2. Second, there is a “man against nature” conflict. This conflict exists when the protagonist finds himself pitted against the elements in some kind of struggle for survival. When the primary antagonist is the physical world, including animals, weather, geographical obstacles, darkness, distance, time or the like, the story has a “man against nature” conflict. Jack London’s chilling short story “To Build a Fire” provides an excellent example of this kind of conflict.

3. A third type of conflict pits the protagonist against God, the gods, or Fate. This “man against God” conflict obviously exists in mythological or legendary stories that involve actual gods or fates, such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, it is also present in stories about people fighting against their destinies or dealing with unforeseen circumstances beyond their control, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Whenever we readers wonder whether a character is doomed to follow the path he takes, our story includes a “man against god” conflict.

4. Fourth, there is a “man against society” conflict. This conflict exists in stories such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where the protagonist struggles against the social customs or norms of the world he lives in. When tension in a story comes from the difference between a character’s views or actions and the collective expectations of the people around him, the story has a “man against society” conflict.

5. The final category of conflict involves no one but the protagonist himself. In this “man against himself” conflict, the story’s tension develops as a character undergoes a mental, emotional, or spiritual change or arrives at a momentous decision or overcomes a fear or fails to overcome it. Sometimes stories with this type of conflict have very little external action, but the conflict may nevertheless be quite intense. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are good examples of stories with strong “man against himself” conflicts.

It turns out that every story in the world represents one of these five conflicts, though the best stories may deal with several types simultaneously. The ability to identify and categorize conflict can therefore help the reader a great deal, because it effectively reduces to five the number of things an author might be saying.

It also increases—to one—the number of things an aspiring writer is required to say. This can be a pretty big help to first year composition teachers too.

Adam Andrews is the director of the Center for Literary Education and a homeschooling father of six. Adam earned his B.A. from Hillsdale College and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. He and his wife Missy are the authors of Teaching the Classics, the popular reading and lit curriculum. They teach their children at home in Rice, Washington.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at http://www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at http://www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: May 17, 2013