A strong story has many tiers of conflict. First is the inner struggle of the protagonist, emotion vs. emotion. Then this interior struggle is made exterior by focusing on an antagonist who attacks the protagonist precisely at her weakest point. The antagonist amplifies the protagonist's inner struggle, brings it out of her mind and into the outside world.
For example, think of the many layers of conflict in the tale of Robin Hood.
Interestingly, the Robin Hood stories were originally spoken, not written. They are folk tales. Over the many generations before the stories were gathered together in written form, the oral storytellers instinctively put plenty of conflict into the tales. They saw their audiences face to face and they knew what it took to keep them interested and wide-awake.
Robin's basic inner conflict is obedience vs. justice. He is an outstanding young nobleman, but his sense of justice forces him to become an outlaw. He must give up all that he holds dear and retreat into Sherwood Forest as a hunted man. His interior struggle is brought into the exterior world of action through his chief antagonist, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The sheriff represents law and order; Robin should be obedient to him. Yet, because the sheriff's idea of law and order conflicts with Robin's idea of justice and right, Robin and the sheriff are enemies.
So there are two levels of conflict going: Robin's inner struggle and his outer fight against the sheriff. To this are added many more minor conflicts and one overriding major conflict. The minor conflicts revolve around Robin's Merry Men, for the most part. Little John is not averse to knocking Robin into a stream the first time they meet. Friar Tuck and many of the other outlaws often have disagreements or fights with Robin — all in good fun, of course. But there is a steady simmering of conflict that has kept readers turning the pages of Robin's story for centuries.
The story is framed within a major conflict, the struggle between King Richard the Lion Heart and his scheming brother, Prince John. While comparatively few words in the story are devoted to this conflict, the struggle for the throne of England is actually the major force that motivates the story. We see only one small consequence of that royal struggle, the battle between Robin — a loyal follower of Richard — and the sheriff, who supports John.
Tier upon tier, the conflicts in a good story are multileveled. Of course, Robin Hood is not a short story. Yet it is possible to build many layers of conflict into short stories, as well.
Consider Vonda N. McIntyre's "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," which received the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1974.
The protagonist is a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who is a healer. Her name is Snake. Her healing instruments include three snakes, Mist, Grass and Sand, whom she uses as living biochemical laboratories, altering their venoms into various medicinal drugs.
Snake's inner conflict is self vs. duty. Being a healer is demanding, difficult and a lonely life. She must travel alone across the wilderness of her planet to answer the calls of the sick.
She is called to a small, backward village where a small boy is dying of a tumor. The parents of the boy and most of the villagers are terrified of her and her snakes. Yet, because they cannot allow the boy to die without trying to save him, they allow her to operate. To Snake's interior conflict we now add an outer conflict: the tension between her and the villagers. This outer conflict is also a matter of self-interest vs. duty: Snake could leave the village and its fearful, hostile people behind. But to do so would be to leave the child to die. She chooses to remain.
Treating the boy takes many, many hours. Snake begins to be attracted to one of the younger men of the village, who seems not quite as afraid of her as the others and even tries to help her in his clumsy way. More levels of conflict: Will Snake neglect her duty because of this love interest? Will the villagers start to accept her because this man accepts her, or will they turn against him because they hate and fear Snake?
In ignorance and fear, a villager kills one of the snakes, while the sick boy lies in a deathly coma. This brings out the conflict between Snake and the villagers even more sharply and adds another level of conflict, because Snake is responsible for her instruments." Her superiors, who taught her how to heal, will blame her for the loss. Perhaps they will stop her from practicing the healing arts.
The boy recovers and the villagers are repentant. The young man asks Snake to stay with him. She must decide between love and duty. If she stays in the village and accepts the man's love, she will be turning her back on her life as a healer. If she goes back to her superiors, they may take that life away from her and she will lose everything, including the man's love.
Snake chooses to return to her superiors, risking their anger. She leaves the man behind. The conflicts are all resolved by this choice. It does not really matter if her superiors prevent her from practicing the healing arts again; her choice is made. She will face whatever fate has in store for her. She did not succumb to the temptation to stay in the village and give up her profession. She has chosen duty above self, and the reader feels that this is the morally correct choice. If she had chosen to stay in the village, she would have given up the part of herself that makes her herself. So, by choosing duty above self, she gains self-respect as well.
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