, he is determined to prevent a match between them. There is no way in the world he will allow his friend to marry a woman whose mother is so vulgar. There would be no getting away from her!
Mr Darcy finds himself irresistibly attracted to the second Miss Bennet, the vivacious and ruthlessly playful Elizabeth. He can’t keep away from her. But if he gave way to his passion and married her, he would saddle himself with the vulgar Mrs Bennet for the rest of his life. That is not going to happen! He is grittily determined it will not. But every time he sees Elizabeth, his passion for her grows. What the devil is he going to do?
So here we have a network of characters with clashing goals. Mrs Bennet wants Jane to marry Mr Bingley but Mr Darcy works to prevent it. Mrs Bennet wants Mr Bingley to marry Jane but Caroline works to prevent it. Mr Darcy tries to avoid Mrs Bennet but if he avoids her, he also cannot see Elizabeth. If he marries Elizabeth, he will never be rid of Mrs Bennet, who will be a permanent fixture in his life, possibly coming to stay at Pemberley for months at a time! That cannot happen. It will not happen! But every time he sees Elizabeth, he wants her more than ever.
Caroline wants Mr Darcy for herself. But when she discovers that he is attracted to Elizabeth, she tries to poison him against her. She tells him how commonplace Elizabeth’s appearance is, how conceitedly independent Elizabeth is. She sniggers at Mrs Bennet. She reminds Mr Darcy that if he marries Elizabeth, everyone will ridicule his mother-in-law. Thus, Caroline exposes her bitchiness and jealousy and drives Mr Darcy further away.
These goals are so strong, so necessary to the characters, that these people will do everything they can to achieve what they want. Thus, if one party achieves their goal, the other loses. Neither wants to lose. Each strives to get what they want and will do everything they possibly can to get it. So, although Caroline fails to poison Mr Darcy’s mind against Elizabeth, she keeps on trying. Mrs Bennet does everything she can to snare Mr Bingley for Jane. She uses every trick in the book to get him. When he moves out of the neighbourhood and she is thwarted, there is nothing more she can do. But as soon as he comes back, she is once again scheming to throw him and Jane together.
The Bourne Identity is a much smaller story because it’s a film and an action thriller. It can’t support many players. Nevertheless, it handles its small cast dynamically. Jason has lost his memory and wants to find out who he is. But when he arrives in Zurich and checks out a security box in Jason Bourne’s name, he finds that “Jason Bourne” is known by several names. He also finds a lot of money and a handgun. Already he is unnerved. He doesn’t want to know what these things mean, yet he is forced to pursue the leads he finds in the security box. He can’t back out. He must know who he is.
Conklin, head of Treadstone, a black ops organisation attached to the CIA, wants Jason killed to cover up an assassination gone wrong. Conklin sends out his team of assassins to locate Jason. He also tracks him using CCTV footage and other means. Jason can’t take a step without revealing his whereabouts to Treadstone.
Jason has found a helper in Marie. She is his only friend, the only person he can talk to. But the more he finds out about himself, the more uneasy Marie becomes. His growing violence frightens her. When he finally confirms that he is a trained killer, she tries to leave him. But Jason can’t afford to lose her. She represents all that he wants, which is a life free of persecution, a life where he doesn’t hurt anybody and nobody tries to hurt him.
In each of these two narratives, the network of conflicted relationships is strong enough to drive the story. If the conflicts involved only Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, or Mr Darcy and Mrs Bennet, or Jason and Marie, or even Jason and Conklin, the narrative would be too thin to survive. Not enough would be going on at the level of character to build tension. Without multifaceted characterisation, it is impossible to build tension. Without tension, a novel is unreadable, a film unwatchable. Without tension, narratives run out of steam. Only conflict has the power to drive narrative.
Questions for the writer: Does the narrative have two or more parties connected by clashing goals? Can you name those characters, their goals and how they clash?
Let’s take time out to talk about happiness.
Whenever I hold a class, it is likely I will be asked why stories can’t be about happiness. Happiness is the opposite of conflict. These people are not asking for happy endings. They want happiness to drive the story from start to finish.
So let’s have a look at what happens when conflict is removed from a situation where it’s usually found.
Two football teams, Team Blue and Team Yellow, have made it to the grand final. Sports commentators and fans have been speculating all week about who will win. Yellow has a long history of making it to the grand final and fumbling at the last minute. Blue is a dark horse. Blue hasn’t reached the grand final in its entire, sorry history.
