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Craft: Deepening Conflict

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

I’m having trouble with conflict. My last two proposals were rejected because the editor felt the conflicts “weren’t deep enough.” How deep is deep? I mean, how do you judge this?

My personal gauge is to take what matters most to specific characters who have been assigned to specific story roles. If you establish a character who has a lot to risk by taking a stand and then put a character in direct opposition with him/her who has a lot to risk by taking the opposite stand, then you’ll have strong conflict.

If both characters have personal internal conflicts that are at war with their external conflicts, then you have deep conflict. To assure this, I use a simple formula: whatever a character most fears or hates is the character’s internal conflict. Then, force that character to face it–that’s the character’s external conflict. So find what s/he fears most (internal conflict) and then stomp it (external conflict).

Let’s take an example using our current crisis, since that’s where our minds are focused these days.

Currently 90% of Americans feel we must tackle this war on terrorism (pro). Ten percent feel we should not retaliate (con).

1. It’s been two weeks since the attack on the U.S. and the nation has been warned that this war will be a long, hard one. Already some in the media question if Americans have the will to fight it.

Pro feels insulted. S/he just watched 7,000 people die, 6,500 people got injured, and thousands who just went to work one morning were reduced to running for their lives on American streets. Lose the will to fight terrorism after that? In two weeks? We’re still pulling bodies and body parts out of the rubble, for God’s sake. Lost will? Not likely. Not in this life.

Con feels insulted. S/he has seen enough death and destruction. Retaliating won’t bring one person back to life, won’t heal one injury, and if we hadn’t been bullying others into bending to our will, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Spill more blood? When we’re still pulling bodies and body parts out of the rubble? Not likely. Not in this life.

2. The attack is over and America survived it. Where is the logic in engaging in a war?

Pro. America and Americans will be suffering the impact of this attack for a long time. Spouses, parents, children died. Lives have been changed irrevocably. Security, feeling safe, and the sanctity of our nation have been violated. Locked in fear is not being free. We must make the penalty for invading our country and targeting innocent civilians so severe that the costs of anyone ever doing so again are simply too high to pay. We shouldn’t shake in our shoes at the thought of going to work. Our kids shouldn’t have to be terrified that they’re going to be hurt.

Con. Americans will be suffering the impact of this attack for a long time. Spouses, parents, children died. Lives have been changed irrevocably. To engage in war will not negate our losses, nor will it eliminate fear. It will extend fear, expand it to encompass the fear of losing all those fighting. With our insistence on global domination, we invited–no, we insisted–that opposition strike out. So now we strike back? What? We begin a child’s game of you hit me, I hit you, now you hit me? Where does that get us? Where does it stop? No one wins these type altercations, and this isn’t a child’s game. Not when people die and lives change.

3. We are a nation of laws. Some say, we should negotiate, talk to these people, and settle our differences like mature and civilized human beings.

Pro. Fabulous idea, but historically fanatics aren’t reliable negotiators. They’re aggressive by nature and respect only strength. They don’t keep agreements they make and only when forced do they retreat and cease attacks. Successful negotiations require two parties acting in good faith.

Con. Exactly! If we can approach the challenge with reason and logic, honestly address our differences and settle them amicably, then that is what we should do. This is the road to lasting peace–to resolve the root cause of the conflict.

4. Why do you feel we must, or must not, engage in this war?

Pro. Because sometimes you have to take a stand. You have to act on your faith in your convictions and fight for what most matters to you. Liberty and freedom aren’t just words. They’re a way of life. If you want to keep them, then you have to take a stand. Sometimes that stand comes in the form of diplomacy. Sometimes it comes in the form of grabbing a gun and taking a position on a wall. Your opposition determines that by the nature of his/her attack. These attackers have infiltrated our society on all fronts. This isn’t the first time they’ve attacked and it won’t be the last–unless we stop them. That’s the bottom line for me. I’m not willing to forfeit liberty or freedom. I’m not willing to be afraid in my home or on my streets, and I’m certainly not willing for my children to be afraid. I choose to stop them.

Con. I’m opposed to violence. As human beings, we’re all connected, and I believe that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. Reason, logic, the rule of law are the way to settle disputes. Violence breeds hatred. Nothing good can come from hatred. Haven’t we seen that? Haven’t we learned that much in these attacks? The attacks were wrong and those who committed them should be punished. But by law, not by violence.

5. What most shaped your opinion on this issue?

Pro. A deep love for this country and two hundred years of history. My grandfather was killed in World War II in the Pacific. My favorite uncle died at Pearl Harbor. My father spent a year in a jungle and a year in a hospital with malaria during the Korean conflict. They fought so we all would have the freedom to choose our futures. So we’d continue to have the freedom to voice our opinions. I hate war and violence. I love peace and everyday life. But some people won’t let you walk away. They push and push until you make them stop pushing. If you doubt it, remember the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Remember the attacks on the African embassies. The attack on the military barracks. Now this. Each has grown more violent, taken more lives. From military and governmental targets to civilians. Where do they go from here?

Con. My father died in Viet Nam. I grew up with a bewildered mother and no father. With a grandmother who mourned losing her son from the day he died until twenty years later when she died. Sadness and grief destroyed my family. That’s the reality of war. I’ve had a bellyful, thank you very much. I don’t want or need anymore. Rattlesnakes strike when attacked. Human beings should have more sense than snakes. We should rely on cool heads and common sense and not on blowing each other off the map. Understanding, compassion–those are the tools of peace.

6. At a Berkeley campus, a student protesting the U.S. war effort, was asked why he was protesting. His response was that fighting a war wasn’t in his plans for the future. Your reaction?

Pro. Is it ever in anyone’s plans? It wasn’t in an artist’s plans either. But when called to preserve its ideals and serve his country, he did it. He lost his arm and his dreams of being an artist died. But he did his duty, and he has no trouble meeting his eyes in the mirror every morning. No one plans a war in their future. But while you’re making your plans for whatever you do plan in your future, you should pause to thank those before you who didn’t plan on war but fought when called. Because they did, you’re here, and you have the luxury of making your choice.

Con. I’ll admit, even to me–and I’m strongly opposed to war–that sounds superficial and self-serving. There’s nothing selfless in that remark, or there doesn’t seem to be. But I understand the underlying sentiment. It is difficult to support or endorse that which you oppose with every fiber of your being. And it isn’t that I don’t appreciate what those before me have endured in the name of freedom. I have choices thanks to them. I make them because I can. Didn’t they die to assure all those after them could choose?

There are the seeds of conflict–internal and external–and because the motivators are universal and tied to emotion, they are not surface motivators but deep.

It’s difficult to take opposing sides on any issue which engages the emotions, and yet that is where the strength in conflicts and motivations reside. So it behooves the writer to struggle through the process. Warning: it’s more difficult when you’re in the middle of an intense situation, as we are now, to take on both sides of that issue. Particularly when you’re attempting to support that which you strenuously oppose. But it is beneficial. You can gain insight that you then can pass along to the reader. And you tend to be brutally honest because you’re emotionally invested.


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