In this section about building conflict, let's begin with the first sentence from a story.
If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been the best vacation ever.
John Hughes’ first sentence in “Vacation 58” establishes conflict and hooks you just as if you were a trout on the end of his fishing line. What’s the conflict here? Why would anyone shoot the creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck? You’re compelled to read on to find out why it happened. The conflict in this opening line is integral to the short story. Without it, the story has no fuel, nothing to propel it forward, and no reason for readers to keep turning the pages.
Conflict is the obstacle, barricade, or impediment that thwarts a protagonist. Conflict prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. As you write your short story, you need to create a realistic goal with believable roadblocks that get in the way of the goal. The idea is to get your main character into trouble.
The writing world classifies conflicts in three ways. Let’s take a look at each one.
Man vs. Nature
In Steve Harris’s “A Very Stinky Story,” Pete wants a good-smelling place, and his striped visitor presents a potential obstacle. Pete is the protagonist of the story, and the skunk, nature’s representative critter, is the antagonist. This type of conflict is identified as Man vs. Nature. A number of formidable forces of nature can be in conflict with your character: It might be a mountain to scale, a fish to catch, or arctic cold to survive.
Man vs. Man
Another type of conflict recognized in literature is Man vs. Man. Fiction has plenty of examples of these adversarial relationships: Batman vs. the Joker, Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Uncle Tom vs. Simon Legree. The types of conflict can also overlap. For instance, the real conflict in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is between Uncle Tom and the pre-Civil War society that enslaved him. In this novel, the conflict might be more accurately identified Man vs. Society, with Simon Legree as the corrupt representative of an evil system in society.
Man vs. Himself
Another type of conflict is Man vs. Himself. One classic example of this theme is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Another example is found in Catcher in the Rye, in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, is primarily in conflict with himself, unable to interact in a phony world.
Man vs. Society
Now that you know about the first three kinds of conflict, read an installment of “A Retrieved Reformation” by O. Henry, a master of surprise endings. The story opens in a prison where Jimmy Valentine is making shoes. O. Henry didn’t have to imagine what it felt like to be behind bars because he had done time for allegedly embezzling money from the First National Bank in Austin, Texas. Jimmy has broken society’s rules, and so the conflict of this story involves Man vs. Society.
We’ll use the first installment of his story “A Retrieved Reformation” to show how the action in a story might unfold. As you examine the elements in O. Henry’s work, think about the idea you came up with while freewriting. The O. Henry story may help you gain a new perspective about how to create conflict and outline a plot in your own story.
Now it’s your turn to identify the main conflict and analyze the plot elements in this carefully crafted work of fiction. When you are finished reading this first installment of “A Retrieved Reformation,” answer the questions that follow.
A guard came to the prison shoe-shop, where Jimmy Valentine was assiduously stitching uppers, and escorted him to the front office. There the warden handed Jimmy his pardon, which had been signed that morning by the governor. Jimmy took it in a tired kind of way. He had served nearly ten months of a four year sentence. He had expected to stay only about three months, at the longest. When a man with as many friends on the outside as Jimmy Valentine had is received in the "stir" it is hardly worthwhile to cut his hair.
"Now, Valentine," said the warden, "you’ll go out in the morning. Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You’re not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight."
"Me?" said Jimmy, in surprise. "Why, I never cracked a safe in my life."
"Oh, no," laughed the warden. "Of course not. Let’s see, now. How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn’t prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society? Or was it simply a case of a mean old jury that had it in for you? It’s always one or the other with you innocent victims."
"Me?" said Jimmy, still blankly virtuous. "Why, warden, I never was in Springfield in my life!"
"Take him back, Cronin!" said the warden, "and fix him up with outgoing clothes. Unlock him at seven in the morning, and let him come to the bull-pen. Better think over my advice, Valentine."
At a quarter past seven on the next morning Jimmy stood in the warden’s outer office. He had on a suit of the villainously fitting, ready-made clothes and a pair of the stiff, squeaky shoes that the state furnishes to its discharged compulsory guests.
The clerk handed him a railroad ticket and the five-dollar bill with which the law expected him to rehabilitate himself into good citizenship and prosperity. The warden gave him a cigar, and shook hands. Valentine, 9762, was chronicled on the books, "Pardoned by Governor," and Mr. James Valentine walked out into the sunshine.
Disregarding the song of the birds, the waving green trees, and the smell of the flowers, Jimmy headed straight for a restaurant. There he tasted the first sweet joys of liberty in the shape of a broiled chicken and a bottle of white wine—followed by a cigar a grade better than the one the warden had given him. From there he proceeded leisurely to the depot. He tossed a quarter into the hat of a blind man sitting by the door, and boarded his train. Three hours set him down in a little town near the state line. He went to the cafe of one Mike Dolan and shook hands with Mike, who was alone behind the bar.
"Sorry we couldn’t make it sooner, Jimmy, me boy," said Mike. "But we had that protest from Springfield to buck against, and the governor nearly balked. Feeling all right?"
"Fine," said Jimmy. "Got my key?"
He got his key and went upstairs, unlocking the door of a room at the rear. Everything was just as he had left it. There on the floor was still Ben Price’s collar-button that had been torn from that eminent detective’s shirt-band when they had overpowered Jimmy to arrest him.
Pulling out from the wall a folding-bed, Jimmy slid back a panel in the wall and dragged out a dust-covered suit-case. He opened this and gazed fondly at the finest set of burglar’s tools in the East. It was a complete set, made of specially tempered steel, the latest designs in drills, punches, braces and bits, jimmies, clamps, and augers, with two or three novelties, invented by Jimmy himself, in which he took pride. Over nine hundred dollars they had cost him to have made at----, a place where they make such things for the profession.
In half an hour Jimmy went down stairs and through the cafe. He was now dressed in tasteful and well-fitting clothes, and carried his dusted and cleaned suit-case in his hand.
"Got anything on?" asked Mike Dolan, genially.
"Me?" said Jimmy, in a puzzled tone. "I don’t understand. I’m representing the New York Amalgamated Short Snap Biscuit Cracker and Frazzled Wheat Company."
This statement delighted Mike to such an extent that Jimmy had to take a seltzer-and-milk on the spot. He never touched "hard" drinks.