When we hear the word conflict, many people think that means arguing and shouting, disagreement and fighting. We’re taught that conflict is bad, and that we should avoid it.
But every good story has conflict, even if no one raises their voice in the entire book.
Conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s how we get things done. Entrepreneurs often create solutions to a problem because they’re in conflict with the status quo. They see a problem, they develop a solution to eliminate it. Or someone says they’re not allowed to develop a solution at work, so they quit and create their own solution.
Conflict creates opportunities. Every entrepreneur’s story is centered around conflict, and my favorite business stories are ones of disruption, where The Establishment tells the plucky young entrepreneur, “you can’t do that.” The plucky young entrepreneur ignores The Establishment, builds an establishment-shattering solution, makes a lot of money, and we get an exciting story out of it.
In storytelling, conflict drives the story forward. Without conflict, you’ve just got two people sitting around, talking about nothing. Even Seinfeld, the show about nothing, had plenty of conflict in it. How else do you create an entire episode around whether soup is a meal?
What is Conflict in Storytelling?
Kurt Vonnegut said about writing stories, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
He meant that stories are born out of desire. Someone wants something, and the rest of the story is spent trying to get it. If you want a glass of water, you can get off the couch and get it. But there’s no real story in that.
The real story happens when something won’t let our character get the water. It could be simple, it could be complex, but our main character can’t get that thing he or she wants.
- He just doesn’t want to.
- The game’s on, the score is tied with 30 seconds remaining.
- He weighs 900 pounds and hasn’t gotten off the couch since 2014.
- She wants to go, but she’s been tied up by a villain in a top hat and curly mustache.
- There are ninjas in the kitchen, protecting the sink.
- The floor is hot lava.
Noted scifi author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) called this plot. She said:
Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion — that’s Plot.
In other words, you want a glass of water, but someone else wants to prevent you from getting it.
In my article on MacGuffins, the glass of water has become the MacGuffin. Remember, MacGuffin stories usually fall under either the “I have the thing/I’m going to take the thing” or “I’m going to steal the thing/I have to save the thing” construct.
Those dueling purposes is where Plot comes from. The good guy has something the bad guy wants, and they’re working at cross purposes. Those two irons will strike against each other, until KA-BLAM, we have an exciting ending to our story.
How Does Conflict Help Content Marketing?
In content marketing, you’re the protagonist, the problem is the antagonist. You’re the hero, the problem is the villain.
You want something (higher profits, more leads, lower turnover, lower downtime, fewer defects), but the villain is preventing you from achieving your goals.
Therein lies the plot. You want the thing, the villain wants to take the thing.
You want higher profits, the villain causes higher costs.
You want more leads, the villain breaks your website or creates crappy content.
You want fewer defects, the villain causes your machine to break down.
And the plot is those two irons striking together.
But it’s not enough for the irons to strike together. Something has to happen, there has to be a resolution to the problem.
Enter the mentor. (We’ll talk about the mentor another time, in an upcoming article on the Hero’s Journey.)
The mentor is the person who teaches the hero about the solution. The hero applies the solution to the problem, and wins the day. He or she slays the villain and ends the problem. There is much rejoicing, and prosperity spreads throughout the land.
This is why we have case studies, and why a well-written case study can do things that no brochure, special report, or white paper can ever do. For those of you who aren’t tossing the term “storytelling” around willy-nilly yet, case studies are your moment to shine.
Kelly was thirsty, she was parched. Her lips were dry and cracked because she was so thirsty. A tumbleweed tumbled in front of her cubicle. She desperately wanted a glass of water, and would have given anything to get it.
The problem was, the office kitchen had. . . KITCHEN NINJAS who had been blocking the kitchen water cooler for three days. People tried bringing water from home, but it was never enough. They tried moving the cooler, but Steve from Accounting was nearly run through. Things looked bleak.
Until Kelly ordered a bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! Ninja Spray from Whamco!
Just a few sprays from her bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! sent those ninjas packing! Now, everyone in the office can get water, and office morale has improved. Productivity is up by 30%, and sales have risen by 230% as well! And once Kelly was able to quench her Sahara-ish thirst, she was promoted to department manager!
This is the classic storyline that nearly all movies and stories follow. Anne wants something, Bob doesn’t want her to have it. Carl helps Anne find a magical object/enchanted sword/learn the power was within her all along. Anne vanquishes Bob, and gets that thing she wanted.
And it’s the same formula that good case studies follow. But in this case, there are no magical objects or enchanted swords. There are solutions or products that eliminate the problem, restore peace, and improve profits.
(Consultants, in these stories, you are the mentor. Your client is the hero. Your job is to create heroes, so write your case studies in a way that says “I can help you become the hero in your company.”)
Sometimes You Can Only Hint at Conflict
Of course, not everything you write is going to be/have a story. Sometimes you just have to engage in marketing speak, and remind readers of their own conflicts. Get them to imagine the problem, and think about the situations they’re often facing. Get them to think about the plot.
“Manufacturers often have to deal with high absenteeism during the holidays or special events, like the Super Bowl. What if you could reduce post-holiday absenteeism?”
“In a manufacturing operation, even a 2% spoilage rate can equal a 10% loss in profits; the industry average currently hovers around 3.5%. So what would a software system that prevented spoilage look like for your company?”
In those cases, we’re not telling a story so much as we’re reminding people of their stories. It’s a recap of a past conflict (or even a reminder of an ongoing conflict). The story doesn’t have to be told, because they’re living it. But with the right message, you can present yourself or your product/service as the solution to the problem, and get them to write your story in their head.
The foundation of all stories is Leigh Brackett’s plot: human desires, working at cross purposes, striking against each other, until there’s an explosion. If you can incorporate that idea into your case studies and your marketing copy, you will have mastered one of the most basic tenets of storytelling as content marketing.