Conflict is a struggle between two or more forces that creates a tension that must be resolved (although in some stories, as in real life, it isn't). The traditional breakdown of conflict is:
Man vs. man (external)
Man vs. nature (external)
Man vs. self (internal)
Conflict is important to literature because it provides the basic materials for the construction of the plot. Without conflict nothing would happen. Also, the conflict within a piece may be central to the author's view of life or the point he or she is trying to make.
Action is the chronological sequence of events in a literary work. That action may take place externally or internally.
Plot is the way the author chooses to present the action.
Plot and action may be the same, but the author will often impose his or her interpretation of what occurs and present it out of sequence. (Consider, for example, the use of flashbacks, where we enter the story well after the events have occurred and are shown what happened earlier).
One way to understand the structure of a story is to follow the model of Freitag's triangle. I will never ask you to map out a story using this, but an awareness of it may help you to understand better just what is going on.
Exposition (A-B): the exposition introduces the central character and provides background or dramatic context.
Introduction of the conflict (B), which leads to the complication or rising action (B-C): this part of the story offers a series of events that complicates the central character's situation. At some point, something forces the character to make a decision or take a course of action. That point is known as the deciding factor. It causes the action to reverse itself.
Climax (C): this is the actual moment when the deciding factor takes place. What happens at this point determines the outcome of the piece.
Falling action (C-D): the conflict begins to resolve itself.
© Scott Foll 2000. All rights reserved.