Author’s Advisory: This post is for writers, and specifically concerns the staging of conflict in a work of fiction. It is not a political screed. Inappropriate, irrelevant, polemical, hostile, or needlessly argumentative comments will be deleted—promptly, decisively, merrily.
I’m going to use the agreement recently struck between Iran and the United States—with the assistance of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China (the so-called P5+1)—as an instructional tool in how to stage complex, meaningful conflict in your fiction.
Why? Because the multi-directional tensions among the players are fascinating, complex, and instructive.
Actually, the negotiations were so complex, with so many factors and players at odds, I can’t give the entirety of the situation its due in the brief space I have for this post. I’ll be simplifying a great deal. But in the general outlines I present I think you’ll be able to see the possibilities for more fracture lines, more dissent and retreat and retraction: i.e., more sources of conflict.
Also, since many of us—Vaughn Roycroft, stand up!—are writing in the epic fantasy genre, I think it’s interesting to see that it’s not just ancient or medieval history that can be informative when it comes to crafting a complex and dramatic story of clashing powers on a grand scale.
In many of my classes, I discover that students may know who their protagonist and opponent are and what they’re fighting over, but the subtler elements that make the conflict meaningful—the deeper motivations, the ultimate stakes, the moral arguments each character uses to justify his actions—often feel a bit vague.[pullquote]The subtler elements that make the conflict meaningful—the deeper motivations, the ultimate stakes, the moral arguments each character uses to justify his actions—often feel a bit vague.[/pullquote]
And all too often the conflict is limited to that simple face-off between protagonist and opponent—a missed opportunity to add moral and dramatic complexity.
The technique for creating these additional sources of contention is often referred to as four-corner conflict.
To better understand how this works, consider the following diagram:
The three Opponents may actually be potential or partial Allies (as we’ll soon see), but their values, objectives, and agendas clash in some way with those of the Protagonist—creating additional obstacles and tension.
Similarly, each of the three opponents faces competition or conflict not only from the Protagonist but each other.
Note: The sources of conflict needn’t be limited to four—any polygon will do—but it’s sometimes wise for the sake of simplicity and unity to find a way to confine the adversaries to a reasonably small number. As Steven James notes in his excellent Story Trumps Structure, tension is best created by making the core conflict worse, not by merely adding more complications.[pullquote]Tension is best created by making the core conflict worse, not by merely adding more complications.[/pullquote]
Identifying the Core Conflict
And so our first task is to hone in on that crucial question: What is the core conflict here?
Each of you, if you were writing this story as part of a work of fiction, would probably frame the answer to this question a bit differently. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to state it this way:
The US intends to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Iran intends to develop its nuclear capacity as it sees fit.
Identifying the Ancillary Points of Contention in the Core Conflict
We can immediately identify four potential adversaries in the negotiations:
- The US Administration, which is in favor of the deal.
- The US domestic opponents to the deal
- Iranian officials in favor of the deal
- Iranian officials opposed to the deal
But does this do justice to the real major players, the ones with the power to make the deal happen or not happen?
Although there were indeed Iranian hardliners opposed to any negotiation with the US—led by Ayatollah Khamenei—the Supreme Leader’s stance softened somewhat by 2013. The Ayatollah also issued a fatwah in 2003 against the development, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons (though he waffled on this as well). The point: Given his central role as guardian of the revolution, no negotiations could succeed without his blessing. Rather than an outright opponent of the deal, he instead served as a kind of final arbiter: without his approval, no deal was possible.
So even a pragmatic centrist such as President Hassan Rouhani—who won election on a platform of moderation, economic growth, and ending Iran’s international isolation—had only limited freedom in the terms he could accept or reject.
So if we remove Iranian internal opponents from our template, who can step in to replace them?
One candidate could be Israel, or at least the faction aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which considers Iran an existential threat and the nuclear deal a disaster.
