“Write me a story,” I said to the girls in my junior high composition class. “It is due next Wednesday.”
That was the extent of the assignment I gave them. No limits, no rules, no guidance – nothing. Admittedly, I was new – as a first year teacher, I had no way of knowing what I was in for, or how grave an error I had just made. If I had been more experienced, I would have been alarmed by the eager light coming on in the students’ eyes. These were aspiring writers, after all. They had always wanted to change the world with the great American novel, and I had just promised to edit it for them.
Each of them.
When Wednesday finally came, the students marched proudly to the front of the room and placed their stories on my desk. As the stack mounted, my heart sank into my shoes. The overwhelming mass of paper in front of me would take three weeks to read. Then and there, I firmly resolved never to make such a foolish assignment again.
It turns out I need not have worried. The task was much easier than I had feared, primarily because all of the stories were more or less identical. The main storyline of each and every one of them went something like this:
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess. She lived in a beautiful kingdom far away, where she was the beautiful daughter of a beautiful king and his beautiful queen. She grew up with every possible advantage and lived a beautiful life of delirious happiness, eventually growing up to be a beautiful young woman. And just when her beauty was at its most beautiful, a handsome prince came along on a beautiful white steed and swept her up into his strong arms. He made her his queen and carried her off to an even more beautiful kingdom, where she lived in Elysian rapture to a ripe old age and finally died of bliss. The End.”
Though I nearly died of an overdose of Elysian rapture before the job was done, I managed to read all the papers. The next day the students and I had an important conversation, not only about writing stories but also about reading them.
The stories, I explained, all suffered from the same problem: lack of a problem. The protagonist princesses, bless their hearts, didn’t face difficulties or obstacles of any kind. You left out the cruel stepmother, I said, and the omission was fatal. Since nothing bad ever happens to the princess, her story fails to arouse even the mildest interest on the part of the reader. Nothing improves a story like a good disaster, I told them. Remember that.
It turns out, of course, that the lesson my students learned that day is as powerful a tool for reading stories as it is for writing them. As readers, our most important task is to identify and understand the central problem – the conflict – in a story. This is the first step toward understanding the story as a whole.
The conflict of any story is the disagreement at the root of things, the competition for the prize, the obstacle between the protagonist and his goal, the misunderstanding that must be worked out. As my students learned, conflict is the most essential ingredient in any story– without it, there’s really no story to tell.
The job of a lit teacher boils down to helping kids understand the main idea of a classic story. Therefore any technique that effectively reduces the number of possible main ideas can simplify this job dramatically.
Here’s a tip that does just that: though there are as many specific conflicts as there are stories in the world, they may be grouped into five simple categories. That’s right – when it comes to conflict, the underlying struggle that drives a story forward, there are only five categories to choose from.
First, there is a “man against man” conflict. This conflict exists when the main character, or protagonist, struggles against another character, the antagonist, in pursuit of his goal. We might also say that a “man against man” conflict exists when the primary antagonist is a person. Just about every fairy tale with a wicked stepmother or a cruel sorcerer has a “man against man” conflict, as do stories like Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Jim Hawkins vs. Long John Silver) and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (Hazel vs. Woundwort).
Second, there is a “man against nature” conflict. This conflict exists when the protagonist finds himself pitted against the elements in some kind of struggle for survival. When the primary antagonist is the physical world, including animals, weather, geographical obstacles, darkness, distance, time or the like, the story has a “man against nature” conflict. Jack London’s chilling short story To Build a Fire provides an excellent example, as does Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (although that story has a great “man against man” conflict as well).
A third type of conflict pits the protagonist against God, the gods, or Fate. This “man against God” conflict obviously exists in mythological or legendary stories that involve actual gods or fates, such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, it is also present in stories about people fighting against their destinies or dealing with unforeseen circumstances beyond their control, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Whenever we as readers wonder whether a character is doomed to follow the path he takes, our story includes a “man against god” conflict.
Fourth, there is a “man against society” conflict. This conflict exists in stories like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where the protagonist struggles against the social customs or norms of the world he lives in. When tension in a story comes from the difference between a character’s views or actions and the collective expectations of the people around him, the story has a “man against society” conflict.
The final category of conflict involves no one but the protagonist himself. In this “man against himself” conflict, the story’s tension develops as a character undergoes a mental, emotional or spiritual change, or arrives at a momentous decision, or overcomes a fear, or fails to overcome it. Sometimes stories with this type of conflict have very little external action, but the conflict may nevertheless be quite intense. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are good examples of stories with strong “man against himself” conflicts.
It turns out that every story in the world represents one of these five conflicts, though the best stories may deal with several types simultaneously. The ability to identify and categorize conflict can therefore help the reader a great deal, because it effectively reduces – to five – the number of things an author might be saying.
It can help the teacher out quite a bit as well!