One of the key ingredients to a successful story is for your characters to be well motivated. Your Protagonist, your main character, wants something and is motivated enough to after it, and you write that journey. But the conflict lock is what turns it from some random events into a real story.
What Is The Story Conflict?
Through out the story, you’re following them on their journey to either get what they want, or learn the reason they can’t have it. When that conflict is resolved, your story is finished.
In order for your story to have conflict, the thing that makes it interesting, something or somebody has to be getting in your Protagonist’s way. If they could just go and get it, whatever it is, then they would and there’s no story. So something has to be blocking them
The story begins at the inciting incident, when that story conflict is locked. Your Protagonist is motivated to go and get something, and your Antagonist is motivated to stop them.
What Is The Antagonist?
Your Antagonist, usually a person, is responsible for this conflict. Whatever your Protagonist wants, your Antagonist wants the opposite for them. Sometimes they want the opposite because it’s something they want as well, an object of desire, and they can’t both have it. Sometimes they want the opposite because they’re motivated to not want your Protagonist to have the thing they want, so they try and stop them.
But that Antagonist is what locks the conflict for the story, and they need to be as motivated to get what they want, be it the same thing or stopping them Protagonist, as the Protagonist is to get what they want.
You can have multiple Antagonists all contributing to the effort to prevent your Protagonist having success for different reasons, but I’ll just focus on the one for now.
In the classic tale of Robin Hood, Protagonist Robin Hood’s story goal is to stop the Sheriff of Nottingham from exploiting the people, and to marry Maid Marion. In every incarnation of the tale, you witness Robin Hood setting out to achieve these goals.
Robin Hood’s Antagonist is The Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff wants to keep exploiting the people because it keeps him rich and powerful, and he wants to marry Maid Marion himself.
In this case, you have the object of great desire, that they both want, in Marion, and the event that one of them wants to continue and the other wants to stop, the taxes.
The moment they’re set against one another, your story begins. The story is resolved when the conflict is resolved; when Robin stops the Sheriff and gets what he wants in marrying Marion.
In Dante’s Peak, the Protagonist Dalton wants to keep the people of the town safe from the volcano, and to try and stop it erupting. Whilst there are many potential Antagonists, I’m going to be talking about the volcano itself. In Dante’s Peak, the volcano “wanting” to erupt is what is getting in Dalton’s way.
Every time Dalton goes for what he wants, the volcano is a problem. He finds somewhere nice to live, the volcano is a threat that ruins it. When he wants to get people to safety, the volcano erupting is what kills them. He wants the officials to believe him, the volcano isn’t offering clear enough readings to convince them.
In this case, the volcano doesn’t have an active want, but it has a story goal that is in conflict with Dalton’s story goal and that conflict is locked the moment Dante realises the volcano is a threat. It’s resolved when the volcano erupts, getting what it wants, and when Dalton rescues a few of his people, sort of getting what he wants, but it’s an unsatisfying compromise for him.
How To Lock Your Conflict
In your own story, you need to set your Protagonist and your Antagonist against one another. Clearly identify your the story goal for your Protagonist, what do they want, why do they want it, and how are they going about getting it? Then identify your Antagonist, and ask the same questions. What do they want, why do they want it, and how are they going about getting it?
Make sure that their wants are in opposition to one another. They can’t both marry Maid Marion, the volcano can’t both erupt and not erupt.
They will spend the course of your story both trying to resolve that conflict in their own favour, and as the writer you’ll be following that journey, and pitting each against the other throughout, until you build the resolution.
Have the conflict lock into place in your Inciting Incident. That is the moment your Protagonist moves from passive to active and decides to go in pursuit of the goal, and is locked in conflict with the Antagonist who’s in pursuit of the opposite.
When Do You Lock The Conflict?
Ideally, your conflict will lock into place quite quickly. Your audience needs to know why they’re investing time and energy into your story, and the conflict is the reason.
This conflict lock needs to be clear, and it needs to be apparent. If it’s muddy and your audience is looking around for it, trying to work out what they both want, then your story is immediately off-putting. Nobody wants to be confused about what the story they’re actually engaging with is.
If you’re writing a script, put it in the first ten minutes. If you’re writing a book, in the first chapter. Spending time with your Protagonist prior to the story is fine, but you need to use that time to demonstrate why they are frustrated with their life so that the motivation for becoming active is understandable. But not too long, your audience wants a story, so make it clear you’re going to give them one.
Lock that conflict efficiently, lock it quickly, then take your audience on that journey to find out the resolution at the end.
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