In every meeting of the main hero and the main villain, there must be an intensification of the conflict. This holds true even in those stories that center around internal conflict (man vs. his own conscience, for example), or conflict against a force (like nature or a corrupt system).
You see, the reader unconsciously breaks the story into rounds (usually three), and expects each successive round to raise the stakes, with more on the line, more injuries received, and more suspense achieved.
The problem for the writer is: How do you intensify the conflict?
One author I read explained the rising conflict in terms of a meeting between the hero and the villain. They meet in Round One, and get their first taste of the others' strength. In Round Two, they throw themselves into the fight, and the injuries multiply. The writer's dilemma: How to top Round Two? The answer of the author in the magazine: Add an uncontrollable circumstance. A freak earthquake, perhaps.
This was the point when I threw down the magazine with disgust. I've seen this technique played out too many times, and, frankly, it not only gets old, but it's super cheesy.
Take, for example, the scene in which the hero and villain carry on an epic sword-fight while standing on floating islands over a river of lava. Right, like no one is breathing poisonous fumes or combusting from the super-heated atmosphere.
Or they carry the battle to the very top of the highest skyscraper in the city, where they teeter on the edge of the rooftop. Right, like the wind at that height wouldn't blow you right off the roof.
Or they race in their peppy sports cars or on their glorified motorcycles at 100 mph through a crowded city, ignoring stop lights and the rules of traffic. Right, like our valiant hero isn't endangering every pedestrian and motorist in the vicinity. Not so heroic, buddy.
So the question remains: How do you intensify the conflict without making the action cheesy? Here are a few ideas:
Sow suspense in the first conflict.
If you start at high intensity, then getting higher at every stage of conflict is difficult. If you start with low intensity, you make the higher intensity of later battles seem, by comparison, even more intense. I recommend that Round One remain a careful testing of each other's strengths. The purpose is not action, but suspense. It's a primer for the real action.
Since most people are familiar with Star Wars (the original trilogy), I'll use it as an example. Luke Skywalker doesn't personally meet the villain Darth Vader in "Episode IV: A New Hope," but he watches his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi die beneath Vader's lightsaber. This heightens the suspense. With his mentor gone, Luke must take his place. The watcher asks, What happens when Luke finally meets Vader himself?
Reveal character in the second conflict.
The second conflict is not about the conflict itself. It is about the character of the villain and the character of the hero. What are the hero's strengths and weaknesses? What are the villains strengths and weaknesses? Does either have secret motives?
In "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back," Luke trains for the inevitable show-down between himself and Vader. Then Vader deliberately lures Luke, using Luke's friends as bait. The duel between Luke and Vader reveals a startling truth: Vader is Luke's father. When Vader tries to persuade Luke to join the Dark Side "and together we can rule as father and son," Luke plunges himself down a giant air shaft in a dramatic refusal.
Thus we add two powerful elements to the conflict: an emotional twist, and the introduction of a struggle in the hero's conscience. It's a struggle that continues: Do I kill my father to save the galaxy, or do I compromise the galaxy to have mercy on my father?
Bring in at least two elements of conflict in the final battle.
The three main types of conflict are: man versus man, man versus a force greater than himself, and man versus himself. I recommend bringing in at least two of those elements into the final conflict. If the main conflict is man versus man, I suggest adding man versus himself, since man versus a force greater than himself might lead back to those freak earthquakes. (Unless man versus a force greater than himself involves something like the hero's draining physical strength.) In general, I find the addition of a moral dilemma, seeded in the second conflict, to be most powerful.
In Star Wars "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi," Luke's conflict intensifies in all three ways. He is man against man, as he battles Vader in the presence of the powerful Emperor (so that's really man versus two men). He is man against himself, as he continually appeals to his father to return to the Light Side. He is man against a force greater than himself, as he feels the magnetic attraction of the Dark Side. (You could also call this another man vs. himself conflict; it depends how you look at it). Regardless of how you interpret the conflict, the fact remains that there are multiple dimensions to this final battle.
And that's what makes it so effective.
What are some of your favorite stories, and how do they intensify the conflict realistically and powerfully for you?