Conflict in Storytelling

The story of Cain and Abel could be presented as a tragic dysfunctional family gone awry. You’ve got murder, jealousy, betrayal, pride, greed, agony, banishment, and isolation all rolled up into a single story. How anyone could find the Old Testament boring or irrelevant is beyond me. This sounds like the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, a national bestseller, or a reality TV show waiting to be penned.

Let’s set the scene: Adam and Eve have been banished from Eden, forced to till the ground for the first time ever in order to survive. Can you imagine the dinner conversations in this home? “Sorry dinner is late, Eve. Would have come sooner if you hadn’t given me that fruit to eat.” “Me? You’re the one that was so lonely he needed someone. I came from your rib, you know, so it’s your fault.”

We don’t see any of this banter, of course, because it is back-story and not all back-story needs to be written. Much of it can be inferred from the narrative or dialogue, which keeps the story driving forward. In this chapter, a new story world exists, one in which weeds must be picked, animals must be sacrificed, and child birth is painful.

Let’s pause on the sacrifice for a moment. When Adam was given charge of the animals, he became their father. The Bible says he knew them by name. (Genesis 2:19) When sin entered the garden and Adam and Eve realized they were naked, they covered themselves with leaves. But what did God do? He killed an animal, skinned it, and used its hide to make clothes. How horrible! Imagine skinning your dog or cat and using their fur for clothing. That would be a close equivalent to what Adam and Eve were going through.

God removes the leaves and replaces them with flesh. He sets up new rules for the new story world: innocent blood sacrifice covers sin.

Adam and Eve tried to cover their sin (shame) with plants.

God commanded that their sin (shame) could only be covered with sacrifice.

So going into this new world outside of the garden, there is only one sacrifice God will accept: blood atonement.

As your story world is altered by conflict, change is inevitable. The rules of Kansas don’t apply in Oz. Muggles adhere to different boundaries and limitations than do witches and wizards inside Hogwarts. And the rules in Narnia are completely different than those in World War II England. Have you created unique story worlds where rules change with conflict? It is a subtle yet key element between a story that works and a story you can’t put down.

In Genesis chapter four, Cain the farmer and his brother Abel the shepherd, both bring of their talents and offer sacrifices to the Lord. Cain’s harvest offering is denied while Abel’s blood sacrifice is accepted. Cain becomes furious. His jealousy grows into envy, and then from rage to hatred. As an observer, we wonder why. The established rule was that plants were not good enough and God only accepted animal sacrifice. (“Four feet good, two feet bad”) Why was Cain so angry? All he had to do was follow the rules.

But rules are made to be broken.

In your story world, the clearer the rules, the easier they will be to break. Having either an antagonist or protagonist break them will naturally result in conflict spilling over from human emotions. Take a look at the story rules and how they are handled by the protagonist and antagonist of several of your favorite stories. By breaking the rules, what human emotion naturally swells and what level of conflict does this create? Now, take a look at your own story. Are your story rules clearly established? How can the protagonist or antagonist break them and to what affect? What emotions result from these choices? And how can you use those emotions to escalate tension in the story?

In the story of Cain and Abel, the act of sacrificing fruits and vegetables (breaking the rules) resulted in God’s displeasure and rejection (consequence). Cain becomes jealous, envious, determined, angry, then full of hate (emotional result) causing him to murder his own brother (tension escalation).

Now what?

God comes down and asks Cain where Abel is, and Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (verse 9) God curses Cain, banishing him from ever finding a permanent home and preventing the ground from providing for him anymore. Again, the story world has been altered by the addition of conflict.

In Jumanji by Chris van Allsburg, the town changes every time the dice is thrown. With each additional conflict, the character’s emotional stakes raise, resulting in a need to handle the new story problem differently than the last one. This can be seen in his other book Zathura, where the consequences of each spin add to the tension and emotion while the rules of the story world are altered.

If your story world looks the same on page one as it does on the last page, you may need to clarify the rules of your story world. Then, find ways that either the antagonist or protagonist can break them, upping the tension and resulting in an altered story world for the characters to figure out.

In my book Exposure, I incorporated the mark of Cain and his curse of wandering the Earth into my story rules. The story didn’t start out with Cain as the premise, but by adding these rules from the Bible into my own story rules, it added tension, plot twist, and emotion to my novel. Here’s what the story is about:

When a boy loses his parents and finds a roll a film in a strange town, he’ll discover the photographs reveal clues that lead him to believe his parents are still alive somewhere, but the town won’t let him leave until he figures it all out.

Tember Asch is sent to live in a small beach town without so much as a McDonalds to keep him company. But nothing is as it should be. He sees things that aren’t there, and discovers a roll of film in his drawer that he knows wasn’t there before. He heads to a town to have the film developed but once he’s there, the town won’t let him go. Like Alice in Wonderland, he is trapped in a world that makes no sense as he seeks a way home. Along the way he finds other kids brought to the town only they all share a similar mark. The Mark of Cain. They have been brought here to die, only no one knows who brought Tember to the town or why.

Exposure, a deadly game filled with twisted characters and clues that must be solved before anyone can go home.

The plot of brother against brother is timeless. I mean, who doesn’t love a little sibling rivalry? The need to be accepted by family, especially by our parents, is in all of us. Some people spend their whole lives seeking this approval and never find it, even after their parents are dead. Through the wrong lens, this favoritism can easily cause one sibling to detest the other.

The Dursley’s behave this way in Harry Potter, favoring Dudley in grotesquely overdone behavior. Luke Skywalker learns Darth Vader is his father and faces a serious choice that raises tension in the story. The characters in Holes all face mommy and daddy issues. The Lemonade War. Cinder. Beezus and Ramona. All of these stories take the timeless tool of sibling rivalry with just the right twist to create story problems. Utilizing the need to be accepted by parents sprinkled with sibling favoritism can create intense story problems and consequences between your characters, just like it did with the Cain and Abel.

And now that the rules have been broken, your story will flow like clockwork!

(This is an excerpt from Writing Your Novel, Using the Bible as Your Guide, published by A Writer For Life, LLC, which you can purchase from Amazon as a paperback or ebook. For assistance with writing, editing, publishing and marketing your book, visit


Alternate Writing Your Novel Book One Cover


Conflict in Storytelling

2 thoughts on “Conflict in Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s