But this position is so close to US domestic opposition to the deal—Republican leaders invited Netanyahu to denounce the deal in an address to Congress—it does not add any significant complexity to the matrix of contention. For dramatic purposes, though there is indeed some air between Netanyahu and the GOP, they are staunch allies, and thus represent only one vector of conflict.
(I know, I know. Matrix. Vector. Pseudo-mathematical hooey. Forgive me.)
Similarly, there are significant Israeli figures (and American Jews) who approve of the deal, and who were crucial in winning Democratic Congressional support, but these can be seen as allies of the deal’s supporters and thus merely provide “more of the same.”
So who then should man the fourth corner?
Each of you might well choose someone different than I am going to, but given the intriguing complexity of their role, I’d look to our “allies” in the negotiations. Specifically, I think Russia and/or China provide the most interesting opportunities for subtle, complex conflict.[pullquote]Given the intriguing complexity of their role, I’d look to our “allies” [for] the most interesting opportunities for subtle, complex conflict.[/pullquote]
Why? It was clear this coalition could not stand if the deal fell through, and thus the severe international sanctions that served as the West’s hammer would not survive either. Within days of the agreement’s finalization both France and Germany announced that trade missions were planned with Iran. If the US backed out, it would be isolated in its imposition of sanctions, which would never be severe enough on their own to block Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons. That progress would, in fact, likely accelerate.
So these allies created pressure in several ways, but none in the distinct ways that Russia and China did. These two powers stand as leading competitors of US hegemony in a multi-polar world. Their agendas in helping make the deal happen were multifaceted and not tied directly to US or Iranian interests. They saw distinct advantages of their own in joining the P5+1.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll choose just one: Russia. (Though China also seeks to advance its interests in the Middle East, it has engaged in trade negotiations with both Israel and the Arab world, and thus it’s strategic objectives are a bit too complex for purposes of this blog post.)
Russia, on the other hand, revealed at least part of its hidden agenda only weeks after the Iran deal was finalized. Its decision to join the war on terror as a justification to prop up its long-time ally, the Assad regime in Syria, demonstrated that its cooperation in the Iran negotiations was likely at least partially motivated by a desire for a free pass — or at least passive acquiescence — as it escalated its role in the region.
So our four-corner conflict now becomes:
- The US Administration, which is in favor of the deal.
- The US domestic opponents to the deal
- Iranian officials (with the Ayatollah as potential deal-breaker)
- Russia, which has a variety of objectives
Personification of the Conflict: Additional Complication & Humanizing the Stakes
Drama requires people, not entities. We need a figurehead to stand in for each of the conflict corners we’ve chosen: someone who can speak, act, argue, decide—and most importantly, fail.
Although the personal interests of any figurehead may compete with or even contradict those of his staff and advisors, this is true all around, so for the strategic staging of the four-cornered conflict it’s a relative non-factor. As you write your story, these internal fracture lines may and in fact should become critical, but that again is a bit more than we can discuss here.
The more important issue for our purposes is that the figurehead’s interests lend a personal element to the conflict, and thus provide an additional element of complication to the story: the human factor.
This added element intensifies the stakes. Obviously, the risk of nuclear conflict in the Middle East raises the stakes to the ultimate degree. We can imagine whole cities transformed through the weapon’s detonation as well as the subsequent firestorms and radiation into massive, nightmarish graveyards. But those consequences become even more understandable and visceral when we can imagine, even empathize, with the individuals responsible for making the decisions that led to those consequences—or their prevention.[pullquote]This provides an additional element of complication to the story: the human factor.[/pullquote]
For the US administration, the obvious choice for figurehead is President Obama. Not only does he represent America’s interests, he has his historical legacy to consider (and only a short time before leaving office), and even a level of personal pride in the successful defusing of a nuclear crisis in the region.
