I was reading Chuck Wendig’s blog post about “What exactly makes a damn good story” and got frustrated. While I liked Wendig’s take on The Hero’s Journey (he’s brilliant at summing up some things rather succintly, with NSFW language), and he gave the answer, he didn’t elaborate enough for a young/new writer to act on it.
Conflict is the building block of story. Conflict is what makes you pore through a book. Conflict is the core of any story, whether a book, a movie, a game, a song, a joke.
What is conflict? It’s simple*: somebody wants something, and something gets in their way**.
WANT + OBSTACLE = CONFLICT
Now, just having Someone Wanting Something and then Something Getting in Their Way (of getting what they want) is not a story. I may want to win the Olympics, but I don’t have the skills — oh so sad. How many times have you heard a friend say they wanted to do X, or achieve Y (lose weight, run a marathon, write a novel, get a better job), and then they did nothing? How did you feel hearing about that? Me, I tend to get frustrated or annoyed. To my mind, if you want it, then do something about it, even if it’s something small.
Which is why, for a story, that Someone Wanting Something has to take action and do something. Otherwise, the reader is thinking, “What’s the point?” and even worse, probably putting down the book (or worse yet, writing scathing reviews).
So we add action to the equation:
WANT + OBSTACLE + ACTION = a good start to story
Now we have Someone Wanting Something, then Something Getting in Their Way, and then the Someone Taking Action. How does it end? Does the Someone get what they Wanted? Does the Someone fail? Does the Someone fail and then discover something else they want?
To complete the story, there has to be resolution: what happens? Was the Someone successful? Did they get what they wanted?
Which completes the story equation:
WANT + OBSTACLE + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
Want a longer story? Keep repeating the equation, generally with the resolution being “failed,” so that the Someone either continues to pursue the initial Want, or they change direction and have a new, different Want.
tl;dr: Plot is a sequence of narrative events (this happened, and then this happened). Story is a sequence of narrative events that occurs as the result of a character trying to achieve a goal despite various osbstacles.
*Yeah, it’s simple. Doesn’t mean it’s easy.
**Special thanks and so much appreciation to Jerry Cleaver and his book Immediate Fiction. His book was the first one I found that actually defined “conflict” without getting caught up in loosey goosey airy terms.