Crisis vs. Conflict

Summary: Good storytellers differentiate between a crisis (an emergency, such as a car crash or an illness) and conflict (a clash of wills, a difficult moral choice, or an internal mental struggle). Beginning authors often focus on the exciting crisis rather than the conflict that makes readers care about the characters enduring the crisis.

The conflict that makes a story worth reading (and re-reading) involves the reader in the humanity of the characters involved in the crisis.   The best explanation I've seen of the difference between crisis and conflict comes from a Star Trek fan magazine I read as a kid.  I'm almost sure that the author was David Gerrold.  I'm reconstructing most of it myself in order to make my point, but it went something like this:

  1. The Enterprise encounters the slime monster.  It attacks the ship. (Crisis)  Kirk kills it by freezing it. (Resolution)
  2. The Enterprise encounters the ice beast.  It attacks a peaceful planet. (Crisis)  Kirk kills it by melting it. (Resolution)
  3. The Enterprise encounters the crystal demon.  It attacks a strategic Federation base.  The only way to stop it is to shatter it with sound waves -- but doing so will deafen an entire city of the galaxy's finest musicians.  Doing nothing would mean that the Romulans might occupy the planet, shatter the demon and deafen the city anyway.  Kirk has to decide what to do.  (Conflict!)

The first two scenarios might be exciting to watch.  Imagine the screams of the slime monster, the howls of the ice beast, the tension on the bridge as the Enterprise closes in for the kill.  Sounds like fun, but it is only action, like a video game.

The last scenario has the same potential for action, but in addition, it lends itself to introspection, to the exploration of values, to the examination of choices.  For example, we might see the tearful pleas of the city dwellers, the belligerent boasting of the Romulans, and an argument between Spock and McCoy.  We might even see the hero change in some way, too, as he tries to negotiate a moral path that takes into account what all parties have at stake.  This is true dramatic conflict.

Drama in Writing

According to a dead French guy you've probably never heard of, drama involves "the spectacle of the will striving toward a goal, and conscious of the means which it employs." (Ferdinand Brunetière; quoted in Lawson 59).

(The author was actually talking about theater, but what he says applies equally to creative writing.)

The spectacle...

The word spectacle, like "spectacles" (eyeglasses) or "spectacular" (something worth looking at), implies that the author is showing what happens, rather than simply telling about it.

Telling Showing
He got really mad. "Get out," he said. I could tell he really meant it. His eyes narrowed into slits, pinning me to the wall with their gaze. His voice was a hoarse whisper: "Get out!"

My handout, "Show, Don't (Just) Tell," reminds us that some of the most expressive and interesting writing re-creates for the reader the very experience that the characters in the story are living.

...of the will...

The will is the human capacity to desire, and to make decisions accordingly.   If you describe the progress of a disease, or if you do a wonderful job recording the aftermath of an earthquake, you haven't necessarily written a good story.  You may have created a great medical textbook, accident report, or historical document, but a good story hinges on the will of the protagonist.

...striving towards a goal...

The reader should know what is at stake.  Characters, whether they are fictional or real, need to pursue a clearly defined goal.  It can be a complex and sweeping goal, such as "to boldly go where no man has gone before," or simple and specific, like getting a kiss from your date.  The story describes the actions of the characters as they try to achieve these goals.  Just as it's possible for Captain Kirk to explore the universe and chase girls at the same time, any story can offer several different goals, but the action of the story and the interaction of the supporting characters points the protagonist and the reader towards the most important goal.

...and conscious of the means which it employs.

What this means is that the hero can't simply stumble his or her way towards the resolution.  The hero has to make choices (or deliberately refuse to choose) in order for the story to work.  If your main character is simply along for the ride, then something is missing.  You can still have a great story about an ineffective main character, or one who fails to reach his goal, but the story should still be about the struggle.

For instance, your protagonist might initially desire to survive a catastrophe at all costs; during the course of the story, when it becomes clear that survival is not an option, the character might instead decide to do as much good as possible before dying.  The character may die, along with all the people that he helps, but we still saw the spectacle of the hero's will striving towards his goal.   We also saw the character change.  The change could be for the better, or for the worse; or, the story could end with the hero's failure to learn anything at all (but perhaps your reader will be a little wiser).

Types of Conflict

The dead French guy (Brunetière) goes on to list several different ways that authors represent conflict:

  • the individual vs. fatality (that is, a fight for survival)
  • the individual vs. social law (justice, morality, etc.)
  • the individual vs. another person
  • the individual vs. himself
  • the individual vs. "the ambitions, the interests, the prejudices, the folly, the malevolence of those who surround him"

Other resources:

  • Brunetière, Ferdinand Brunetière.  The Law of the Drama. Trans. Philip M. Hayden. New York: Columbia University, 1914.
  • Lawson, John Howard. Theory and Technique of Playwrighting.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.  Reprint.   Putnam, 1936.

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