One hundred thousand people gather to watch the big tussle. People lay bets on the outcome. The air sizzles with excitement. Yellow supporters and Blue supporters wear their scarves and beanies. They chant their team songs. They hurl insults at the opposition.
At last, the teams run on to the pitch. It’s a fine day for a fight to the death, not a cloud in the sky. There hasn’t been any rain for two weeks, so the field is hard and fast.
But something has happened. The players have decided that conflict is a bad thing, competition is a bad thing, and they are going to do happiness today.
They run out with the ball and mill, wondering what to do with it when competition and conflict are off the menu. Finally, Kurt from Yellow picks it up and says, ‘Mind if I kick it at the goal posts?’
‘Go ahead,’ says Guthrie from Blue. ‘By the way, you look cool. The ball looks at one with your hand.’
Pleased, Kurt thanks him. He kicks the ball. A few players stroll toward the goal posts, chatting happily. It takes a few minutes for someone to get his hands on it. The ball can fly a lot faster than they can walk. Finally, Harrison from Blue picks it up at the same time that Leon from Yellow arrives. Harrison offers it to him. ‘You look like you could really use it, man.’
Leon says, ‘You go first.’
‘I wouldn’t want to put you out. I want you to be happy.’
‘You’ve got it, man. You keep it.’
‘That’s really generous of you, mate. But it would make my day if you took it.’
Leon takes the ball, saying, ‘I’ll only be a minute.’
‘Take as long as you like,’ Harrison says. ‘Oh, nice kick!’
While the others are passing the ball around and complimenting each other on their talents, Kurt jogs to the locker rooms and comes back with two slabs of beer. The captains share a joke and laugh their heads off. Harrison gets out the Weber and barbecues sausages. Nathan hands around buttered bread to rest the sausages on. Guthrie tops up the big red plastic tomato of sauce and screws the green leaf lid into place. He loves this sauce dispenser, which graced the table of his childhood. To him, it means happiness. He asked his mother specially if he could use it, and though these old tomato sauce dispensers are as rare as hen’s teeth, she’s more than happy to get it back damaged, or even not get it back at all. She has put no pressure whatsoever on her son. All she wants is that he and his friends have a great time.
In all this happiness, everybody has forgotten the ball, which lies, happily, over in a corner.
But while the teams are avoiding conflict and being happy, the audience boils out of the stadium, booing and hissing. Disgruntled spectators mob the ticket office, demanding their money back.
One ten-year-old says to his dad, ‘What happened to the game?’
His father answers, ‘I don’t know, son. We can throw the ball around at home.’
The boy kicks a stone in disappointment and says, ‘But I wanted to see the grand final.’
Happiness is boring for the onlooker.
Happiness is also unbelievable. When I wrote about the tomato sauce dispenser, I first created a mother who wanted it back. ‘It’s a family heirloom,’ she told Guthrie. ‘My mother gave it to me. I’ll give it to your sister when she starts her family. I want it back intact. Understand?’
I also introduced an umpire who tossed the ball amongst the players, hoping to get them back on track. I started to write that if the players refused to compete, he was out of a job. That’s believable. But that’s conflict. So I removed it.
If conflict is essential to drive narrative, then goals have to be related to each other in some way. Goals that aren’t related to each other don’t clash.
For example, Edward has just started a high-pressure new job. His goal is to succeed, which means earning a one-million-dollar bonus on top of his salary. His wife Susie is a painter who has scored an exhibition and is struggling to find time to finish off the picture she believes will be the highlight of the show. Edward and Sussie have different goals. That might be all right. His story is about his efforts to succeed at his new job. The problem is that his employer is pressuring him to do something that will cause Edward to fail. The clash of goals is between Edward and his employer. Meanwhile, Susie is struggling to find time to work in her studio. Her father recently lost his wife in a car accident and is grieving. He is so depressed he has told her he wants to kill himself. Susie wants to comfort him and help him come to terms with his loss. But her father wants to be with her all the time and she has an important exhibition to prepare for.
Each of these stories works independently.
But what if the novel is about Edward and Susie’s relationship? Then their separate goals become problematic. He’s at the office all day and late into the night. She’s with her father as often as she can be, snatching moments in the studio whenever possible, and is glad Edward is occupied with work. Their goals are unrelated and therefore cannot clash.
Joss wants nothing more than to get Allie into bed. Allie is happy to oblige because what she wants is to save enough money to travel to France and spend a year studying grape-growing techniques in the Loire Valley. Which would be fine. But if the story is about their relationship, it isn’t fine. It’s another case of unrelated goals that don’t clash.
