The best part of any story is the Conflict. The trials and tribulations of compelling characters keep us at the edge of our seats, unwilling to put the book down. It’s no wonder it’s a requirement of story, it is the story! While it’s true you need an inciting incident to get the story to move toward the conflict, if the conflict is flat, the story is too.

Why are we so fascinated when characters go through hard times? Why do we want them to hurt? My theory is that it’s not watching them go through the pain, but watching them come out as different people.

Remember that. It’s not the trial, it’s the outcome. Characters are forever changed as a consequence of the decisions they make.

Just like real life.

The conflicts we put our characters through help us learn about ourselves. It’s the growing part that helps us understand life and change and how to deal with adverse situations. All from behind the comfort of a page.

A lot of times we consider conflict to be external, as though some outside force is pressuring characters to act. Let’s look at the Marvel series of movies as an example. Each movie presents a different series of conflicts for the character, whether it’s Iron Man, Spider-Man, or Captain Marvel. Most of these conflicts, as with any action story, are externally driven. Bad guys are out to get the good guys.

These bad guys force the good guys to look deep within themselves as people, causing a chain reaction of internal conflict. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter wants third-party validation that he is a superhero and is doing right by the world. He truly wants to help, but he also wants a little of the fame that comes with it. Each conflict in the story builds upon that character flaw, slowly coming to a crescendo until Peter can no longer take the heat.

Peter’s first conflict is not feeling validated by the good things he’s doing. Nobody takes him seriously. Then, when he tries harder to gain approval, he buries himself deeper into what he perceives as disappointment from Tony Stark. To seek validation even further, Peter lets his friend Ned convince him to show up at a party as Spider‑Man. The conflict about whether he should do that happens internally. The decision is made for him when he has to chase some bad guys, tearing him away from his search for validation and forcing him to follow his greater internal need,  satisfaction that he is using his gifts responsibly.

The best conflict builds: it gets worse and worse for the character. It never goes from being the worst thing that could possibly happen to being no big deal. The rising conflict may start out that way, a little trouble here and a little there, but the moments that really matter are those where the protagonists have no choice but to do something that will forever change them.

Just like real life.

Most mornings I wake up in a decent mood. I have toothpaste readily available, coffee is brewing, and I know there’s a bottle of wine in the fridge for the evening. When a series of things happen though, my mood tends to get darker and darker, eventually leading to a bad day. Maybe my husband used the last of the toothpaste. No big deal, there’s an extra tube in the closet upstairs. On the way there, I notice the dog ripped open my son’s favorite stuffed animal. The poor boy starts crying, causing me to forget about the toothpaste. Because it takes forever for me to calm him, we run late for school. I have to rush home afterward to get ready for my own meeting, only to realize I still haven’t brushed my teeth. See how everything is related and how one thing causes a chain reaction in a day?

That’s a simplified version of what Peter goes through. Each time he thinks he is about to reach his goal, an even bigger event happens. These conflicts must distract the protagonist from accomplishing a goal, whether it’s becoming an Avenger, or brushing their teeth.

Remember that it’s not about the trials, though. What did I learn from running out of toothpaste? Probably not much. But Peter learns a lot about himself. He is not ready to be an Avenger, but he doesn’t need Tony Stark and the Spider-Man suit to know that he is a good person at heart. Taking down the big-time bad guys is not the only important thing; helping neighbors on the block is important too.

While editing, I’ve found that if a story is having trouble picking up momentum, or there is a huge shock at the beginning, it’s because the conflicts are out of order. A lot of times we want to shock readers, really knock them off their feet, to try and hook them into the story. We throw in a gruesome murder, not really showing readers why they should care about the characters. Other times we use the same devices, thinking that the same conflict over and over is going to show readers the seriousness of the situation.

To remedy this, I usually have my author rearrange the conflict. Show the little steps that it took to get to the climax. Other times, I ask the author to fill in the conflict with bigger scenes, ones that will propel the character to act and change. If a response to a major conflict is one where the character could just turn away and decide to move to Europe or go on a hike through the Appalachians, the conflict isn’t big enough. This is what people mean when they advise you to let your characters suffer.

So, let them suffer. But be sure to show their growth through the last of the Five Requirements.

Editor’s note: The Five Requirements has been revised to The Four Requirements of Story. The link above will take you to the original article. An updated article reflecting the change will be published soon.

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