Conflict: An Intersection of Purpose

All stories need conflict. I don’t think that this concept is really surprising to anyone, in fact it’s a bit of a cliche at this point, but it still needs to be said because a lot of writers have very weird ideas about what conflict means in terms of storytelling. Generally speaking, conflict is caused in stories by an intersection of purpose. For example, let’s take one of the classic types of conflict: man vs. nature. Specifically, this conflict will be between a man named Jack and a bear named Bear.

An Example Conflict: Bear vs. Jack

Conflict can have harsh consequences for the loser.

Some conflict is direct–person versus person.

In the story, Jack’s purpose is to deliver the missile defense codes to the president. Bear’s purpose is to defend its territory from potential predators. In order to complete his mission, Jack has to cross through the forest where Bear lives and Bear, thinking that Jack is a predator, attacks him.

Now, if this idea of “purpose” seems familiar, it’s probably because it’s just another way of saying “character motivation”. Jack’s desire to deliver the missile defense codes is his character motivation at the moment and conflict arises when his character motivation intersects with that of another character—the bear’s in this case.

What happens next? Maybe Jack fights off the bear in an epic battle. Or he might run away as the bear gives chase. Or there might be some sort of emotional resolution, where the bear and Jack are forced to confront their own personal flaws and overcome them in order to resolve the conflict between them. The point is that once the motivations intersect, they must be resolved through some sort of action on the part of the characters. This is the basic framework of a story—motivation is established, conflict arises through the intersection of conflicting motivations, and the conflict is resolved through the actions of the characters. And while it might sound simple, the foundational element, the single thing that the entire story is built around, is the character motivation.

This is why it is so important to have clear motivations, because the clearer characters’ motivations are, the clearer the conflict and resulting actions will be to the reader. This is necessary for writing a story that the audience can engage with and if the audience is not engaged, you’re not going to have an audience for very long.

That’s all for our discussion on character motivations. Next time, we’ll pivot away from the general theory and look at some of the more technical elements of writing with a look at how to effectively use punctuation. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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