Samson is a serial killer preying on old men in a nursing home. He is on the staff. He has set up poor, dim-witted Tracy to take the fall should the police come calling. Detective Inspector Price has a gambling addiction. He’s too busy playing poker to investigate the suspicious deaths in the nursing home. Again, this would be fine, if these were two separate stories. But if they are not, and DI Price is too busy playing cards to spend any time on the case, his goal and Samson’s are unrelated and therefore cannot clash.
It’s very common in narratives written by new writers to find this kind of issue. The writer has two, even three or four, interesting story ideas with great potential for development. But because the goals of the protagonists don’t clash with each other, the narrative reads like two or three stories that don’t belong together. Quite often, each story idea will fit in with its own genre and will be at odds with the genres of the other storylines.
There can be any number of reasons why this happens. Sometimes, it’s a clever way for the writer to avoid conflict: if the two main characters don’t clash with each other, there is no conflict. Sometimes, it’s a misunderstanding of subplots. For example, it’s common in crime fiction for the lead investigator to have a personal problem, alcoholism, for example, less often a gambling addiction; sometimes it will be a domestic issue such as a troubled marriage or a son or daughter who’s gone off the rails. The detective will struggle with this personal problem, whatever it is. But they will still clash with other characters. They will go on investigating the crime while wrestling with their alcoholism or trying to rescue the son or daughter who has got into trouble. If the personal problem interferes with their ability to investigate the crime, all the better. But it won’t stop them investigating, just as their job as a police detective won’t stop them being a member of a troubled family.
The uncommitted character
It happens in narratives by new writers that the protagonist will have a clear goal which they pursue, while the antagonist is inactive.
Yvette has stolen $500,000 worth of diamonds from her boyfriend, crime boss Railton. She packs her bags, dons a wig as her disguise, and takes the bus to the airport. She plans to fly north to Queensland and hide out with her old granny in a retirement village. There, she will figure out how to convert the diamonds into cash. Diamonds are easy to transport within the country, but if she wants to go overseas, she’s in trouble. She’ll never get them through customs. Also, you can’t buy an airplane ticket with a gem. But if she is to evade Railton successfully, she does need to leave the country and disappear completely. So she has to change the diamonds into money in the bank. What’s more, she has got a limited time in which to do that. As soon as Railton finds out his diamonds are missing, and so is she, he’ll be on her trail. And when he finds her, if he finds her, she can expect a slow and agonising death.
Railton finds out fairly soon that his diamonds are missing. But for some mysterious reason, he is unable to act on this discovery. He sits around doing nothing about it. He would like to get them back. But he doesn’t want it strongly enough to do anything about it. Or, in a slightly different scenario, he sends out his trouble-shooter Carl to get Yvette back, but for some reason, Carl is unable to find any trace of her. Not that he tries very hard. He doesn’t question her friends or family. He doesn’t try to discover her movements on the day she disappeared. He simply reports back to Railton that he can’t find any clues as to where she has gone. In either case, Railton is unable to pursue Yvette and get his diamonds back.
In this instance, Yvette’s goal is clear and one she acts on. Railton’s is also clear. The two goals are related. But he is unable to act on his, either directly or through Carl. Thus, the narrative is stalled.
Even more common is the reverse scenario, where the antagonist is active and the protagonist is merely reactive.
Andie works at a nightclub. She suspects it is run by gangsters. One morning she visits the nightclub to pick up something she left the night before, and while she is there, she witnesses a murder. The killers see her and give chase. She escapes. But instead of going straight to the cops to report what she saw and ask for protection, she goes home. The killers work at the nightclub and know where she lives, thanks to her employment file. Soon after she arrives, the killers scream up in their car, smash down her door and carry her off. While one drives, the other keeps an eye on her in the backseat. But for some mysterious reason, the driver hasn’t used central locking to make it impossible for Andie to open the back door and tumble out. So, at the first set of traffic lights, this is what she does. She races into a supermarket, pursued by the killers, who, by the way, are armed. Though they run along the aisles, and though the shoppers and cashiers can see what is happening, nobody calls the cops. Nor does Andie ask one of the shoppers to call the cops. She doesn’t do anything except react to the killers.
At a less frantic level, Stan goes to the small town of Linden for his annual holiday. He does nothing. He wants nothing. He has no goal. He is simply there on holidays. Other characters bring their stories to him. He responds to the problems they have but he does nothing to pursue his goal because he doesn’t have one. Stan is merely reactive. Everyone else is doing things, which would be fine if the story was about them. But it’s not. It’s about Stan.
