Conflict and Theme

For me, when I was just looking this stuff up I blinked a few times at the words “Confilct and Theme” and said “Huh? What’s the difference?”

I got the following definitions from Literary Vocabulary.

CONFLICT: The opposition between two characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist), between two large groups of people, or between the protagonist and a larger problem such as forces of nature, ideas, public mores, and so on. Conflict may also be completely internal, such as the protagonist struggling with his psychological tendencies (drug addiction, self-destructive behavior, and so on); William Faulkner famously claimed that the most important literature deals with the subject of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Conflict is the engine that drives a plot. Examples of narratives driven mainly by conflicts between the protagonist and nature include Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (in which the Californian struggles to save himself from freezing to death in Alaska) and Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (in which shipwrecked men in a lifeboat struggle to stay alive and get to shore). Examples of narratives driven by conflicts between a protagonist and an antagonist include Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, in which King Arthur faces off against his evil son Mordred, each representing civilization and barbarism respectively. Examples of narratives driven by internal struggles include Daniel Scott Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” in which the hero struggles with the loss of his own intelligence to congenital mental retardation, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the protagonist ends up struggling with his own guilt after committing a murder. In complex works of literature, multiple conflicts may occur at once. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Othello, one level of conflict is the unseen struggle between Othello and the machinations of Iago, who seeks to destroy him. Another level of conflict is Othello’s struggle with his own jealous insecurities and his suspicions that Desdemona is cheating on him.

THEME: A central idea or statement that unifies and controls an entire literary work. The theme can take the form of a brief and meaningful insight or a comprehensive vision of life; it may be a single idea such as “progress” (in many Victorian works), “order and duty” (in many early Roman works), “seize-the-day” (in many late Roman works), or “jealousy” (in Shakespeare’s Othello). The theme may also be a more complicated doctrine, such as Milton’s theme in Paradise Lost, “to justify the ways of God to men,” or “Socialism is the only sane reaction to the labor abuses in Chicago meat-packing plants” (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). A theme is the author’s way of communicating and sharing ideas, perceptions, and feelings with readers, and it may be directly stated in the book, or it may only be implied.

So what does that mean for your novel? You have to have each of those three components.

If your novel were a car, Conflict would be your engine…so you won’t really get very without that, huh? There are three types of conflict: Internal, Interpersonal and External.

Internal: Shane really wants something, but he’s going to have trouble getting it.
This brings up two questions. What does Shane want (maybe it’s a who)? Why will he have trouble getting it? Maybe he really wants to be a teacher but has been told countless times he’s worthless, doesn’t have patience and must go into the family business of pottery. So Shane’s biggest obstacle to achieving his goal is himself.

Your turn: Write down at least three things your character wants and the reasons s/he stands in their own way of getting them.

Interpersonal: Problems with the people in Shane’s life, the people around him.

His father: Is dead-set on Shane going into the family business and so proud that so far, Shane’s worked there every summer. He’s so happy his son is going to follow in his footsteps in the vast world of pottery in which he has established a name for himself. Or maybe he’s the second or third generation, which puts even more pressure on Shane…

His girlfriend: She wants Shane to have a secure job and knows his family business is stable.

His best friend: Maybe he’s jealous of Shane and tells him things like ‘you’d never have the patience’ or ‘stick with what you’re good at.’ His own dreams of playing video games for a living have long since expired and he dropped out of college after the first year. Maybe he’s working at a local restaurant as a waiter and if Shane becomes a teacher fears they won’t get to spend as much time together.

Maybe his dad will refuse to help him with money for college if Shane really wants to go for a teaching degree. Maybe his girlfriend will bitch and moan, maybe even say she’s pregnant (maybe get pregnant on purpose with him or cheat on him with someone else). And perhaps the best friend will call him to hang out the night before his big interview…

Your turn: Write down at least three people who stand in your character’s way and why.

External: Outside forces.

Maybe Shane can’t get financial aid because his family is well-off? Maybe there is some big tornado or earth-quake or zombie attack. Or maybe Shane is given some bedamned quest by a God to go and save the world!

Your turn: Write at least one major ‘getting hit on the head with a sack full of bricks’ external conflict that changes your character’s entire world!

The literary world is full of potential conflicts. And now, grasshopper, you have conflict.

Okay, themes. Going with the car analogy, maybe Theme is the transmission. Yeah, works for me.

I suggest reading this article by Holly Lisle. Themes are about finding what your book is really about; it’s about looking for answers to unasnwered/unanswerable questions! Like, a clichéd example, what is the meaning of life? (And don’t say 42.)

Alright, go forth and put what you’ve learned to use!

Happy writing,


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