Conflict: The Nuts and Bolts of Drama

Drama is not simply “a series of unfortunate events.” Drama heightens interest and charges the atmosphere. It’s a shock, unexpected, unnerving. Drama is uncanny, what Freud described as unheimliche, “un-home-like,” a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar that seems peculiar. Drama is the naked truth with a punch in the teeth.

A man is an aristocratic warrior of a medieval king? “Ok.” Whose brother is the medieval king? “Oh really?” And whose brother the medieval king has just been crippled? “Uh-oh. Then what?” As a reader, the more we know, the more we want to know. Who? What? Where? When? Why? But most importantly: “So what?”

To develop your drama, you need to interrogate it: “Why? So what? And if so, then what else?” Because your reader is certainly asking, “Why is this drama important? Why should I read about this brother of a crippled king?”

© Sam Watterson

© Sam Watterson

The answer is Conflict. It is the essence of story development and too often overlooked by writers who want to tell the story, “just as it happened.” Life isn’t a story. It’s a source of inspiration. It’s the story-telling that makes Life into Drama. And to tell it well, there has to be some kind of conflict to which the reader can relate. The story contains Some-One-Thing struggling with Some-One-Thing-Else, and the outcome is in doubt.

This struggle between Some-One-Thing and Some-One-Thing-Else is the conflict, and conflict is the core of drama.

The nature of the conflict can be derived from the characters, provide clues to the structure of the plot, and suggest scenes with their attendant settings, characters, dialogue, happenings, actions, and, you guessed it, conflicts.

Plot from Character

Plot can be derived from characters and their relationships. Take the earlier example of the aristocratic warrior whose brother is the now-crippled king. So What? What happens next?

The king’s brother takes over the administration of the kingdom.

  • So what?
  • What happens next?
  • What could happen, if the brother takes over from the king?
  • Is there anyone else in the king’s family who might also want to take over the administration of the kingdom?

Yes, the King and his brother have an older cousin who also wants to be king.

In the comments of a previous post, I introduced the King’s brother, Eowain. From his father’s own mouth, he was taught: “You and your cousins against the world. You and your brother against your cousins.” In the culture of Eowain’s medieval-style milieu, family is everything… including in the way on the ladder to wealth, power, and success.

So yes, the king’s cousin and the king’s brother could be rivals for the kingship if anything happens to the crippled king. That’s what could happen next.

The Need for Confrontation

Why will more people watch Keeping Up with The Kardashians this year than will read Dante’s third installment of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso? Because happiness in paradise is dull.

Why will KUWTK continue to draw ratings to its inanity, and why will Dante’s first installment of the Divine Comedy, Inferno, continue to be taught in undergraduate and high-school literature classes all over the world this year? Because unhappiness is interesting and eternal.

Drama brings the unusual, the unexpected, the un-home-like to the reader’s attention, just as surely as a Red-Shirt will draw phaser-fire. But that’s only the beginning. The hard part is holding on to the reader’s attention once you’ve grabbed it.

Everyone is unhappy in their own way. How is this specific unusual/unexpected/un-home-like Red Shirt particularly unhappy?

How is the king’s brother particularly unhappy? How is the king particularly unhappy? How is their rival, the king’s cousin, particularly unhappy?

The key to understanding their relationship is confrontation, a struggle of some sort. Isn’t that always part of the mix in an unhappy family? Unhappiness breeds confrontation. The closer something is to a character, the more likely a character is to be confronted by it.

Does confrontation always need to be unhappy? No, but familiarity breeds contempt. My butt is happily confronting my desk-chair as I write this. Do you care? Of course not, it’s too quotidian. So why are you still reading this? Because I keep asking you questions?

I am confronting you. Not antagonistically, I hope. I am presenting myself sincere and authentic into being-in-care-with-you, stimulating (I hope) thoughts on highfalutin’ subjects like conflict, action, and suspense, because we both are Beings-Together-in-Care-with-Writing.

But I’m still confronting you. Why are you still reading? What is it about this confrontation that has your attention?

If a writer only confronts a reader with the familiar, why should the reader read on?

Confrontation vs. Conflict

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Confrontation can also be conflict, but conflict is a subset state of confrontation, a narrow slice of a larger, confrontational pie. Imagine all the confrontations you face in a day:

  • Door.
  • Shower.
  • Rabid tyrannosaurus with Ebola.
  • Mirror.
  • Toothbrush.

Which one involves actual conflict? Well, actually, that depends.