So, not only do the players have to have goals, not only do goals have to be related to each other, all the parties concerned have to be committed to them. They have to act on them. They have to do everything they can to get what they want, even if that makes life hard for you, the writer.
Conflict as the irresistible force of attraction
We tend to think of conflict as divisive. This is true in one way, if what we mean is that conflict keeps people from getting along harmoniously. But conflict also brings people together again and again. Think of a war. How can there be a war if the enemies don’t meet again and again on the battlefield? Two neighbours are in conflict over the fence line dividing their properties. They meet again and again over the contentious border. Jordan wants to live in a messy bedroom and his mother wants him to clean it. They meet again and again over the conflict.
Conflict is an irresistible force of attraction
But this can only be the case if the goals of the characters concerned are related and if the characters are committed to them. The goals have to relate to each other before they can clash, and the characters have to be committed to their goals in order to act.
Conflict, relationships and characterisation
Conflict brings characters irresistibly together again and again. This bringing together creates relationships. Without conflict, two characters cannot form a relationship. This idea depends on the understanding that relationships don’t have to be based on harmony in order to survive. Love or friendship can be there; but in fiction, conflict creates the relationship as the living heart of narrative, the very substance of narrative, the thing that narrative is all about.
For example, Mrs Bennet embarrasses Elizabeth whenever they are in public together. This is bad enough. But when Mr Darcy comes on the scene and shows his disapproval, Elizabeth does her best to shield her mother. She knows Mrs Bennet is vulgar. She wishes her mother was not. But she is loyal to her family and resents Mr Darcy’s disapproval.
Thus, Elizabeth and her mother have a relationship built on conflict.
Now look at Jane. Although she would rather her mother pursued her matchmaking schemes more discreetly, she doesn’t resent Mr Darcy for disapproving. She doesn’t try to shield her mother from his censure. Jane’s relationship with her mother is harmonious. And so, Jane is passive. Happiness and harmony create inertia. They do this because there is nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth defending, nothing to change and be changed by. And so we learn nothing of real value about Jane in terms of this relationship. She is the calm, flat surface of a lake untroubled by deep, conflicted emotions.
But we learn something about Elizabeth. She is always trying to shield her mother. We learn that, as much as she wishes her mother was different, she resents Mr Darcy for disapproving. In this instance of conflict, we discover something meaningful about Elizabeth. This is called characterisation.
Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity and Elizabeth’s shame expose them again and again to Mr Darcy’s disapproval. Elizabeth acts to defend her mother. Thus, Elizabeth has a relationship with Mr Darcy based on conflict. This relationship is created through action, not through inertia. We know more about her through conflict and action than we would if her mother’s behaviour didn’t embarrass her.
Mrs Bennet also has a relationship with Mr Darcy. She resents him for slighting Elizabeth at the ball where they all first met. Now, every time she meets him, she says something rude and hostile. Mr Darcy is repelled. Her behaviour rubs him up the wrong way and only makes him more determined that no marriage will take place between either himself and Elizabeth or Mr Bingley and Jane. But Mrs Bennet isn’t the brightest spark and fails to see how her hostility is working against her plans to marry Jane to Mr Bingley. Thus, we learn something more about her.
In having active relationships, Mrs Bennet reveals things about herself—for example, that although Elizabeth is her least favourite child, she is loyal and resents any criticism of her. We wouldn’t learn this about her if she and Mr Darcy didn’t rub each other up the wrong way. Mrs Bennet is neither bright nor perceptive, and so she fails to see that in being rude to Mr Darcy, she is undoing all her efforts to bring about a match between Jane and Mr Bingley. She also fails to see that she could snag an even richer prize for Elizabeth—Mr Darcy himself. Thus, we learn something more about her.
When we remove conflict, we also remove the most vital aspects of characterisation.
In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne has lost his memory. As he searches to find out who he is, he is beset by men who try to kill him. At first, he doesn’t know who is trying to get rid of him. He doesn’t know about Treadstone.
Even so, Jason has a relationship with the agency that is behind these attempts to eliminate him. They meet again and again as Jason works to find out who he is. This is not a personal encounter between two people. This meeting is more about awareness: each time Treadstone sends someone to kill Jason, Jason is aware that someone is trying to kill him. His ignorance of who is doing this doesn’t alter the fact that these encounters form a relationship.
