The most important element in a story is conflict. If your story does not have a central conflict, you don’t actually have a story—you have a picture, a static description of people and places. Without conflict, you won’t have a reason for events to occur. And you will bore your reader.
The basis of conflict is the difference between what your character has and what he wants. Something must be wrong with the character’s personality, perspective, relationships, circumstances, or abilities. The character with a conflict will be in a state of unease and dissatisfaction. The purpose of the story, therefore, is to show how the character reaches a state of satisfaction. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.
For an easy example, think about the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes reads the papers and notes various crimes and other questionable activities. These do not create conflict for him. However, at some point, he agrees to investigate a particular crime. At that point, he has a conflict. Holmes is in a state of dissatisfaction because he does not know how or why something happened, and he wants to solve that mystery. He doesn’t understand, but he wants to. When he figures out how the crime was committed, he is again satisfied. The conflict is over.
This was a simplistic illustration, but the concepts expressed in this example are true of all other stories, as well. Think about the books you have read and the movies you have seen. In one sentence, describe what the main character wants. “The main character wants . . . .” The answer may be deeper than just solving some immediate problem. (An example of an immediate problem is being trapped in a burning office building and needing to escape to safety.) In complex stories, the central conflict is represented in many events.
Think about the book and movie Carrie by Stephan King. An example of an immediate problem is when Carrie’s mother refuses permission for her to attend the school prom. Carrie wants to go, but her mother says no. She has a conflict between what she wants (go to the prom) and her current circumstances (her mother’s refusal). In a very, very short story, this immediate problem may be enough, but not in a book length story. Instead, this immediate problem represents the central conflict, a deeper conflict that governs the events throughout the story.
Carrie wants to be normal, as defined by her society at large, which she sees as a requirement for acceptance by others. She knows that she is different than her peers, and she believes her dissatisfaction stems from her differences. She tries to do things like the “other girls” to reach a state of satisfaction. Ultimately, though, the solution is not to be like everyone else but to accept and employ her uniqueness.
Now, think about the story you want to write. What does your main character want? Write it down. If you can’t do it in one sentence, you probably don’t understand your character well enough to write about him or her.
On the other hand, once you understand what your character wants, you can begin to identify the barriers to satisfaction and the actions taken to reach satisfaction. You can begin to create the scenes that represent how the character is affected by and acts upon his desires. This will create a rich story.
With clear knowledge of your character’s desire, you can examine your manuscript as a whole and evaluate whether particular scenes are relevant and necessary, or whether they need to be removed, moved, or revised. This will create a focused, progressive story.
In a great book, one that people will buy and read, the character wants the same things that the reader wants. The reader will be able to say, “I have felt the same way. I want that, too!” This allows the reader to understand the character and be interested in how the character responds to his or her desires. This will create an engaging story.
Before you begin writing, ask yourself, “What does my character want?”
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