Conflict as confrontation comes in various disguises:

  • Between different characters (rivalry, chase, romance),
  • Between characters and their environment (The Open Boat, Stephen Crane), or
  • Between characters and themselves (to overcome debilitating injury, illness, phobia, mental capacity, etc.).

If you were writing the story of Caitlyn Jenner, you might consider that for years the conflict in that story was probably in the confrontation between Caitlyn Jenner and her mirror and not so much between Caitlyn Jenner and her toothbrush.

From the confrontation comes the conflict, and from the conflict springs the action, whether it be dialogue, reaction, or some kinetic motion. The hard-boiled noir detective grills the sultry femme-fatale with a secret. A wave threatens to overturn our precarious boat. The dissonance between one’s self-image and the sight of one’s self in a mirror. And suddenly, the fists are up, the guns are out, and the lawyers are on retainer.

Structure from Conflict

Escalate, Escalate, Escalate

During some recent time in Los Angeles, and then again on Broadway, I had the pleasure of enjoying performances of the musical production of Matilda at the Ahmansson Theatre and the Shubert Theatre. Highly recommended for kids of all ages, particularly the grown up kind, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. He’s a demented little elf if ever there was one and naughty enough to treat Roald Dahl’s classic with respect, great love, and spectacularly good humor.

If you’re not familiar with the tale, a young girl with a big imagination (Matilda), struggles to make sense of her world through story-telling. In the musical stage adaptation, this took the form of public storytelling to a sympathetic librarian.

With each passing scene, Matilda adds ever more detail to the tale of “The World’s Greatest Acrobat,” “His Wife,” and their misadventures. As each scene draws to a close and Matilda is about to run off, the enthralled librarian wonders aloud: “So it has a happy ending after all?”

Matilda considers a moment, then each time answers, “No,” and runs away.

This went on for many days and into a week and across a month (to paraphrase another great classic).

Finally, when it seemed like there could be no more hope, the wife of “The World’s Greatest Acrobat” died! It seemed like their misadventures had at last come to their Dread and Tragic End. Cursed Circumstance had triumphed!

True to form, the devastated librarian sadly concludes: “Oh. So it doesn’t have a happy ending.”

Matilda, about to run off, looks back over her shoulder and says, “I don’t know. It’s not finished yet.”

George R.R. Martin has learned this lesson well, much to his fans’ consternation. If your story’s not finished, you still have to write it to the end, and you still have to keep our interest, even if a character has to die. You have to escalate the conflict. Take your character to the breaking points. Then take him further.

This is the essence of maintaining interest in confrontation through conflict over time, also called suspense. If today’s conflict is no worse than yesterday’s conflict, and I survived yesterday’s conflict, then I’ll probably survive today’s conflict. No suspense. The difference between winter rain in Southern California:

“Oh my god! Look at it come down!” (Drizzle sizzles off the sidewalks.)

And winter rain in New York City:

“Yeah, it’s rainin’. What’re you, a wise guy? It’s been rainin’ all week. I just hope it don’t freeze.”

Look at your story. At each and every point of conflict in which your characters find themselves, can they be more unhappy? Could it get any worse? Oh, it can? Good, do that next. And live or die, after you’ve done it, look at where you find your characters (even in death) and ask: Is that it? Is the story over? If not, how could it get any worse? And then do that next.

Repeat until the story actually is over.

Theme versus Plot

There is a difference between “plot” and “theme” where both relate to conflict. A conflict represented by the action in the plot is the series of unfortunate events befalling your characters. The conflict representing the theme is what is happening to the characters while the plot is happening. If your story is a series of action conflicts one after another with no overarching theme to tie the action together, you need to find your theme, and the conflict it represents for the characters as well. Hint: The theme exists above and between the characters and the plot as the raison d’etre of both. It’s a little behind the baking soda.

Immediacy Does the Trick

What’s happening in your neck of the woods today? Car-jackings? Kidnappings? Assaults? War? Trips to the ball game? Nothing gives us more of a thrill than that which is unfolding before us right here and now.

Capturing this thrill is the essence of writing with immediacy. The story unfolds while we watch! The drama touches us with contemporary spontaneity! We are in The Immediate Presence! The surprise foul-ball whistles past my ear, hell, it almost takes my damn fool head off!

Whether you are writing in first person singular present, third person omniscient past, or second person limited future, your goal is to make the readers feel like they’re right there living it with the characters.

Immediacy Exercise: Write a draft scene from or a summary of your plot in the first person singular present, “I am,” from the point of view of your protagonist. Feel free to use the comment box below if you’d like to share. Five minutes, go!