This conflict has formed a relationship between these two characters, and in doing so, it also reveals things we wouldn’t otherwise know about them. For example, if Jason didn’t have to fend off attempts to kill him, we wouldn’t know he is a trained fighter. In fact, if his search for his identity was straightforward and involved no conflict, we wouldn’t learn anything at all about him. In that case, the search would become meaningless. Conflict brings meaning and meaning confers value.
Conflict also creates urgency. Every time someone tries to kill him, it becomes more urgent that he finds out who is doing this. He can only find out if he learns his connection to the person behind these murderous efforts. That means Jason must discover his own identity.
The agency that is trying to kill Jason is called Treadstone. As an agency, it is impersonal. So the film introduces Alexander Conklin, the man who runs Treadstone, in order to personalise the agency. Without personalisation, Treadstone would be nothing more than a mechanism. The film shows Conklin mustering his team of assassins and sending them out to kill Jason. The film shows Conklin instructing his minions to find Jason, track Jason, learn the identity of the woman Jason is travelling with. Each minion and assassin is an extension of Conklin, who in his turn is the human face of Treadstone. They act on his behalf and in his interests—that is, in the interests of Treadstone. But though Conklin acts through these other people, the primary relationship is still between him and Jason. This relationship evolves through Jason’s interaction with Conklin’s operatives and minions, all of whom are surrogates of Treadstone itself. But this is still a relationship. Treadstone as Conklin reveals himself through his efforts to kill Jason. Little by little, Jason learns who he is dealing with through these interactions. That is a relationship.
Jason meets Marie and pays her to drive him from Zurich to Paris. Now he has someone to talk to. Without Marie, the film would have a hard time letting the viewer know what is going on with Jason. We wouldn’t learn, for example, that he suffers from bad headaches. Without Marie to give the viewer a reality check, we wouldn’t know that Jason’s responses to attacks and other stressful situations are mechanical and passionless. He tells her what he thinks, he tells her his concerns. Without Marie, we would have no access to his internal life. Yet his journey is an internal one, though it has a strong, external expression. Who am I? This is a question about the internal life of Jason. He poses the question to Marie. Only when he speaks of his lack of identity does he express real emotion, a sign of his internal life.
Without Marie, we wouldn’t learn how confused Jason is by startling abilities that emerge seemingly out of nowhere, like knowing how far he can run at a high altitude before he collapses. We wouldn’t learn how isolated he feels. At the start of the Paris sequence, Jason and Marie arrive outside his apartment. Marie says she will come up with him. If she doesn’t, she says, ‘You might forget me.’
‘How can I forget you?’ he asks. ‘You’re the only person I know.’
We wouldn’t get this insight into his vulnerability without Marie.
After Jason has dealt with the first assassin, Marie finds out that this man has her name and her picture, and she is now a target. Her life is at risk. She is almost hysterical with fear. Jason keeps a lid on his emotions. He gives her a choice: to come with him or go to the police and seek their protection. She is too frantic to think for herself, so he takes her with him. Marie knows he needs her to help him deal with this terrible situation. Yet the longer she stays with him, the greater the risk that she will be killed. We learn something about her through her reaction to this perilous situation. We learn that, no matter how frightened she is at times, she is steadfast in her loyalty to him. Her loyalty is put under enormous pressure, not only by the attempts on their lives but by Jason’s violence and seeming paranoia. When Jason reads a newspaper article that reports he is wanted for the murder of a former African dictator, when he tells her he is an assassin, she wants to abandon him. But their relationship and her loyalty are too strong to allow her to do that. She only leaves him when he realises he must face Treadstone/Conklin by himself and sends her away.
Without conflict, we would not learn these things about these characters. More than that, without conflict, we would learn nothing of any substance about them.
Conflict in everyday life has a variety of outcomes. Some conflicts will resolve naturally, such as one team winning a football game and the other side losing. Some might take more effort to find a resolution, such as a person suffering from multiple sclerosis; the resolution won’t involve curing the patient, since MS is a degenerative disease; but it might involve the patient accepting their physical decline.
Some conflicts don’t find any resolution, such as Jordan and his mother. Jordan likes a messy bedroom and his mother keeps wanting him to tidy it. Neither is willing to give way to the other.
Some conflicts are part of the way two people relate to each other, or the way a person relates to themselves. For example, Maggie dates a man who treats her badly. He doesn’t return her calls. He looks at other women while she’s out on a date with him; and when the waiter hands him the bill, he passes it to Maggie to pay. He tells her he’ll see her next Saturday, and texts at the last minute to cancel. Maggie thinks all she wants is a man who will treat her with kindness and respect, a man who will commit. But when she meets a man who is kind and treats her well, she dumps him. She likes to be ill-treated.
