Crisis vs. Conflict: Engaging a Reader with the Protagonist’s “Inner” Story

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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. (See also Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers, Show Don’t (Just) Tell, and Developing Ideas for Short Fiction.)

Lara Sterling cites Christopher Vogler’s explanation of a character’s “outer” problem (getting from point A to point B, beating the clock, beating an opponent, etc.), and the “inner” problem (learning to trust someone else, believing in yourself, maturing enough to handle new responsibilities, etc.).

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 the examples he gave were pretty stark and formulaic, along these lines:

  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 immediate context was actually discussing theater, but the concept applies equally to other genres.)

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 (dry and boring)Showing (well-chosen details)
She was not only smart and funny, but she also had a playful side that I found really attractive. She amazed me in so many ways that I just couldn’t help falling for her.

(Reading a list of the emotions the narrator claims to feel does not generate a feeling in the reader. The reader has no reason to fall for her, and the reader learns nothing in particular about the narrator.)

She put a T.A.R.D.I.S bookmark in her Pride and Prejudice, burped the alphabet, and stole my heart.

(These details teach us as much about the narrator as about the person he’s fallen for. We don’t need to know whether her eyes were like emeralds or sapphires, or whether her lips were like rubies or coral.)

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 pursue space women at the same time, complex interplay between the “outer” story (where most of the action takes place) and the “inner” story (where most of the character development takes place) can offer the mix of spectacle and sentiment that makes the most complex stories rich enough to reward re-reading.

…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 shift to a new strategy — 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.

18 July 2011 — minor tweaks
21 Mar 2022 — fixed a typo and a broken link

23 thoughts on “Crisis vs. Conflict: Engaging a Reader with the Protagonist’s “Inner” Story

  1. Your tips were very helpful.I can now understand why my writing always feels immature ans stale.It would be very helpful if could explain the types of conflicts.

  2. Using Star Trek to explain crisis vs. conflict is brilliant. You also touch upon the star trek goal, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and correct hint that underlying story is Kirk’s quest for space poontang! The man truly goes where no man has gone before!

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  6. I am working on my MA in Creative Writing and I am copying all of your pages on the site. I am so glad I found this and I will share it with the people in my class.

  7. I truly enjoyed reading this article. I have always wondered how we were supposed to show, but not tell. This opens a new pathway in which the mind can stroll on showing while telling.

  8. My Short Story called “Anne and the 12 seedlings” create a nice image in our town… thanks for the help wish you could teach us the right way of writing novels and short stories by also the use of live chat… thank you!!!

  9. Thank you for the help, it really means a lot for me. At my age of 12 create my first novel by the help of yours., thank you!!!

  10. I hope I get a level 5 or 6. :) my story has to include suspense. do you know any important tips to achieve this level?

  11. Thank you so much for this. I wrote a novel and thr feedback was that it was difficult to connect with the characters. This really helped.

  12. Pingback: Seek Personal Conflict, not Just a Situational Crisis: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Writing Tip — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

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