Welcome to 3.3! In this guide, we’ll be discussing conflict and plot development.
Conflict and plot development are what drive a story forward. While almost all conflict can be considered plot development, not everything that develops a plot is inherently conflict.
Before we talk about conflict and plot development, let’s start by talking about a key factor: setting.
According to College Board, setting includes the social, cultural, and historical situation during which the events of the text occur.
Historical: What year is the book set in? What time period? This can be past, present, or/and future. (In some books, it’s all three.)
Cultural: What country are we in? What region of the country? (A story set in Texas will be different from one set in Maine, even though the two states are in the same country.)
Social: What social group is this story set in? (For example, Downton Abbey tells the story of both aristocrats and the servants that serve them. Even though they’re in the same house, the setting these two groups are in is very different because of the difference in social status.)
Setting is important to discuss before we discuss conflict because setting informs and contextualizes the novel’s conflict. Put simply, the setting you’re in determines not only what sort of conflict you can have but also what the conflict means to the characters in question. There are conflicts you’ll find in stories of all settings — usually interpersonal ones — but you probably wouldn’t see a spaceship battle happen in 1901 Paris, for example.
The setting also determines what the conflict means to the characters in question. For example, the conflict of “a brother tries to find his sister, who ran away to get married” is a lot more dramatic in a historical novel than a modern day one because of conventions about marriage and women’s roles that existed back then that don’t today.
Now that we’ve discussed setting, let’s go to the topic of conflict.
What is conflict, exactly? Conflict is defined by the College Board as tension between competing values either within a character, or with outside forces that obstruct a character in some way.
The first type of conflict is called internal or psychological conflict; the second type is called external conflict.
Here are some examples of common conflicts in literature:
Person (or Man) vs Person: Two people are fighting against one another
Person vs Self: A person is in inner conflict with themselves.
Person vs Society: A person must struggle against society’s expectations or judgment.
Person vs Nature: A person must deal with the forces of nature. Examples may include characters having to deal with a flood or an earthquake.
A work may contain multiple conflicts, and often two or more conflicts intersect. Let’s take a look at a famous example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Hamlet, the main character faces several different types of conflicts at the same time. He’s famous for his internal struggle (should I kill my uncle or not?) but there are also external conflicts, such as his worsening relationship with his love interest Ophelia and the deep suspicion his uncle has for him.
Conflict often overlaps. In some cases, such as in longer works, you’ll have conflicts that don’t interact with each other, such as a side problem that the main character needs to solve before returning to the main problem, but in a lot of works you’ll find overlap. Take the Hamlet example above. All of these conflicts heighten the internal conflict. The internal conflict, in turn, feeds into all of the external conflict occurring as well. Hamlet’s internal struggle causes him to act in ways his uncle finds suspicious. Those actions also cause his relationship with Ophelia to suffer.
You can identify conflict by asking yourself what is blocking the main character from getting what they want?
Conflict is often what drives a story forwards. Characters act to gain the upper hand in the conflict or to prevent a conflict from getting worse… However, not everything that drives a story forward is a conflict.
Let’s now turn to the topic of plot development as a whole.
According to the College Board, a story is a series of events that relate to a conflict. Events include episodes, encounters and scenes that can introduce and develop a plot.
Some events aren’t too significant, and only exist to develop the world or establish the characters’ personality. Other events are key to making the whole narrative work, such as the Royal Ball in Cinderella.
The significance of an event depends on how important it is to the narrative, conflict and development of characters. Ask yourself: how necessary is this scene to the entire work? A scene should never be unnecessary, but some scenes are less necessary than others. (In some stories, every scene is vital, such as in fast paced detective stories.)
It can be helpful to ask yourself before and after you read a chapter or a section in a book: what’s changed after this chapter?