I saw a talk show once where the guest saw himself as a man with one leg. That meant he had to get rid of his other leg. He pleaded with doctors for years, telling them how painful for him, how confusing it was for him to look in the mirror and see two legs. Finally, a surgeon agreed to amputate. He was happy for a short time. Then he developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This man’s relationship with himself demanded that he be ill in some form all the time.
Some people envy what other people have got. They are dissatisfied with their lot in life and believe their existence will improve if they have what the Joneses have. But when they get what the Joneses have got, they find they are still unhappy, still dissatisfied, still envious.
In narrative, conflict has to do more than keep the characters revolving in a loop. Events have to unite to form a meaningful flow of action that mirrors and dramatises the flow of the characters’ internal lives. It has to rise to a climax and end with some kind of resolution. That isn’t necessarily a happy ending. It can be an unhappy ending. But it is seen as a clear consequence of the events that went before and which led to the climax.
This flow is called a story arc. The story begins at one position and ends at a different position.
Story arcs come in at two levels. The first is that of the whole narrative. The second is at the level of character.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the story arc follows the lives of several groups of people: the Bennet sisters, in particular Jane and Elizabeth, the Bingley family, in particular Charles and Caroline, Mr Darcy, Mr Wickham, and Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Jane and Elizabeth are seeking husbands. Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley are rich and single. But while Mr Bingley makes friends wherever he goes, Mr Darcy has the opposite effect. The situation is exacerbated by Mr Wickham, who spreads a nasty story about Mr Darcy. After many travails and disappointments, Jane finally marries Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth. The story arc shows these characters beginning in one position, and after many vicissitudes, ending in another position which, in this case, is seen as a reward.
The Bourne Identity sees Jason Bourne begin in a position of amnesia. He doesn’t know who he is and sets out to discover his identity. He interacts with Conklin, who is trying to kill him to cover up a botched assassination attempt. The story arc follows these characters through many tense situations until the end, where Jason has learned who he is and rejected his career as a trained assassin. Conklin has failed to kill Jason and must pay with his life. Not all narratives end in reward and victory for the protagonist. Tragedies end very differently. Yet the idea of a story about characters beginning in one position and moving through a series of difficult situations to end in a different one remains.
Then there is story arc at the smaller level of character.
Elizabeth’s story arc begins with her being single and prejudiced against Mr Darcy, whom she believes is stiff with pride. Her story arc ends with her understanding Mr Darcy better, with her acknowledging that she was blinded by prejudice to his many good qualities, and she is now married to him. Between these two positions, characters, including Mr Darcy, have brought about events that at first exacerbate her prejudice, then challenge it, and finally bring insight and self-awareness.
Mr Darcy is attracted to Elizabeth. The more he sees her, the more he wants her. But he believes it would be beneath his dignity to marry her, a woman whose mother is vulgar and who would bring lowly connections with trade and the law. A marriage to her would reduce his status, he believes. But his feelings will not do as he tells them. They grow so strong that he is at last forced to ask her to marry him. He explains that he wants her, despite her social inferiority. He does so at length, not realising how he is offending her.
When she rejects him, she explains that she can’t marry a man who ended the romance between Mr Bingley and Jane and thus ruined the happiness of Elizabeth’s favourite sister. She talks of his pride and conceit. She lets him know he is not a gentleman. Mr Darcy is so wounded that he writes her a letter defending his actions. But in doing so, he begins to see that he has been at fault. He realises that his pride has led him to judge people by their external circumstances, their situation in life, their connections, not by their inherent goodness and worth. And so, with new insight and self-awareness, he changes his behaviour. When he again asks Elizabeth to marry him, he is given his reward.
In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne’s story arc begins when he finds he has lost his memory and doesn’t know who he is. He sets out to discover his identity. He meets people who attempt to kill him. Through these clashes and the clue trail he follows, he finally learns the truth, that he is a trained assassin for a black operations organisation called Treadstone, and that he lost his memory because his conscience couldn’t bear it any longer. The film ends with him finding Marie, his troubles resolved.
If a narrative is to work, it needs two parties or more connected by related goals that clash. These clashes take the participants on a journey called a story arc.
But if the narrative is to satisfy, that is, if the resolution is to be meaningful and moving, it needs one more ingredient.
