Stories contain action that hooks readers. Conflict propels the action, which eventually leads to a resolution. While a good plot offers readers an escape, it also teaches a lesson. By confronting the external problem, the main character works through an internal issue. The resolution of this emotional conflict changes the course of the hero’s life. What was once unattainable is now reachable because an important lesson has been learned.
What is conflict?
The dictionary on my Macbook defines this as a “serious disagreement.” Les Edgerton, author of Hooked, describes it as “trouble.” A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature, 9th ed., defines it as “a struggle against opposing forces.” As well, the book categorizes conflict (146-51):
Types of Conflict
- person against self
- person against person
- person against society
- person against nature (Keep in mind a character can also work with nature to fight an opposing force.)
Conflict is vital.
However you describe or categorize it, conflict is a vital element of story. It allows the protagonist, or main character (MC), to engage in a battle readers can “see.” It builds tension too. And this external journey enables the MC to resolve an inner struggle.
Hooked on Conflict
The idea of inner conflict and outer conflict isn’t new. However, some might forget a simple idea: the external struggle must be a vehicle of resolution for that internal struggle. In Hooked, Edgerton breaks down this notion in terms of surface problem and story-worthy problem.
Surface problem vs story-worthy problem
According to Edgerton, story trouble manifests in the above-noted two ways. The inciting incident sparks a series of challenging events on the surface. This brings to light the protagonist’s underlying story-worthy problem. The author must link the two problems if the story is to work (Hooked 47).
- is the main point of the story
- relates to the MC’s inner self (inner conflict)
- remains consistent ( unlike the surface problem, which changes)
- is revealed more and more–to reader and MC–as MC confronts one surface problem after another
- is fully realized upon the final surface-problem resolution
- is symbolized by a win and a loss for the protagonist
I’ll use my first novel, The Breakheart Militia, as an example. When I apply an important concept to my own work, I’m able to see whether I accomplished that goal or not. Doing this helps me hone my craft. I encourage you to do the same.
Brief background: Wade’s mother was killed in a bombing set by strikers over a year ago. Recently he witnessed and escaped a horrifying, firy event. By nature a quiet teen who loves nature and flying, he’d rather avoid the growing violence in Altamont, his city. With his father leaving on another covert mission, Wade feels vulnerable, and this adds to his already established post-traumatic stress.
Story worthy problem: Wade is overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the world. He wonders what mental ingredient is baked into the heads of people who choose to remain in Altamont. At different points in the story, Wade returns to the uncertainty theme. Well into the story, he realizes what that mental ingredient is. But he’s unsure of whether that trait is permanent or temporary. Later he discovers what drives that trait, which resolves the issue and completes the arc of the lesson. This story-worthy problem arcs as Wade confronts surface problems. By resolving the uncertainty issue, he just might rediscover a sense of home and love in Altamont.
- external action that propels MC into action
- triggers the unfolding of the story-worthy problem
- The inciting incident is a surface problem that sets story in motion.
- One surface problem leads to another until the story reaches resolution.
- Each surface problem reveals an outcome.
- Each surface problem reveals a bit more of the story-worthy problem.
- The resolution of the main surface problem highlights the resolution of the story-worthy problem.
Again, to test my own work, I’ll use my book as an example, and I encourage you to use your story if you have one.
Inciting incident–An ornery general calls Wade for help, forcing the teen to put his plans on hold and confront the violence he’s been hoping to escape.
Wade wants to take off from Altamont but needs to confront what he fears in order to realize what it takes to survive in an uncertain world (aka the story-worthy problem). The inciting incident sparks a series of events (surface problems) that make up Wade’s external adventure and enable his internal journey. He may suffer losses, but by perservering he’ll win battles and learn what it takes to deal with uncertainty. In the end, this may help him rediscover a sense of home and love in Altamont, which is the end result of the story-worthy problem. (See how the two types of problems end up linking together?)
Need more examples?
In Hooked, Edgerton exemplifies surface and story-worthy problems. However, you can use your favorite books as examples. What surface problems must the protagonist confront? What is the story-worthy problem, or inner journey?
At the beginning of John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, the narrator says the protagonist hopes to someday experience a “Eureka!” moment, the story-worthy problem. That can’t happen, though, unless he goes on a road trip and encounters problems, all while sweating over mathematical formula he’s developing, the surface problems.
A basic concept of story is conflict, which can be internal and external. The protagonist deals with surface challenges while dealing with inner demons. Considering this, writers can benefit by assessing their work. Note how your main character’s outer journey unfolds an inner journey, the story-worthy problem that will teach an important lesson. It shows that no matter how rotten the protagonist’s circumstances are throughout the story, they’re worth going through. Because this discourse allows the hero to discover life-changing insight.
Read more: Hooked covers vital information about story beginnings. I cover a few points, too, in my article “Novel Beginnings.”