More importantly, he represents a worldview, defined by a specific moral perspective, that guides the negotiations. That worldview favors diplomacy over military force. Specifically, it sees Iran as a nation whose population is weary of being impoverished and marginalized, and instead seeks prosperity and peace. It wants legitimacy as a major power, reflecting its history as the seat of the Persian Empire, rather than being seen as a pariah state. Allowing Iran to reintegrate into the larger world community is the best way to empower its middle class, limit its support of terrorism, and encourage moderation on the regional stage. Preventing it from developing nuclear arms for even ten years provides a window to bring Iran in from the cold.
And if he’s wrong? If he fails? He’s both empowered and encouraged a dangerous enemy that, maybe not now or for ten or fifteen years, but ultimately will gain nuclear capability and pose a constant threat to us and our major allies in the region—not just Israel, but Saudi Arabia. And by leaning on competitors like Russia and China to hammer out the deal, he’s opened the door for both nations to exert greater influence in the region.
The domestic opposition to the deal has lacked a single, standout voice, ironically because the Republican Party has exhibited its customary message discipline. Their rejection of the agreement, with little exception, has remained steadfastly unified and absolute.
So who to choose as a figurehead? The most obvious choice (in the realm of fiction) would be a presidential front-runner with a real chance of gaining the White House, who (like every viable candidate for the GOP ticket now in the race) vows to back out of the deal if elected.
But, again—and more importantly—this opposition isn’t merely motivated by individual ambition (or simply a desire to deprive President Obama of a political victory). It’s informed by a worldview that sees Iran exhibiting a clear, vocal, longstanding hatred for both the US and Israel, with repeated vows to destroy “the Great Satan.” Thinking such denunciations are merely hyperbole isn’t just reckless, it’s folly. Obama will be forever compared to Neville Chamberlain, returning from Munich waving a piece of paper that only emboldened the enemy.
Negotiation in this view stands no chance of success unless conducted from a clear position of strength. Power, and only power, matters in international affairs. This requires a willingness to take any and all military actions necessary to neutralize Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and to continue those actions if it tries to rebuild. Iran’s history supporting terrorism and vowing to destroy both us and our most loyal ally in the region precludes trust. Either Iran completely backs away from the nuclear precipice or it will face the consequences.
And if he’s wrong? He risks alienating several crucial EU allies who see this deal as the best option available, and its rejection as fanciful, belligerent posturing. He risks making US policy look as though it’s at the whim of partisan politics, not a coherent vision of national interest. Worse, he risks another war in a region where our last two forays have dragged on without clear success, sapping us economically, militarily, and undermining our prestige throughout the world. He risks international condemnation and isolation, jeopardizing considerable influence in the region to eager competitors—e.g., Russia and China. And he risks reminding everyone that Rome’s imperial overreach made its decline and fall inevitable.[pullquote]And if he’s wrong? If he fails? [/pullquote]
For the Iranian figurehead, one might be tempted to choose the Ayatollah, since he’s the ultimate power. But President Rouhani has the greatest personal stake. His vow to moderate Iran’s politics and lead it out of the economic and political wilderness will crash and burn if he can’t get the sanctions removed.
The risk? If hardliners continue to insist on secret pursuit of the nuclear program, and that is found out by international inspectors, he will have accomplished nothing, will be seen as powerless, and likely will be forced to resign in disgrace, while his country faces new crippling sanctions if not war.
The Russian figurehead? Who else?
Putin’s desire to return Russia to the first rank of world powers is inextricably tied to his own political popularity and thus his hold on power. By helping forge this deal, he stands to gain a great deal, both for himself and his country.
First, he seems to derive great personal satisfaction from embarrassing western leaders, President Obama especially. Second, Russia’s role in the negotiations allows it to emerge as a force for peace in the region, without having to take a side in the standoff between Islam and the West. Putin neutralizes Iran’s nuclear ambitions—and Russia doesn’t want another nuclear power on its southern flank—while at the same time furthering Tehran’s support of fellow Shiites in Syria. Last, it allows him to escalate Russia’s presence in the Middle East, including the introduction not just of weaponry but troops on the ground in Syria.
