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How to Write Layered Conflict Into Stories

My brilliant copy-editor friend Heather Munro recently asked me about story structure. I told her it’s quite simple. Stories are based upon conflict, but conflict isn’t what you probably think it is. To have conflict you have to have a character with a goal. Then, you have to have something to obstruct the character’s attempts to achieve that goal.

There are three things that can cause conflict, which are traditionally described in this way: man against man, man against nature, or man against self. (“Man” meaning man or woman, of course.) Books marketed to men (actual men) tend to focus on external conflicts like man against man and man against nature, like innumerable books about war and books like The Perfect Storm, about men battling nature. Meanwhile, women’s books tend to focus on inner conflict. A character faces her own insecurity, alcoholism, lack of skills, or other internal limitations that keep her from achieving her dreams. However, the best books combine both internal and external conflicts.

As a good example, Let’s look at Breaking Bad the popular TV show. Here’s why that show captivated people so much. It starts with a very legitimate goal: Walter White wants to get expensive treatments for lung cancer that won’t leave his family destitute if he ends up dying anyway. Naturally, we viewers sympathize with this goal. But it doesn’t take long before we realize this is about much more than survival. Walter actually has other goals, too. The death-scare has awakened him to the cowardly life he’s been living and now he wants power. He wants to be a kingpin. He claims to want money only to take care of his family, but it quickly becomes clear that Walter isn’t the mild-mannered guy we thought he was. In fact, Walter is a stranger to himself.

His goals and conflicts make the story interesting because he has the external goal of fighting cancer and also fighting the drug kingpins that get in his way. He also has the internal struggle of fighting the “angel” and “devil” sides of his personality as he struggles to decide how far he will go to achieve his goal. The layering of internal and external conflicts is what makes the show appeal to so many different demographics.

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