Conflict and Your Story Machine

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Conflict and Your Story Machine

Sometimes the varied parts of a story are hard to understand. How much of “normal life” do you need to show before you get the plot going? What is the point of dialogue? How do you make your characters unique? What is voice?

Conflict and Your Story Maching QuoteThe mix of items can seem overwhelming. But it may be helpful to think of your story as a machine. If it’s anything like mine, it’s probably a Rube Goldberg device but it’s a machine nonetheless. Machines do things. They have a purpose. They accomplish something.

For your story, the thing you’re meant to accomplish is the theme. For many of us, we might not even know what this machine is going to produce when we start assembling it (hence the Rube Goldberg elements) but if we’re good storytellers, our story machine will have cranked it out by the end. Then it will simply be a matter of a little revision to clarify and strengthen the theme—which you can think of as the truth of the story.

All the parts of a machine work together toward a single goal, a truth that needs to be explored, and when we’ve assembled them all, and they’re running (smoothly or not) we call the machine a plot.

Now, if you’re designing and building a big machine in real life, you might focus on parts at a time, but you never lose sight of the big picture, because if you do, your machine won’t end up cranking out the result you need.

The first thing in working on the little bits is seeing the big picture. What is your story meant to say? What is it meant to illustrate? What is it meant to reveal? Once you know that, you’ll understand how to create the parts that work toward producing the end you need, not against it.

Let’s think about theme and plot for a picture book that nearly everyone in the world knows: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. In the machine that is this book, we can consider the purpose of the machine. This book reveals its purpose early on. A child acts out enough to be sent to his room without supper. In his storm of feelings about the unfairness of it all, he imagines running away to a place where wild things can run rampant, and where he will be their king. In the end, though, he misses home. And when he gets home, he finds his dinner waiting for him and it’s hot. The opening and closing of the story tell us it’s about family, home, and love. This is the output of the machine. But there are more items in this particular machine. Let’s look at one of them closely: conflict.

Conflict is Fuel for the Machine

In fiction, conflict is anything that makes the story harder on the characters. Without conflict, your character’s life would be easy and the story would be very short indeed. Conflict, and the character’s reaction to it, is what keeps a story moving. In a way, it’s the fuel for the machine. This doesn’t always take the form of a person, but it always represents a problem. Conflicts make the bumps and hurdles your character must deal with. They keep the story interesting.

Conflict and Your Story Machine Where the Wild Things Are CoverIn Where the Wild Things Are, Max encounters several conflicts. The first is with his mom who hits her limit on dealing with Max’s wild behavior and sends him to his room. She keeps Max from being wild in the house, which was what he wanted to do. But Max deals with this conflict, this bump in his road, by imagining running away to the land of the wild things. And he meets immediate possible conflict. The wild things are big and they have teeth and claws. He deals with the conflict by acting scarier and becomes their king as a result.

The next conflict is internal. Though he gets everything he thinks he wants in the land of the wild things, he misses home. He isn’t happy among the wild things any longer. To get beyond this conflict, he decides to go home. Again, we have a conflict with the wild things not wanting to let him go. They suggest they will eat him up, they love him so. Max overcomes this conflict by besting it and going home. In each moment of conflict, Max does something. Conflict applies pressure that keeps characters and plots moving.

Conflict Must Be Meaningful

Making meaningful conflict is the act of picking the right fuel for your specific machine. This fuel must propel the machine of plot to produce truth. By truth, I mean the revelation you intend with your themes. The choice of what conflicts to use will help to make the story meaningful. Conflicts tie very closely to the theme of the story. But then, that’s how fiction works.

In Where the Wild Things Are, many of the conflicts are internal. Max doesn’t want to give in to correction so he runs away (in his imagination, at least). Then he runs into the conflict of being homesick, which conflicts with his urge to be wild and free. His drive to go home is stronger, and he overcomes the urge to be wild and returns to his home, where he is truly loved.

Conflict and Your Story Machine Where the Wild Things Are Interior

The love that waits for him at home (symbolized by the hot food) didn’t wait for Max to change. It was there anyway. Because that’s how love is. And that’s why Max didn’t want to stay in his imagined world. The real world was better, even if it comes with conflicts. All the conflicts in the story are tied to what the story machine of Where the Wild Things Are produces at the end: its theme of love and home.

Now, there were lots of things Sendak could have done with Max once he reached the land of the Wild Things. If his focus was on showing how wild and dangerous they were, he could have had two groups of Wild Things go to war with one another. Max’s would have led his group to victory, of course. But though a battle is certainly a conflict. And, it might have been interesting. And, it would have made sense of wild things. It would not have related to the themes of love and home. So it wouldn’t have belonged in the story. Ultimately, the theme is the stick against which parts of your story are measured. All the parts must work together, or your story machine will clank and possibly even break down.

Every Word Counts

The shorter the story (and picture books are certainly very short), the more every element of the machine must serve the theme. It is the theme that makes it all meaningful. As you build your story machines, keep your theme in mind. It doesn’t need to shout itself from every page, but you can’t afford detours that conflict with the theme or leave it too far in the distance. Otherwise, the story may be lively and even fun, but it won’t have the staying power in the minds of the child. It’s the meaning that makes a story great. So what does yours mean?


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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.


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