Consider the following sentence, and fill in the blank:
A story is only as good as it’s __________.
Especially as outdoorspeople, when we’re often at the center of the story, this would put enormous pressure on us to live up to some high standard. I reject the notion that we must become perfect protagonists in our pursuits to tell stories that matter.
I’ll grant that a killer introduction is key to drawing readers in and making them care, but perhaps what we’re getting at goes deeper. Some stories build from humble beginnings, while others strike up front before winding back. We’re after the common thread between them.
How many books or films offer up unsatisfying endings? We’ve all been there, turning the last page for answers only to find acknowledgements, or watching clear through the credit roll, wondering what should’ve come next. But in these cases, something still got you to the end, didn’t it?
Conflict is the tension, pressure or struggle between two opposing forces within a narrative.
I like to think of conflict as friction—it heats things ups. Without it, we leave our audience in the cold, wishing for warmth or, more likely, moving on to somewhere warmer. If we want our audience to spend time with us and lend us their attention, it’s our job as storytellers to keep them warm.
After all, we don’t care about the protagonist in spite of conflict, but because of it. An introduction grabs us as readers because it introduces tension, as much as anything else. An ending is unsatisfying because it fails to deliver on the promises that conflict made throughout the story.
A quick note on heat: while we want to keep our audience warm, it is possible to introduce too much friction and make things uncomfortable. Rather than dialing things up to 11, use it tactfully and control of the thermostat.
So how do we wield conflict and build friction in our stories? Let’s start by identifying it.
External vs. Internal Conflict in Outdoor Stortelling
Conflict in storytelling is typically lumped into two categories: external and internal.
External conflict is anything that happens to the protagonist, from the outside. This is often the more intuitive form of conflict in outdoor storytelling because so much of what we do is physical and spatial. In outdoor storytelling, this often appears as a challenging obstacle to overcome, a disagreement with someone else or an unexpected turn of events.
Examples of External Conflict:
- A rock trapped his arm while canyoneering
- The app said the trail forked left, but it clearly went right
- The weather turned, forcing us to delay our departure
Internal conflict occurs within the protagonist, struggling with opposing emotions, goals or beliefs internally. They may be wrestling with the desire to achieve an objective while fighting their fear in the process. Perhaps they think they’re infallible, only to discover that they’re capable of making mistakes too.
Examples of Internal Conflict:
- He suddenly doubted his capabilities
- Fear bubbled up inside her
- I couldn’t believe what I was seeing
Internal conflict can be difficult to write, especially if you are your own protagonist, because it can feel vulnerable, but it is a powerful storytelling tool.
If you’re writing your own story, one shortcut for thinking about external vs. internal conflict is to consider what happened to you vs. how you processed it mentally and emotionally. Because so much outdoor storytelling is told through a physical pursuit, that’s often what drives our stories forward, however, external conflict provides an opportunity to consider internal implications as well.
Types of Conflict in Outdoor Storytelling
While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it does capture the core types of conflict that you might weave into your stories. Likely, multiple types will intertwine within the stories you tell, whether you’re retelling your own experiences or narrating someone else’s.
Conflict with Nature
Easier for us outdoorsy types to recognize, our experiences are typically rife with conflict of this nature.
It can manifest with intensity—the mountain was trying to kill me, the waters started to sweep our gear away, the bear came back for more—or it can be more subdued—I woke with to a chill, the marmot chewed a hole right through my pack, the heat was oppressing.
Conflict with People
People are a common source of external conflict across storytelling. Everyone loves to hate a villain. To be fair, we hopefully don’t have many true villains cropping up in our lives, but the choices, beliefs and actions of others can easily come into conflict with our own.
Consider direct conflict—my partner wanted to press on, the other climbers weren’t being safe, someone stole my gear—or more passive conflict—the music from their car kept me up all night, he advised me not to go up, their silence was deafening.
