If you look up the word in a dictionary, you will find several definitions. The one that pertains to writers is: "clash or divergence of opinions, interests. . . a mental or moral struggle occasioned by incompatible desires, aims, etc."
A mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims. That is the kind of conflict that makes stories vitally alive. Not merely the mindless, automatic violence of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, but the clash of desires and aims that cannot coexist. Like the thunderstorms that boil up when two massive weather systems collide, the conflict in a story must well up from the inner beings of the major characters. This conflict can come in many forms; a fist in the face or a shoot-out is the least satisfying, because it takes the least thought to produce.
In a good story, the conflict exists at many different levels. It begins deep within the protagonist's psyche and wells up into conflicts between the protagonist and other characters and often — especially in science fiction — conflicts between the protagonist and the forces of nature or the strictures of society.
We saw in the chapters on character that the beginning of every story is the emotional conflict within the protagonist's mind, such as love vs. hate, fear vs. duty, loyalty vs. greed.
In a short story, where the writer is cramped for space and time, the protagonist must begin the story with that inner emotional conflict already torturing him. Even in a novel, where you have much more flexibility and freedom, it is a good idea to have that central conflict already ablaze in the protagonist's heart. For now, let us stick with the problems you face when you must deal with conflict in a short story.
Whatever it was that caused the protagonist's inner conflict, it should have started before the first word of the story's opening. Sure, it may be possible to write an excellent short story in which you show the beginnings of the protagonist's agony. But as a rule, the story should be concerned with the resolution of the problem rather than its origins.
The short-story form is like a hundred-yard dash compared to a cross-country race. There is no time for pacing, strategy, getting a second wind. In a short dash you go flat out, and that's all. You write about the sequence of events (or the supreme, single event) that completely changes the protagonist's life, rather than telling the whole story of her existence. Novels are for telling life stories; short stories are for illuminating crucial incidents.
So the short story begins with the protagonist's inner conflict already boiling within. It is not necessary to blurt it out to the reader right at the outset, but the reader should quickly realize that here is a character with a problem.
Often it is the exterior manifestation of the protagonist's problem that is revealed first. In "The Second Kind of Loneliness," by George R. R. Martin, a young man has been tending a remote space station by himself for many months. The reader quickly sees that he is extremely lonely and awaiting the relief ship that will take him back to Earth. Only gradually does the reader come to realize that the man was extremely lonely even in the crowded cities of Earth. He was unable to make friends, to love anyone. He would be lonely no matter where he was.
In Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the moral struggle between good and evil that rages within each human being is made physically real by the drug that transforms the humane Dr. Jekyll into the bestial Mr. Hyde. Stevenson is pointing out that there is a "Mr. Hyde" in all of us, which we struggle to suppress.
Most stories, though, revolve around a struggle between the protagonist and an opponent—an antagonist. In science fiction, of course, neither character need be actually human. But just as the protagonist must behave like a human being so that the reader will feel sympathy for him or her, the antagonist should also be human enough for the reader to at least understand what he, she or it is up to.
There is an important difference, incidentally, between an antagonist and a villain. It is very easy and very tempting, especially for a new writer, to create a villain who is mindlessly evil. That is, a villain who does bad things simply because the story needs bad things done.
That is why I prefer to use the word antagonist to describe the character who clashes against the protagonist. The antagonist does not realize that he is the villain of the story. He thinks he's the hero! Nobody, from Cain to Medea to Adolf Hitler, has ever really decided to take certain actions because they were the nasty, mean, villainous things to do. People firmly believe that everything they do—no matter how horrifying—is entirely justified, necessary, perhaps even saintly.
When you have a character who is doing rotten things merely for the sheer villainy of making problems for the hero, you have a weak story going. Villains, as well as heroes, must be motivated to act the way they do.
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