Nicole Criona of lawritersgroup.com recently passed out a page on the subject of crisis vs. conflict by Dennis G Jerz during a writers group I participate in. Says Jerz: “Good storytellers differentiate between a crisis and conflict. Beginning authors often focus on the exciting crisis rather than the conflict that makes readers care about the characters enduring the crisis.”
Christopher Vogler has another name for this, which he calls the main character’s “inner” and “outer” problem.
The main character’s “outer” problem is whatever big thing he has to do on his journey: going on a road trip; saving a school; saving a life; saving the world.
The main character’s “inner” problem, on the other hand, is whatever emotional issue he is dealing with on this journey -- e.g. he is scared of love, so he needs to learn to open up; he weak, so he needs to learn to take leadership; he is fearful, so he needs to learn not to be so scared. Et cetera.
The reason why it’s so important for a character to have an inner journey (a conflict) is because this is what gives the story heart -- this is what we as the reader (or viewer of the film) connect to. We’ve been there; we understand. It’s human. Otherwise, it’s just some guy trying to save the world by destroying the biggest meteor to come flying directly at planet Earth. Sure, you can have cool effects. But the story gets boring if we don’t delve deeper into the character’s life.
The main character’s conflict, or “inner” problem, should also have something to do with how he deals with whatever greater physical issue he is dealing with in the story. For example, if the story is about fighting off space invaders on the main character’s space ship, his character flaw will most likely get in the way of that. Say, he’s too hubristic and doesn’t read all the signs that are telling him that these space invaders are going to attack his ship -- so he gets attacked even harder. This is what creates the drama, or whatever you are trying to do with your story. If it’s a comedy, then how the main character relates to his “outer” problem will be humorous. Et cetera.
Often times, it’s also good to interrelate the crisis and the conflict of your story so that there is some cohesive thematic element to them. What I mean by this is that, say, a man’s journey in the story of surviving an ice storm. So then you can have his inner journey be the story of him opening up to his son who’s he’s been estranged from (who just happens to get stuck with him during this ice storm). In other words, the main character’s “inner” journey is the story of his heart “melting”, letting his icy guard down and dealing with whatever core wound he has (his father was icy toward him; so he is scared to love).
While you are developing the conflict of your story, this is also a good time to explore (and show) some of your character’s rules. What are the typical things your character does in any given circumstance? When you show these things, then you can begin to show how your character might also break those rules. This is how we start to see this character change -- which we definitely want to see throughout the course of the story. If you story has a happy ending, then your character will be changing from a more flawed character to a character who is moved to make important choices to become a better person. Of course, if your story is a tragedy, then your character never gets over his flaw. We might think that he is going to. He might even make attempts to change. But in the end, he reverts back to his flawed ways. And that is what is tragic.
All in all, when a character has flaws, then we can show the consequences of these flaws throughout the course of the story. We can then write how the outcome of these consequences might also finally push our character to change. This is why, more often than not, we should introduce what I call a mentor/motivating character (who often times is new in the character’s life), who pushes the character to change. And, of course, all this we want to see while he is dealing with that over-arching crisis that is occurring in your story.