Posted on by Steven Savage

Cheetah Speed Relaxing

Sometimes, conflicts and social breakdowns are all about speed. In fact I’d argue they’re all too often about speed – fast or slow.

  • That sudden change can be too sudden, and society falls apart. An invasion, a plague, a social breakdown can be damaging because they’re so damn fast.
  • Or you have a slow change is so slow that people adapt automatically and don’t even know there’s potential conflict brewing. Sure there’s technically a plague, but its spreading so slow (or slowed down by modern technology) no one ever realized they were courting an apocalypse.  Conflict averted and you never knew it.
  • That character who jumps to conclusions makes situations work.
  • That character who takes things slow doesn’t address problems in time, and conflict is born.

When it comes to conflict in your world, you have to ask how fast and how slow things are happening. In fact, speed – or the lack of it – may be the only reason a conflict exists. Too often people ignore solutions or go outright Leroy Jenkins on a problem and help assist the apocalypse.

So when you’re writing about the conflicts in your world you have to ask just how fast events are happening and how rapidly people are reacting. That determines what happens, or even if there is a conflict. You might even find, once you think about it, that there’s conflicts you never noticed in the societies you made all because of speed . . .

Here’s what to ask when it comes to speed and conflicts.

How Fast Are Things Happening?

So your characters’ society is careering towards disaster and conflict. Social unrest, the ecology, the economy, a spate of bad and repetitive movies, whatever. The thing is you have to ask how fast these crises are happening to determine what conflicts may arise – if at all.

Think about this: if there’s a deadly plague that requires people to have a six-hour hug before they contract it, yeah, that’s awful, but it’s going to be pretty hard to spin as a disaster resulting in conflict. Though yellow journalism may help (“hug plague to destroy slow people! Panic now and avoid the rush!”)

So let’s ask how the speed of a conflict or conflict-creating event can affect a society, civilization, group, tribe, etc.

Fast Events:

  • Fast events can look worse than they are. A fast-happening event is one where so much happens in a short time people may think it’s one of many, part of a continuing problem, and so on. Imagine a sudden, horrible storm or military strike – even if there’s no followup people will think there might be.
  • Fast events give us less time to think. When people don’t think, they do dumb things. When people act dumb, conflict happens.
  • Fast events can strike harder than expected – when you have something very bad happen very fast you can’t get prepared. That in turn can amplify their effect because there’s no time events.
  • Fast events may, ironically, get over faster and be less of a disaster. Yes, there’s a super-fast killing plague, but if kills so fast it dies out – not a conflict, but certainly an embarrassment to other, more mature plagues.

In short, fast events can lead to conflict because they play into all the things that make conflict – misinterpretation, not thinking, and a lack of perspective, as well as just being really rapid. So when there’s a sudden case of seven dead dragons falling from the sky over the kingdom in your story, yeah, people might get a little freaky.

But what about Slow Events? How do they lead to or avoid conflict?

Slow Events:

  • Slow events can lead to conflict as people don’t always realize what’s happening until things are too late. Sure, that cult seems harmless, until the giant civil war in the kingdom in fifty years.
  • Slow events can also lead to conflict among people that see a looming problem and those that do not or ignore it. Those crazy people ranting about the impending galactic plague may get tamped down on by security forces . . . until you see the plague is real all too late.
  • Slow events lead to conflict as they alter situations gradually. An economic stagnation’s effects might not be that obvious, yet they change the economy of your setting more and more, in the background, and the disaster isn’t realized. Slow can mean concealment.

Slow events produce conflict because they sneak up on you, change the ground rules, and can divide people.

But once you think about events in your world and how they can cause conflict depending on speed, this also brings in another question.

How fast does the culture react to pressures that could lead to a breakdown?

This Culture Goes Up To Eleven

Cultures also respond to events at different speeds. We’re all painfully aware of that, from questions about the environment to wondering why some television shows just won’t get cancelled. That also affects what causes – or prevents – conflicts as well.

Looking over the sweep of history quickly makes us aware of just how “speed” of response makes a difference in what turns into social breakdowns. We can watch people jump to address a problem that isn’t, or engage in a long-term plan to head off disasters. So you need to ask yourself how fast your cultures react to threats to determine if there’s a conflict.

