Lessons about Story Conflict from Eleanor Oliphant

When I was deciding what to write for this week’s post I decided on story conflict: The need for conflict in a story, the types of conflict, and how to increase tension. 

At the same time, I was preparing for a talk we’re being given on my MA course. The guest speaker is Martha Ashby, the Editorial Director at Harper Collins, which is the publisher of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Eleanor) by Gail Honeyman.

To get ready for the talk, and also to see what all the fuss is about, I’ve been reading Eleanor. 

Halfway through the book, I realised that there is a lot this story can teach us about story conflict. So in today’s article I’m putting the two together.

First of all, some words on conflict:

Story Conflict

Story is Conflict. The two are inseparable. In every story, the main character(s) faces adversity and challenges and it is about how they face those challenges. It’s no coincidence that the fairy tale ends when everyone lives happily ever after: There is no struggle, no action, no tension.

Through adversity, characters change and grow. We see what they are made of. In pursuit of a goal, characters are tested and challenged, and this provides the stakes and tension that all good stories need. The twists and turns of tackling complications and obstacles supply the rising and falling action.

Types of Conflict

There are seven main categories of story conflict (below). The word ‘Man’ is used to mean ‘Person’ or ‘Character’. In the table below, ‘MC’ means ‘Main Character’ or ‘Person’.

Type of ConflictDescription
Man v ManConflict between two people, or between a protagonist and an antagonist, whether physical or not. 
Man v SelfThe MC faces an internal struggle, for example with depression or guilt.
Man v NatureConflict between a person, or group of people, and the environment. For example, the MC may be lost in a blizzard.
Man v SocietyStruggle against an institution, laws, or traditions, for example a MC in a legal battle over discrimination.
Man v TechnologyConflict involving technology, for example a rogue AI causing havoc on the internet. Common in science fiction. 
Man v SupernaturalThe MC faces ghosts, demons or other malevolent spirits.
Man v ReligionA struggle with fate or God. Common in Greek tragedy, for example Oedipus was fated to marry his mother. 

There can be, and often is, more than one type of conflict in a story, particularly in novels, which are lengthy. For example, the main plot could be a Man v Man type conflict, but in the background there is a Man v Self type conflict, as the hero worries if she is good enough or brave enough.

Or perhaps there are three conflicts. For example, in a story about a group of aircrash survivors stranded on a mountain (Man v Nature), the hero has to contend with arguments and dissent within the group (Man v Man), and has to overcome his biggest fear to survive (Man v Self).

Lessons from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, although I didn’t find it as heart-rending as many readers seem to have done. I found Eleanor interesting and compelling to read about but she was irritating at times, and I didn’t accept that any person could be as socially naive as she was portrayed.

For example, she is well read and reads newspapers daily but she has no idea what Top Gear is or Spongebob Squarepants. She has lived and worked in society for almost ten years but she has no idea how to order a pizza or buy a computer. If it had been three years rather than ten I would have believed it, but sadly I didn’t.

Luckily, I was able to put the above aside and read the novel regardless. I say ‘luckily’ because, as I said above, I really did enjoy it. Eleanor’s voice is engaging, and the book kept my attention all the way through even though not a lot really happens.


“Novels of kindness and compassion”

Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’
The Guardian

Novels like Eleanor sparked a new literary trend for so-called ‘UpLit’, a genre of fiction with kindness at its core, which leaves the reader feeling uplifted. 

Eleanor certainly did that for me; I liked the character Raymond very much and although the primary relationship in the book was between Eleanor and Raymond, there was never any conflict there, no awkwardness even. In fact, the whole story is so uplifting and positive you could think there is no conflict there at all.

But you’d be wrong. If we swap the word ‘conflict’ for ‘challenge’ we will perhaps be able to see this more clearly. Eleanor is continuously challenged throughout the whole novel as her isolated existence, her ‘normal’ world, is torn down and the real world comes in. Getting to know Raymond, attending social events, these are positive things, but they are challenging for her.

The pursuit of the ‘musician’ involves no overt conflict but we see a Man v Self scenario erupt when she tries to drink herself into oblivion after she realises how deluded and unhealthy her fixation was.

In addition, the relationship with Mummy is nothing but challenging. And towards the end of the book, Eleanor faces the greatest challenge of her life as she faces the past and comes to terms with what her mother did. Saying goodbye to her mother is of course a positive step and necessary, but it is difficult.

Increasing tension

In order to keep readers hooked, keep throwing challenges at your characters. Every time they seem to resolve a situation, raise a new problem. Perhaps their attempt to solve a problem backfires and creates an even harder situation with more at risk. This is called ‘raising the stakes’.

In the comments below, please tell me your thoughts on story conflict, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

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