No struggle. No story.
Early in my writing career, I was resistant to the idea that every story had to have a struggle, more specifically it needed conflict. I was conflict avoidant, you could say. I thought the world needed less conflict, not more; I thought everything need not be about conflict. I was woefully unclear, okay wrong, about what comprises fictional conflict. I thought conflict was the stuff families got into — and I hated that kind.
Conflict in Fiction | Conflict in fiction comes in many guises — purely personal or internal, conflict with others, loved ones say, and conflict with things like the environment or institutions. The variety is quite stunning really. Conflict can be illustrated in an array of ways from failed expectations to a person on trial for unnamed charges. It can be a character battling dragons or a grandmother dealing with her own prejudices.
Defining Characteristic | In short, conflict is a defining characteristic of fiction. No struggle, no conflict, no story, not fiction. Short fiction is conflict. Simple as that. Not having conflict in short fiction is like music without musical notes for the orchestra to play. So once the writer is on board with conflict and its array of possibilities the writer is off to the races, so to speak.
Getting Conflict in Your Story | The best way I know to develop conflict in a story is to start with the conflicted: your main character. In initial drafts and sketches give your character good and bad traits, say, like loyalty, but also naiviety, for argument sake (you can give them anything you want). Place Character A (main character) in a situation with another character, or institution, or any of the conflict possibilities. Place this main character with loyalty and naivety/naivete against another that seeks loyalty, say, but is manipulative. Character A will need to navigate the situation in which he or she will be manipulated.
What do they do? What choices do they make? How do they handle the struggle or get through the conflict?
The Set Up | Set up any number of situations like this — probably fewer than four say for short fiction — and have the same character with your chosen traits be faced with the increasing struggle of having his or her values and traits challenged. The series of situations — conflict — should be clear to the reader, fairly relentless for the character and seemingly insurmountable. This at length is fairly easy to accomplish. However, the key to struggle/conflict in short fiction lies squarely on the struggle’s significance, which is a relatively subjective attribute to discern. I mean, significance to you, might be insignificant to a reader, unless you make it clear why it’s important to the character.
Significant? | Still, a reader might not consider the character’s struggle to be all that significant. One measure by which to gauge the level of your “significant” conflict as Steven Schoen suggests in the Truth about Fiction is to wonder —
If, after all the struggle, the character simply resumes life unchanged, readers can’t help but feel disappointed.
Ah. There’s the rub.
Transformation | All stories are about transformation produced by conflict. For change to occur there must be heat and with heat comes friction, conflict, and because of conflict the character is changed. A character is changed because by being in conflict over values and by opposing traits, the character is tested either confirming or altering the character’s views and in essence his or her life. Good or bad.
It took me years to understand that. Now, when I’m done a story I ask: Has the character significantly changed?