Most students don't have a problem indentifying an external conflict. The problem comes with the fact that we generally associate a conflict with violence. Maybe that's a result of the media's attention on those things. But many short stories focus more on internal conflicts, or they often have an internal conflict that grows from an external one. So...the first thing you need to do after you've read a story is identify the conflicts and their type--internal or external.
Internal conflicts always involve a choice on the part of one of the characters, usually the main one. The choices usually involve consequences which are equally attractive or unattractive. (That's why there's a conflict.) The best way to study this is in the context of an actual story. So I'd like you to read one before you continue reading this lecture. If you haven't read it, stop now, get your textbook, and read The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane. I'll wait right here.
Early in the story, after establishing the relationship between Jack Potter, the marshal, and his bride, and telling us something about their characters, Crane introduces the premise for the story's conflict. The author sets up the situation Jack will face when he gets back to town. The conflict hasn't occurred yet, but the elements are there. It's the same sort of thing you might have experienced when you stayed out too late as a teenager and you knew there would be a conflict when you got home.
Potter is worried about what the townspeople will think; how they'll react to the marriage. In his mind "He had committed an extraordinary crime." He knew that they would be upset, that the marriage "could only be exceeded by the burning of the new hotel." That's pretty serious. But his bride has no idea of what's going on in Jack's mind. "What's worrying you, Jack?" she asks. "I'm only thinking of Yellow Sky," he says. But the writer has let us in on HIS thoughts. WE know that when he says "I'm only thinking of Yellow Sky," he's thinking of the reaction of the town.
So we already have an internal conflict; it's Jack's. We're made aware of it when the writer tells us that "Frequently he had reflected on the advisability of telling them by telegraph, but a new cowardice had been upon him. He feared to do it." He had to choose between telling the townspeople of his marriage before coming back to town or not telling him. He resolved that conflict by choosing not to tell. That choice was because "He feared to do it."
In the second part of the story, we get our first clue to the external conflict. "Scratchy Wilson's drunk, and has turned loose with both hands," says a young man in the saloon. The bartender verifies the seriousness of the news. ""Don't know whether there'll be a fight or not," answered one man, grimly, "but there'll be some shootin' some good shootin'," he says. This is called "foreshadowing." It lets us know that something is coming.
Another man in the bar makes the coming conflict more explicit, explaining that the Marshall "goes out and fights Scratchy when he gets on one of these tears." So now we have established the external conflict. It hasn't actually happened yet, but we know ti's coming.
Part III of the story establishes Scratchy's character as the protagonist (the one who initiates the conflict.) "The name of Jack Potter, his ancient antagonist, entered his mind, and he concluded that it would be a glad thing if he should go to Potter's house, and by bombardment induce him to come out and fight." He's described as "...playing with this town; it was a toy for him."
In Part IV, the conflict emerges: "they came face to face with a man in a maroon-colored shirt, who was feverishly pushing cartridges into a large revolver. Upon the instant the man dropped his revolver to the ground and, like lightning, whipped another from its holster. The second weapon was aimed at the bridegroom's chest." But Potter surprises him "I ain't got a gun on me, Scratchy," he says. And when Potter tells him he's now married and the woman at his side is his bride, Scratchy is completely deflated. What now? Crane sums it up this way:
And the conflict ends. It's resolved. But what has happened is that Crane has resolved BOTH conflicts--the external conflict with Scratchy represents the internal one between the marshall and what he fears the town will do when they learn he's married. Now...the question is, how does this relate to the Central Idea? Or better yet, what IS the central idea?
Figuring Out the Central Idea
To get to the central idea of this story, you need to keep in mind that the story isn't just set in the old west. That's the time period Stephen Crane lived in. He's writing about HIS time. And the conflict, while it represents and contributes to the central idea, won't give you the idea all by itself. You need to look at some other elements. Here's some questions you should try to answer before reading further. If you've printed this lecture, see if you can write the answers alongside the questions.
The answer to these questions should help you focus on the central idea. The bride represents a more civilized way of life. Have you ever heard parents comment about their sons, expressing the idea that if they got married they'd "settle down?" Well, that's what's going on in this story. The marriage of the marshall means that the town will have to settle down. The marshall is afraid because he doesn't know how the town will react. Will they be angry with him? Will he lose his authority over them? The answer comes with Scratchy's behavior. He just turns and walks away. "I s'pose it's all off now," he says. The wild days are over. Things are going to be different now. Scratchy backs off not because he is chivilrous, but because "he was a simple child of the earlier plains." In other words, he's like a kid who knows the rules: you don't hit girls and you behave yourself around respectable women. You could sum up the central idea this way: "The central idea of this story is that institutions like marriage usually helped civilize the old west," or something even broader, like "The central idea of this story is that being 'civilized' is often defined by institutions like marriage."
If you use our earlier formula to interpret this story, focusing on the central character and filling in the blanks, you should have a problem because the main character doesn't change. The main character is the marshall. He represents authority. But if you ask what changes, you shuld realize that the change is NOT in the main character. His change has already occurred when the story begins, (he wasn't married, and now he is) and that's not really a character change. His character (personality) is the same. What changes is the attitude of the townspeople toward him. So you MUST shift your focus toward THAT feature of the story. The town changes; why?; because "the bride comes to Yellow Sky." And once again, your focus is back on her, or more importantly, on what she represents.
Does that help? Or does it confuse you? It might also help if you reread the story. That's something you're likely to have to do with a lot of the stories you read. One reading usually won't cut it. The first reading might simply give you a hint, but rereading will confirm or deny your suspicions. And the third reading is more likely to nail it down. So...my advice is to read often and read carefully. And if you still have a problem interpreting a story, go on to another one. You won't understand them all. YOU may have to grow as a reader before you can handle stories that are more complex.
'Til next time...Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.