In a story, starting a fight is an easy way to make the mood tense. But conflict can do more than just make a story feel tense, suspenseful. Conflict engages the audience. It makes us sympathize with the characters and root for them. And it heightens other emotions in the story.
Conflict draws us in
Frequently, when the conflict makes the story tense, it’s actually heightening some other tension in the story. For example, C.J. West’s Sin and Vengeance is a true, page-turning suspense novel. The suspense comes not just from the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, but also what we expect the antagonist to be capable of. He terrifies us.
This happens because conflict draws us in: Conflict enables us to feel sympathy for the underdog. In a Romance, the romantic parts are about love unrequited or passion unfulfilled.
Conflict enables sympathy
Tom Sawyer is a sympathetic character. Even though he’s always doing naughty things, getting into trouble, we don’t like to see him punished. And then when he develops a crush on Becky Thatcher, our sympathy increases. And when he witnesses a murder and Injun Joe is out to get him, our sympathy increases again. Our sympathy lets us feel for him, even feel the same way he does.
I also talked about conflict in the season-six finale of Gilmore Girls in another post. The reason for the strong reaction fans have to the finale is the sympathy they have for the characters. And this sympathy would not happen were it not for the conflict. The sympathy is so strong, in fact, that fans get upset because the conflict. (Is it possible to make a story too immersive?)
This Gilmore Girls episode also includes romantic elements that make us want to cry. This happens when romance is unfulfilled.
Casablanca is another example of a movie that makes some people cry. It’s because Rick is in love with Ilsa, but their love can’t be, then will be, then will never be.
Casablanca actually didn’t make me cry, though The Notebook did, as I mentioned in the last spotlight. Movie critics have described The Notebook as being a sappy romance story. But such a story works, for a simple reason, romantic tension. We have conflict; it draws us in, makes us feel what the characters are feeling.
How to do it
If you want to use conflict to create or enhance the feeling a story brings:
- Decide which feeling the story should portray.
- Choose a conflict that would make the protagonist feel that way.
- Make the protagonist face that conflict.
Last September, I wrote a short story called “Pine.” It was actually a project I did for a writing prompt. I had to write something inspired by a certain photo of a house. But I knew I didn’t want to write about just a house. Because no matter how much I dressed it up, that would be boring. I knew I needed a conflict. So I chose a romance story revolving around a first love.
Here’s the beginning of the story:
Each morning Jace walked by her house on his way to school. Each afternoon he passed it on his way home. Sometimes, he would also pass at other times. Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of the bright-faced girl with wavy blonde locks. She sat under the two conifers that towered overhead. But as far as he knew, she never noticed him.
The house itself, a grey Stick Victorian with brown trim, spoke of a happy family. Its expansive porch took a jaunt through the sweet-scented yellows and reds of the flower garden. Little gabled alcoves jutted into the world, embraced by the overall form of the structure, as if its gables were parents looking after their offspring. A squat wall of white stone stood before this all, making up in intensity what it lacked in stature, a formidable protector to all within.
But the trees were even more special, for under these Jennifer would read. Or sometimes she would just be sitting quietly or humming softly a tune Jace didn’t recognize. Jace paid her no heed, or else she might see his admiration. But out of the corner of his eye, he noticed her shapely form, and he fought to keep breathing. And in his imagination, he felt the softness of her pink cashmere sweater in his delicate hands. He felt her fingers running through his thick, dark hair. Her chocolate eyes and his ordinary brown ones got lost in each other. Perhaps his finger stroked the line of her eyebrow, following her face around softly-curved cheek and jaw, finally resting under her chin.
But Jace said nothing, made no motion out of the ordinary. He merely continued walking, as nonchalantly as possible for a big-footed, lanky teen in a grey tee and worn khakis.
You can read the whole story at my “stories” blog.