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We all experience conflict in life, but literary conflict can be a complex concept to teach your students. This video outlines several strategies for helping your students learn about and apply their knowledge of literary conflict.

Understanding Conflict?

Atticus fighting for Tom Robinson’s freedom.

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Captain Ahab chasing the white whale. Hamlet contemplating murder and suicide. What do all these events have in common? Well, they are major conflicts in famous literary works.As a literature teacher, you already appreciate the importance of literary conflict, which is the struggle between opposing forces. Conflict is central to each and every fictional work, and because of this, it is an extremely important concept to teach your students.

Introducing Conflict

The first step in introducing conflict in literature to your students is to find an interesting hook, such as their own experiences with conflict. Assignments could include journal entries or think-pair-shares, where students exchange ideas with a partner, such as an argument they had with another person.

Then, have students share their examples with the class while you list the opposing sides on the board; self versus parent or self versus friend are two examples.During the class discussion, use the term ‘conflict’ as each student shares his or her examples. For instance, I see that your conflict was between yourself and your parents. Then, ask students to formulate and write down their definition of the word ‘conflict.’ Afterwards, provide them with a formal definition of conflict in literature that they can compare to their own ideas. Use the phrases you previously wrote on the board, like self versus parent, to show opposing forces in conflict.

During the introductory lesson, address the two types of conflict: external conflict and internal conflict. Using the list on the board, highlight any people, problems or forces of nature that demonstrate external conflict, or where the opposing force is outside of the self. If students shared examples of an internal conflict, or one within the self, ask them to discuss the differences between external and internal conflicts. You can always share an internal conflict of your own if students can’t think of any.

Identifying Conflict

The next step is to identify conflict in literature.

Start with simple stories, fairy tales or even examples from popular culture. For instance, you can ask students to compile a list of their favorite movies. As a class or in groups, identify the conflict between the protagonist, or the main character and an external force, like the antagonist, or opposing character, in some of the movies.Additionally, ask students to find at least one external and internal conflict in their favorite movies.

For example, in the movie Aladdin, the title character not only has an external conflict with the evil Jafar, but also an internal conflict when deciding if he should set the genie free.After students have had the opportunity to identify the protagonists, antagonists and conflicts in the fairy tales and movies, ask them to find some examples in any class novels you’ve read. Consider using a game, like a scavenger hunt. Provide students with a list of specific external and internal conflicts. The team that finds the most examples in a designated literary source wins.

A literature textbook that includes poems and short stories is an ideal source for this game.

Analyzing Conflict

Identifying conflict is important, but students also need to know how to analyze the importance of conflict in literature. Ask them what Aladdin would be like if Jafar didn’t exist. Would it be an interesting story? Provide students with the guidance they need to understand that conflict is the driving force in every story.

To further prove this point, design an activity where students change the conflict in a story or continue the story by inventing a new conflict. Assign one story to the class, or have each student choose his/her own. For example, if the class was analyzing Aladdin, pose these types of questions to your students:

  • What would happen if Jafar had discovered the lamp first?
  • Who would have been Aladdin’s antagonist?
  • How would a different antagonist have affected the other characters’ lives?
  • What if Jasmine had discovered the lamp first?
  • What if Jasmine suddenly decided she didn’t want to marry Aladdin?

Application of Conflict

After students have had some practice analyzing conflict, provide them with the opportunity to apply the material by writing biographies that focus on conflicts in their own lives, or new fairy tales. Be sure to include a prewriting assignment so that students can address and fully plan both types of conflict.You could also use a fiction writing game. Have each student write down the name of a main character, and one external and one internal conflict on a piece of paper. Then, give them 1-2 minutes to start write the beginning of the story.

When time is up, have everyone pass his or her paper to a peer and restart the clock. Be sure to let students know when the game is going to end so they can finish writing their stories. Then, have students return the stories to the original writers so they can see how the original conflicts turned out.Finally, help students develop their evaluation skills by asking them to make judgments about conflicts in literature. For example, have them conduct peer reviews, or write their own book reviews. Ask them to provide feedback on how a conflict could be more realistic or interesting. These are just a few ideas that can help you assess how well students have learned about and understand conflict in literature.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review! Literary conflict is the struggle between opposing forces. External conflict occurs when the struggle is between the self and an outside force, such as protagonist versus antagonist, while internal conflict occurs within the self.When teaching conflict in literature, introduce the concept of conflict in literature using journal entries, and think-pair-shares, where students exchange ideas with a partner and describe instances of conflict from their own lives. Differentiate between external and internal conflict.Identify the two types of conflict in literature and the terms protagonist and antagonist, using fairy tales, movies or class novels.

Analyze the important of conflict in literature and how a story can change if the conflict changes. Apply students’ knowledge of conflict in literature by having them plan and write stories with specific conflicts. Play a class story writing game or have students evaluate peer work based on the use of conflicts.

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