June 9, 2016

The Real Role of Conflict in Storytelling

Squaring up to Tony I raised my fists. Tony did the same. “COME ‘ED! Fuckin hit ‘im!” someone shouted from the outside.

Suddenly Tony burst forward. This was it. We were actually going to fight.


I’ve only ever been in one proper fight, and it was with a friend.

I’ve known Tony just about as long as I can remember. Tony is, and always was, a hot-head.

We were in year six, which would have made us about ten or eleven. One bright spring day at lunch I went to the boys room and found Tony standing at a urinal. Spotting the opportunity for a cheap laugh I gave him a shove forward.

(I know. I’ve always been this funny.)

Tony turned round and exploded. “That’s it!” he yelled. “We’re having a FIGHT after school”.

There is something viral about the word ‘fight’ in a school environment. It seems to travel on the wind all of its own accord. That afternoon random strangers came up to me to offer advice, and sparring practice.

In the two hours between lunch and the end of school Tony and I shared the same classes. The classes had what you might call an atmosphere. I would occasionally look at Tony. He would refuse to look at me. You could hear the word fight travelling around on the breeze, etched in to people’s faces.

At half three the end-of-school bell rang – ding ding ding! Fight-time. We headed around to the back of the school, followed closely by thirty excited onlookers.

I think at this point I would have backed down, but fight hysteria has a self-sustaining snowball effect. “Fight fight fight figghht” chanted the crowd. Somewhat reluctantly we squared up and raised fists.

The fight itself didn’t last more than a minute or two. We threw a few punches. I took a few hits – the sort that make your blood race to your head. A teacher heard the commotion and came out to stop the fight.

The next day once the hysteria had died I apologised to Tony when we were alone. He accepted my apology.

We now joke about it occasionally when I threaten to push him in to the loo.

I remember this story with great clarity because the lesson was crystal clear. Cheap laughs at someone’s expense aren’t funny. And take responsibility for your screw-ups.

It was an event that caused a small revision in my personality.

Importantly, had the fight not happened I don’t believe the revision would have happened, or indeed whether I would still remember the story.

Next week we’re going to explore conflict. If you follow my timeline technique you can mark conflict onto the timeline with an X.


Conflict in your stories should mean that some sort of character development is happening.

Character development is what we really want from a story. Next time you watch a great film the question to ask isn’t ‘what happened?’ The question to ask is ‘who changed?’

The moral of the story or the deeper message always lies in personal change rather than stunts and special effects.

Conflict can be used purely as an entertainment stunt, but it isn’t its real purpose. Conflict is really a catalyst for change. And people don’t change unless their immediate situation is untenable.

Fighting after school surrounded by a mob was an untenable situation for me, so it forced my outlook to change.

Working conflict into a story also adds intrinsic suspense. Look at all the S’s on the timeline. The sparring. The classes. The bell. I could improve the story by really lingering on those things.

I don’t see too many businesses making use of conflict in their marketing stories.

Sometimes conflict can be construed as negative. And that’s okay, you don’t have to tell stories about how you used to beat people up. Conflict can be subtle, too.

I believe there are three types of conflict; physical, emotional and reflective. In many ways the second two are more useful for business purposes.

To be continued.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.