Transformative power and character arc
In life, conflict may lead to a story, and sometimes it may not. If you look at the everyday conflicts I listed, you will see that some can lead to a story and some lead nowhere. Lisa falling down and grazing her knee leads nowhere. There is no important shift in position for the character. The fall happens, she might decide to change into other clothes and go to the party, or she might choose to call her friend and say she can’t come. The body has suffered a minor injury and starts to heal. Lisa does not change. Her life does not change. The fall and the grazed knee go nowhere.
The same can be said of other instances of conflict on my list. Lisa forgets her tram ticket and tries to get home without meeting any dreaded inspectors. But five of them climb aboard at the next stop. When they demand to see her ticket, she confesses she has forgotten it. They don’t listen to her pleas for understanding and leniency, and issue a harsh penalty. But her life hasn’t changed. Lisa hasn’t changed. The conflict has gone nowhere.
Something more is needed to create a satisfying narrative. This ingredient is transformative power. That is, the extra something in a conflict that brings about a transformation in the protagonist which in turn confers meaning and value on a narrative.
Only transformation can bring about a change in the protagonist character from one psychological position to a different and improved position. This change is called a character arc.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth begins by being prejudiced against Mr Darcy and moves through her character arc until she ends by understanding him differently. Mr Darcy starts by believing that a person’s merit depends on their social position and moves through his character arc until he ends with the understanding that people are good or bad because of who they are, not because of their status.
In The Bourne Identity, Jason begins his story not knowing who he is and ends by knowing it and rejecting that identity.
Each of these characters has undergone a change. They have been transformed. No matter what the outcome, whether good, as in Elizabeth’s realising Mr Darcy is the best husband for her, or painful, as in Jason Bourne’s realising he is a killer, the power of transformation is the special agent which, in combination with clashing goals, has created a meaningful and moving narrative.
But in narrative, someone else is transformed as well. This person is the reader. The story has acted on the reader in such a way that they are transformed, shifting from one psychological position, that of tension and expectation, to another, very different position, of happiness or sorrow or a combination of the two. When we think of a novel as being a good read, it’s because the novel has taken us through this transformation in a satisfying way. Some people say that reading a certain book changed their lives. This is only a heightened form of this transformation. When we put a novel down after the final chapter and feel dissatisfied, it’s because the transformation we expect has not taken place. We want it. We seek it out. The greatest novels ever written are, at one level, novels that perform this miracle of transformation better than others.
Questions for the writer: Has the protagonist been transformed? Can you point to the behaviour that shows this change has come about?
Recognition and resolution
Finally, transformative power brings about recognition. Without transformative power, there can be no recognition.
Recognition is the protagonist’s reward for the ordeal they have suffered through the course of the narrative. Recognition may involve pain, but the protagonist never wishes they hadn’t earned this reward.
Before recognition can come, the protagonist must first be kept apart from the antagonist. That means that, while on one level the two characters meet again and again, they are kept apart on another level. This keeping apart is usually presented as some form of ignorance. They don’t know some essential information.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth thinks of Mr Darcy as full of pride, too good for the people around him. Through the action of the plot, she learns that Mr Darcy is also kind to those he loves, rather shy, reliable and responsible, capable of understanding that he has been at fault, able to change, and the best husband for her. Thus, she starts by knowing him imperfectly, being ignorant of his good qualities, and ends by knowing him truly. That is, she starts off being ignorant of who he really is and ends by recognising his true self.
When she recognises his true self, he also recognises her true self. It’s mutual. She knows that she is understood by him in a way that no one else understands her. In this instance, recognition is the basis for intimacy.
In The Bourne Identity, Treadstone tries to kill Jason Bourne. These murderous efforts bring Treadstone and Jason together again and again. Every time Treadstone tries to kill Jason, he learns a little more about who he is and who is trying to kill him. He discovers why Treadstone is trying to kill him. Finally, he confronts Conklin, the head of Treadstone. Thus, conflict has brought these two parties together again and again. But these murderous plans have also kept them apart. Jason doesn’t know who or what Treadstone is until the last minutes of the film. When he learns who Treadstone is, Jason finally discovers the truth about himself. Thus, ignorance has given way to painful recognition. Yet, this is what he has been seeking all along. Only through recognition can he know himself and change his life.
This concept of two characters being kept apart depends on the idea that we can only be truly together if we know each other in a profound way, without screens or blinds, without prejudice or assumptions, without lies or ignorance. Most fiction strives toward this mutual knowledge and understanding between the chief protagonist and the chief antagonist. This mutual recognition is the prerequisite to resolution. Only when the key characters in a drama finally face each other in full knowledge of who they really are can the drama be resolved.