Fast Reacting Cultures:

  • Fast reacting cultures can nip problems in the bud early. They might not even be aware of fast they’re solving problems. Of course that means if the parts of the culture that react to problems quickly are damaged, problems can ensue. Just ask how many plagues and problems are headed off by modern medicine – and what would happen if that changed.
  • Fast reacting cultures can also implement a wrong plan faster – fast isn’t better when you’re doing something dumb. So sure, your culture thinks it’s heading off a conflict by killing off all the goblins, only to discover that their myriad wandering souls wake up the Dark Lady of the Pit.
  • Fast reacting cultures may also have an issue of memory. if problems are solved (or exacerbated) very fast there may not be a time to pause, reflect, and learn. When a potential civil war is headed off quickly, you might not pause to learn all the lessons of “why did we nearly have a social meltdown?”
  • Fast reacting cultures that act without thinking may create their own conflicts. When the Wizard’s Guild, the Holy Church, and random adventurers converge to fight one minor Demon Lord, the Demon Lord MIGHT be the least of your issues as forces collide.

But what about where cultures react slowly?

Slow Reacting Cultures:

  • Slow reacting cultures may not fix a problem fast enough or to head it off. They can get overwhelmed with issues and break down into conflict. A slow reacting culture and a fast-happening problem can mean conflict.
  • Slow reacting cultures may have time to think. Without overreacting they avoid doing anything stupid and have time to contemplate.
  • Slow reacting cultures may just “endure” problems without turning to them or reacting inappropriately. An appropriately-reacting but slow culture may simply soldier on.
  • *low reacting cultures may get “battered” by comparatively small problems and, unable to react, become overburdened and break into conflict. Little things can add up (also fun as a writer as your readers can watch the sudden social breakdown and then realize what you lead up to).

A culture’s reaction to potential conflicts is much like a person’s reaction. In fact, speaking of . . .

In The Eye Of The Very Panicked Beholder

Individuals also react to events at different speeds. This is just another level to consider when you write how people deal with conflicts and potential conflicts – and how that may actually cause conflict. We all move at different speeds – and we’ve all probably encountered people we thought were moving too fast or too slow.

When it comes to worldbuilding, you have to ask that of every character . . .

Fast-Reacting Characters

  • May react faster than anyone else. Yes, this may mean they save the day, but also mean people don’t know what they’re doing, or understand them. The guy who immediately shoots the shapeshifting spy is a hero, but when people see him shooting some innocent-looking person that potential hero may end up full of holes and just end up the posthumous good guy.
  • Fast-reacting characters may have to “bring others along” as they try to explain their goals and plans to people less prone to action. That friction can be a source of conflict as well.
  • Fast-reacting characters may, like cultures, react too quickly and do the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing fast is a recipe for conflict in itself.
  • Fast-reacting characters may be frustrated by slower-moving cultures and people. A well-meaning person trying to change the world to prevent a conflict may end up creating it as they try to “save everyone.”
  • Fast-reacting characters could get rebellious if under the command/control of people not thinking fast enough. In turn, they also may not be the best people to lead those reacting to crises slower (or a good choice).

Slow-reacting characters:

  • May be frustrating to others. It’s hard to draw people along to save the world, and it becomes its own conflict.
  • May take the time to do things right and understand what’s going on. Which can be irritating to those who can’t, or make them a font of wisdom.
  • Slow-reacting characters will come into conflict with faster-moving characters reacting to problems. Maybe they’re slow enough to not do the wrong thing – or can’t be rallied to do things fast enough.

As you write conflict, or potential conflict, you have to figure out how different characters react in your setting, and how fast – and how they see themselves and each other.  Everyone’s got a different perspective, everyone moves at different speed.

In fact, that’s often the problem, as we can now get to . .

Conflict As Friction

If it seems a lot of conflict here depends on how people react or react wrong, of how cultures sync up to solve a problem or chafe against it, in a nutshell, you get why thinking about speed is a major part of thinking about conflict.  Different speeds often are conflict.

It’s about friction, of how things of varying speeds react when they come together.  That “coming together” usually means “spectacular disaster” in many cases.

  • A society that can adapt to a problem fast enough moves fast enough that potential conflicts are headed off.  A slower-moving society will be steamrolled by events and fall apart.
  • A person who knows how to save the world chafes against the slower-moving parts of society. The right person with the right solution has – dare I say it – friction with others, isn’t listened to – and turns against them.  The hero becomes the villain because of friction.
  • A group of people plan to survive the apocalypse, but the disaster happens so slow all their brilliant plans and super technology experiments create more problems than the actual . . . well, problems. Overreacting produces friction worse than the actual disaster, and conflict results.

So when you think your world, its problems, your society, it’s potential conflicts, its’ really about how fast things are moving – and how they aren’t.

And when speeds don’t line up, much like a device, everything flies apart. And you have conflict.

And, done right one spectacular disaster in your world to write about . .

. . . even if you weren’t aiming for that.


– Steven Savage

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