Rivalry and Kingship

As an example of this post’s principles in action, consider the following exercise in the development of a conflict from my current Work In Progress.

When last we left our intrepid hero, the king’s brother lives in a world where the following adage is held to be literally true of family dynamics: “My cousins and I against the world. My brother and I against my cousins.” The question is: Might the king’s cousin and the king’s brother be rivals for the kingship if anything happens to the crippled king?

Let’s play some improv. Yes, the king’s cousin and the king’s brother might be rivals. How so?

  • The king’s cousin is older than both the king and his brother, and
  • He’s acquired considerable fame, wealth, and power in his own right.
  • He also has more experience of matters military, economic, social, and political than either the crippled king or his brother.

The king’s cousin might very well believe he is a strong potential candidate for the role of king under those circumstances.

irish_warriors2So what’s stopping him? The King? But he’s crippled. And “only” a cousin. The King’s Cousin has brothers and sons of his own. He’s got people to take care of. And the king is only his cousin. Not his brother. If the king is crippled and weak, perhaps he’s not so much an obstacle as he once was.

The King’s brother, that’s what’s stopping him. Why? Because the Brother is the Lord-Captain of the King’s Company, a unit of professional, veteran soldiers drawn from across the kingdom and paid from the king’s coffers. He’s young, but he’s already proven to be a smart and capable commander under his brother’s brief reign. The King’s Company is loyal to the Brother first and the King second, but supporters of the Cousin within the Company might shiver the loyalty of a third of the King’s Company or more.

So what’s to stop the King and/or his Brother from just marching over the Cousin’s lands, dragging him out of a spider-hole, and giving him a flogging?

Well, glad you asked. The Cousin has been “sharking up lawless resolutes,” as a matter of fact. Whether the King and his Brother know it or not, those bandits that have been stepping up their winter raiding this season? The Cousin has been offering food and shelter to anyone willing to fight in support of his claim to the throne. So now in addition to whatever other personal guard the Cousin might already have, he also has a gang of bandits. They’re actually doing the bidding of the Cousin already, and their raids are tying down patrols and troops from the King’s Company while the wicked Cousin plans his next villainous move. With such a total strength, the forces of the Cousin stand almost equal to the King’s Company and the Brother.

The essence of a good rivalry is in the balance of the conflict.

Brother against Cousin in the troughs and crests of the tempestuous struggle for power. But to keep it interesting, we have to see how equally the rivals are balanced at the beginning. Then we have to watch as the rivals each vie against the other for success.

First, the balance of power tilts one way, against our hero, the Brother, whom we have else-wise established with the “Moral Authority” of the protagonist. His rival, the Cousin, suddenly trebles his forces, bringing on a gang of bandits. What will the Brother do?

He’ll find allies, that’s what. He has friends among the families of the kingdom, friends who might offer troops or supplies or shelter in the event of an emergency. Well, it looks like the emergency’s here, belly up to the bar and be counted, my friends.

But his rival, the Cousin has bribed some of his allies, you say? Why yes, some of them do take the Cousin’s bribes. In fact, a strategically placed ally changes sides, and the Brother finds himself abroad in the countryside in poor weather and on the defensive in wintertime.

Who can the Brother turn to? His mysterious scholar-priests? Or maybe his family’s greatest enemy?

“So it doesn’t have a happy ending?”

I don’t know. It’s not finished yet.

What have we learned?

Thus you tease a story out through conflict between a character and other characters, their environment, and the character itself. And that’s how you use

  • character to find confrontation,
  • confrontation to build conflict,
  • conflict to build plot, and
  • Immediacy to build suspense.

Interrogate your characters and their relationships with each other, the setting, and themselves to find opportunities for confrontation.

Interrogate confrontations for any conflicts that might lie within them.

Interrogate the conflict to discover the plot.

And do it right now!

Five minutes, write your own scene of conflict in the next 5 minutes (alone or in the comments below). Don’t stop to think, re-read, or edit: Go!

You’re in a hotel room, relaxing at the end of a long day’s travelling. Suddenly a man bursts into the room.


Michael Dellert, writer, editor, publishing consultant, all around swell fella.Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Backporch Review, The Harbinger, Idiom, and Venture. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies The Golden Treasury of Great Poems and Dance on the Horizon, and he is a two-time winner of the Golden Poet Award from World of Poetry Press. He is currently working independently as a freelance writer, editor, and publishing consultant. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Conflict, Writing craft

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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