Classifying Conflict

When it comes to defining the structure of a complete and meaninigful narrative, identifying the true source of conflict from either a Character or Plot perspective becomes paramount.

At its most basic and general level, conflict is identified by the mind through four Classifications:

  • Universe
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Mind

The Classification of Conflict Quad

You will find these Classifications at the top of every Throughline, as well as being featured prominently in the Premise Builder. The first and last Classes (Universe and Mind) signal fixed and static sources of conflict; Universe classifies fixed external problems (like being stuck on a deserted island or trapped in a burning building), while Mind classifies fixed internal problems (like prejudice or rage). The remaining middle two Classes (Physics and Psychology) account for conflict in process; Physics classifies external process problems (like fighting or investigating), while Psychology classifies internal process problems (like gaslighting or convincing).

Put all four together in one context and you create a complete story. Leave one out and the Audience instinctively recognizes a "hole" in your story.

In Subtxt, you create the structure of your narrative by assigning each one of these Classifications of conflict to a Throughline. Each Throughline is meant to be an analogy to our minds assuming a key point-of-view:

  • Objective Story
  • Main Character
  • Obstacle Character
  • Relationship Story

The Objective Story offers a They perspective, what most people understand as the "plot" of a story. The Main Character and Obstacle Character present the singular subjective perspectives of I and You respectively. "You and I are both alike" comes from the juxtaposition of these two Throughlines. And lastly, the Relationship Story is the heartline to the Objective Story's headline by offering up the We perspective (often the relationship between the Main Character and Obstacle Character).

When classifying conflict with the Four Throughlines, know that the Objective Story and the Relationship Story must always oppose on another in the structural model (either Universe/Mind, or Physics/Psychology). The same relationship exists for the Main Character and Obstacle Character Throughlines. Positioning them opposite each other on the same axis (fixed or process) ensures maximum conflict.

Classifying Throughlines to Domains

In the beginning, assigning these Throughlines to Classifications can be a daunting task. There are two keys to help make this process easier for you:

  1. Understand there is no "right" answer, except the one you decide upon. You, the Author, is the God of this story and what you deem to be the source of conflict for a narrative is the source of conflict for that narrative.
  2. Identify what stands out to you as being the most important, or key defining factor, in each Throughline.

The first key is perhaps the hardest for most Authors to come to terms with, the second provides an opportunity for them to further define what kind of story they want to tell.

Of Pirates and Princesses

Take for instance two films: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (the first one), and The Princess Bride. Both offer up a Fantasy Adventure narrative full of fantastic characters and thrilling plot elements.

But how would one classify the Objective Story Throughline for these films? Are they the same? If so, which of the four Domains do you see their respective Authors focusing conflict? Is it a fixed external situation in Universe, or is it something more along the lines of extreme prejudice, and the OS Throughline is in Mind?

If you find yourself struggling with the same sort of questions for your own story, do what we're going to do below: list out all the characters and identify, or illustrate, the most important aspects of them as characters in the plot.

We'll start first by identifying what is problematic for the characters in Pirates:

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

  • Jack Sparrow - he manipulates people for his own gain
  • Captain Barbossa - tries to get the Black Pearl for himself
  • Will Turner - chases after Jack Sparrow
  • Elizabeth Swan - chases after Will, tries to save Will
  • Norrington - reneges on a deal, goes after the pirates

Pretty basic stuff, right? Pirates emphasizes the actions and tasks of these characters above all else. It's what gives the film its personality.

Now, let's do the same for The Princess Bride. What's problematic about the characters in that film? What makes them "interesting"? (Interesting being a factor in determining what the Author deems to be the source of conflict, i.e. what they focus the story on):

Princess Bride

  • The Grandson - doesn’t like love stories, doesn’t want to listen to grandfather
  • Grandpa - manipulates grandson to listen to book, maybe he’ll get something from it
  • Westley - doesn’t give up, won’t let buttercup down
  • Buttercup - she only focuses on past love, won’t marry the man betrothed to her
  • Inigo Montoya - persistent, won’t give up, bombastic, charismatic, flamboyant
  • Prince Humperdinck - flamboyant, very manipulative, evil
  • Count Tyrone Rugen - likes pain, likes to torture, he wants to know how far a man can go
  • Vizzini - money hungry, short man’s syndrome, know-it-all, bossy, mean-spirited
  • Fezzik - gentle giant who likes to rhyme
  • Impressive Clergyman - long-winded speaks eloquently gibberish
  • Valerie - positive point-of-view, cheer people up, crazy witch
  • Miracle Max - crazy, very negative point-of-view
  • The King - completely clueless, passive, goes along with everything

What a contrast!

The Princess Bride is all about the dysfunctional craziness of the characters moreso than the actual swordfights or "storming" of any castle. In fact, the comedy within the swordfights and the storming of the castle is in the dysfunctional psychologies of the characters.

The Objective Story Throughline of Princess Bride rests in the Psychology Domain.

The Objective Story Throughline of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl rests in the Physics Domain.

Pirates is about the physical conflict, The Princess Bride is about the dysfunctional ways of thinking ("Inconceivable!").

The Removal Test

In addition to listing out the characters, you can always easily identify a source of conflict for a Throughline by asking yourself, "If this source of conflict no longer existed, would there still be a story?"

In Pirates, if the pirates no longer attacked each other or chased after the treasure would there be a story? No. Therefore, Physics is the proper Domain classification. If you thought for a second that Objective Story of Pirates was in the Psychology Domain because Jack Sparrow is a dysfunctional manipulative character you would ask, "If the pirates were suddenly not dysfunctional towards one another, would there still be a story?"

That question doesn't even make sense for that film!

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" and therefore, the Objective Story Domain of the film cannot be in Psychology.

Doing the same for The Princess Bride, if you thought for a second, "Well, the film is about swordfights and storming the castle, and saving princesses" then you might think the Objective Story Throughline to be in the Physics Domain. So then, you would ask: "If the characters no longer engaged in swordfights or stormed the castle or saved the princess" would there still be a story?"

The answer is definitely "Yes" because the film is all about the charismatic manipualtions during the swordfights--not the swordfights themselves. The Objective Story Throughline of The Princess Bride is therefore not in the Physics Domain.

If instead, you were to ask, "Well, if the characters in The Princess Bride were no longer dysfunctional and manipulative towards one another, would there still be a story?" Maybe...but it would be a tragically boring a soul-less experience!

The Objective Story Throughline of The Princess Bride rests comfortably in the Psychology Domain.

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