Conflict with Society
Where conflict with people is typically ascribed to an individual or small group that’s directly effecting you, conflict with society broadens the scope. Perhaps you’re overcoming cultural misconceptions, challenging societal norms or facing down widespread discrimination.
They didn’t think a woman could keep up, I felt like I had to leave my culture behind to fit in.
Conflict with Self
Conflict with self is where internal tension lives. It’s where your desires or actions come into conflict with your identity or emotions. While it may not play a role in every experience we have or story we tell, conflict with self can be intensely humanizing and is a powerful tool for winning over your reader.
Fulfilling the Promise that Conflict Makes
There are two key things we need to fulfill in order wield conflict effectively: authenticity and closure. Without these, conflict may not translate or resonate with our readers. Even worst, we can turn our readers against us. Neither is our goal.
I no longer felt like I could reach the top, I didn’t recognize myself anymore, I was expecting to feel more accomplished on the summit.
Authenticity with Conflict
It can be tempting to invent or exaggerate conflict in our writing for dramatic effect, but especially when we’re writing our own story or representing someone else’s, authenticity trumps drama. As we bring readers along, they lend us their attention and trust. It’s important to honor that, if not for our audience, for our own reputations as storytellers.
Always choose authenticity.
Each time we introduce a source of conflict in our writing, we make a promise for closure to our audience. It’s a door we open that must later be closed, or we risk our readers feeling let down.
I’m not saying the conflict we introduce to the story needs to end in a neat and tidy bow. Far from it, in fact. But it does need some sort of resolution.
Some conflict naturally resolves itself. The bear that terrorized camp was finally scared off, I came to terms with my partner’s decision, I reached the summit despite my doubts. This directly releases the tension that was built up and communicates that the obstacle has been overcome in the story. Failing to close the door on these types of tension can lead to confusing continuity errors and leave our audience wondering what happened.
Sometimes we aren’t able to tangibly overcome the conflict we experience. You may still be grappling with internal conflict about what happened, or maybe you just don’t know how it resolved. We still want to reconcile the tension this leaves for our readers, but how?
Perhaps you end by reflecting on your takeaways from the experience, recognizing what you may not have seen in the moment. You can even admit you don’t really know what really happened, without having to speculate. What’s important is that you ease the reader’s expectations and avoid them feeling like you’re leaving them hanging.
Another approach is to tease out future resolution. You may not have overcome conflict or accomplished what you set out to do on this particular expedition, but you can look forward to trying again with newfound wisdom and intensity.
Regardless, putting closure on conflict is essential to completing your story. As we revise and review our pieces, it’s good to note key conflicts and make sure they’re resolved before finalizing our piece.
Examples of Effective Conflict in Outdoor Writing
“8600FT” presented by Canyon Bicycles
In this mountain bike documentary, athlete Braydon Bringhurst sets out to ride the Whole Enchilada Trail in Moab, Utah, backwards. In it, we watch him overcome the physical challenges presented by the trail while also grappling with his own desire to do so. He is ultimately successful, clearing mind boggling obstacles, both physically and mentally, for a satisfying ending.
“The Push” by Tommy Caldwell
In his memoir, professional climber Tommy Caldwell grapples with conflict on all sides. From direct and immediate conflict with hostage takers in Kyrgyzstan to his self conflict, later in life, as he balances starting a family with pursuing his career as a climber. Throughout, he remains authentic and vulnerable to his readers effectively, and does a great job of pushing the conflict forward at an engaging pace as we get to know him at different stages in his life.
“De aqui y de alla: Navigating Cultural Identity and the Outdoors” by José González
In his personal essay, Osprey ambassador José González unravels his relationship with the white-dominated outdoor industry as an immigrant from Mexico. He tactfully builds tension around his, recognizing his internal conflict with cultural identity and ultimately takes us through his journey to reconcile and embrace that identity through his outdoor pursuits.
If you’re interested in making sure your stories are using conflict effectively for your outdoor blog, article or story, I provide coaching and review services to help make sure your story lives up to your vision.
Reach out today to get started; let’s tell your story.