This in turn allows Putin to appear as a trustworthy, committed friend—even if that friendship belongs to the most widely vilified leader in the region, Bashar al-Assad—where US commitment after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seems increasingly conditional and strained. Iraqi Shiites are already championing his involvement in Syria, admiring his strength, especially in the face of America’s inability to defeat ISIS. (This support may waver if these Shiites learn Putin is in fact attacking Assad’s enemies, not ISIS, a fact they seem not yet to have fully realized.)
The risk? His hold on power is not absolute, with the Russian economy severely compromised by low oil prices and the EU sanctions imposed after his Ukrainian adventures. The Americans and the EU have not bargained away sanctions, the Russian military is already stretched thin, and the Syrian involvement is by no means a slam dunk. It could easily backfire for a number of reasons. If forced to employ the naked brutality he needed to subdue the Chechan rebels, he could alienate the allies he’s trying to nurture in the Arab world, especially the Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria itself. The conflict could drag him into a quagmire from which there’s no easy extrication—and could even prove as disastrous as the incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The move to prop up Assad has already alienated Turkey, with whom Russia had previously been negotiating on a number of fronts. Russian incursions over Turkish air space and its attacks against anti-Assad forces supported by Ankara have led Recep Erdogan, the Turkish head of state, to threaten to cancel Russian energy imports and a planned nuclear reactor Russia was to have built. If others in the Middle East react negatively to how cynically Putin has dealt with the Turks, rather than being seen as a viable force for peace or a committed ally, he may get exposed as a reckless opportunist who arrogantly misplayed his hand.
The key issue: each player has points of both agreement and contention with each of the others. Every move forward requires countering conflict not just from one direction but (at least) two others. And each of these conflicting positions is rooted not just in a pragmatic desire for advantage but guided by a distinct worldview, a moral vision of the right way to live and act in the world, and these moral visions are in many ways irreconcilable.[pullquote]Each of these conflicting positions are guided by a moral vision of the right way to live and act in the world, and these moral codes are in many ways irreconcilable.[/pullquote]
As we know, the deal has gone through and the President has gathered enough votes from Democratic senators to be able to veto any attempt by the Republican-led Congress to prevent its going forward.
But, since we’re discussing this in terms of fiction, where does that leave our “story”?
In the words of Rosa Brooks, Professor of International Law at Georgetown, “Deals that avoid conflict are always anticlimactic.”
What reader would be gratified to see the major adversaries, Iran and the US, come to a compromise rather than engage in a decisive battle where one or the other clearly emerges as victor? Who wants to watch a Super Bowl that ends in a tie?
There’s a term for stories where the two main characters put aside their discord and instead find a way to recognize their mutual limitations and ultimately compromise. The term is “love story.”
And I can see opponents of the Iran deal faulting it precisely for adhering to the wrong narrative logic. You don’t marry your enemy. You defeat him.
And yet what is peace if not a kind of shotgun wedding?
Another alternative: as our story progressed, perhaps the core conflict shifted to the one between the White House and its domestic opposition. In terms of staging, the central conflict pivoted, meaning the climactic moment of our story may be when the Senate votes to denounce the deal, only to come up short on the number needed to override the immediate presidential veto. (Dramatizations of the Cuban Missile Crisis often end on just such a note, not with a bang but a tenuous sigh of relief. Perhaps this event—not Munich—is the correct historical analogy. Time will tell.)[pullquote]And yet what is peace if not a kind of shotgun wedding?[/pullquote]
I leave this as an exercise for your imagination. If you were writing this story, would you—could you—end it with the signing of the agreement, with each side walking away from the brink?
Would you use instead the defeat of Congressional rejection of the deal, with an uncertain peace lying ahead?
Or would you have to move the story forward, imagine the future—in all its redeeming or disastrous specificity?
If you were writing this story, how would you have it end?
How have you used four-conflict in your own work?
Reminder: Eruptions of opinionated bile are unwelcome.
Inappropriate, irrelevant, or argumentative comments will be deleted—pronto.