Use broad conflict to set your story in motion

Almost all stories force the main character to solve several problems. The issues of where to hide, of finding a way to send a message for help, of obtaining a weapon to defend oneself, all might appear within a single chapter of a novel or even a lone scene of a short story.

One core problem, though, sets into motion the need to address these other issues. For example, escaping a murderer might require the main character to hide, to seek help, and to defend herself. This core problem is known as the broad conflict.

The broad conflict is the central problem that the main character must resolve before the story is over. In the above storyline, readers will be interested in the story because they want to see if the main character escapes the would-be murderer. They won’t be satisfied with the story unless it ends with a solution to the problem. Typically, this means the main character must be victorious in the conflict.

The bulk of the plot focuses on the main character addressing this broad conflict, and might unfold this way:
• Inciting incident – The broad conflict and the main character are introduced.
• Rising action scene A – The villain comes closer to achieving his goal as a direct result of the main character’s failure to resolve the broad conflict.
• Rising action scene B – The situation worsens for the main character, whose attempt to resolve the broad conflict only leaves the villain even more implacable.
• Rising action scene C – The main character’s attempt to resolve the broad conflict at best only slows the villain, who now appears to be undefeatable.
• Climax – The main character finds a way to defeat the villain, hence resolving the broad conflict.

Arguably, the broad conflict isn’t what a story ever is really about. It’s just a device to get the story going. After all, in many character-based stories, the story actually centers on an internal conflict within the main character that unless resolved will mean she can’t end the broad conflict. For example, if the main character is opposed to using violence as an ends to a means, her only alternative is to run from the murderer. That only buys her time. To resolve the broad conflict, her beliefs must change so she realizes that sometimes violence is necessary. Ultimately, she must decide to use a weapon to defend herself. For the reader, the most interesting aspect of this story is how the main character “evolves” or changes. Indeed, that’s true for the writer as well, as the message or theme of the story is that sometimes violence must be used to achieve peace.