Dramatic resolution does not necessarily mean a happy ending. Resolution in this sense is not a matter of happy endings. It’s about resolving the problem the two parties have been working on throughout the story, the problem that kept them apart through a failure of recognition.
In a crime drama, the resolution means the killer has been recognised and dealt with. In a romance, it means the hero and heroine resolve their differences and recognise in each other their ideal partner in life. For example, Elizabeth fails to recognise that Mr Darcy is the ideal husband for her. Her prejudice blinds her to his true worth. Although Mr Darcy recognises that Elizabeth is the woman he wants to marry, he sees this as a personal failing, a proof of weakness of character. Only when they fully understand each other can their drama be resolved.
We all want resolution. We all seek resolution from the stories we read, the films and TV shows we watch. But we only want it because conflict has set up the tension that makes us seek it. However, an important part of resolution is recognition. Without it, the resolution is superficial or incomplete.
TV reality shows built on competition exploit our desire for resolution. There have been several shows about a search for singing talent. In each episode, we get to see and hear the competitors. As the list is whittled down, our excitement grows. We tune in episode after episode to see who will win this week, to see if our favourite singer has made it to the next round, and ultimately, to find out who will carry off the prize. Only when the winner has been announced can we relax. This is resolution. It involves a recognition of the best singer in a field of good singers. Or at any rate, a consensus of opinion over who the best singer is.
In a soap opera, the process of conflict leading to resolution is played out again and again. Every time one conflict is resolved, another takes its place. We come back again and again in search of resolution, and each time it happens, another storyline has been put in place so that the tension we feel does not abate—it is merely transferred from one set of characters to another. Storylines overlap. Thus, conflicts overlap. We are never free of the tension that conflict evokes in us. Yet we seek resolution all the time. If there was no resolution at all, if the drama led to conflict without resolution of any kind, we would feel frustrated and dissatisfied. We wouldn’t watch the show. We want resolution.
It is possible to see in these examples that some stories are more satisfying than others, some dramas more enduring, some resolutions more pleasing. For example, Pride and Prejudice has been a favourite story for many years. It was published in 1813, when it sold well. Since the advent of cinema and television, it has been made into movies and TV shows, some of them phenomenally successful. In some ways, it is simply a romance. Yet it possesses certain qualities that make it timeless and necessary. If it wasn’t necessary, it wouldn’t be read and reread. If it wasn’t necessary, it would have died like most romances.
If we look at soap operas and TV reality competitions, we can see that these dramas don’t possess that magic. They play on our expectations, our desire for conflict and resolution. But in themselves, they are not necessary. They can be made year after year for many years. But they are not a finite drama with a fixed cast of characters, like Pride and Prejudice. In soap operas and reality TV competitions, the cast changes and the conflicts are resolved and discarded, to be replaced by others. The recognition that makes up the resolution is superficial. By being superficial, it must be played out again and again. We seek that recognition as part of the resolution of the drama, but since it is not a true recognition, only a pretence of recognition, we seek it again and again.
There is a reason for this superficiality, which I will discuss in the section dealing with the internal antagonist.
Before we get to antagonists, though, we have to look at the protagonist.
It takes courage to write fiction. The writer is at risk every second. Balancing out these risks are the pleasures of the imagination. But as blissfully distracting as they are, these pleasures don’t diminish the risk involved in writing effective fiction—fiction that other people can read with enjoyment.
The first risk the writer must face is their fear of conflict. Everybody fears it. Out in the real world conflict is seen as destructive. But it isn’t always. Some forms of conflict are beneficial or pleasurable. When we think of them as doing good we tend to give them another name. We think of sport as entertainment, even though it’s conflict. When someone undertakes to cross the Atlantic in a canoe, or climb Mount Everest, we think of this as a challenge. But it’s conflict. The tougher the challenge, the greater the conflict. We think of career aspirations as ambition, but they involve conflict. Anything in the world, anything at all, that brings victory and triumph or any other kind of reward has entailed conflict.
Every new writer feels some concern about conflict. But I find that people’s anxieties ease if they can give it another name. I have used the most highly-charged word for it. Others prefer tension. You might like to call it something else, like challenge or problem. It doesn’t matter what word you use if it allows you to engage with it.
Did you enjoy the first chapter of The Architecture of Narrative and want to read more?