Digging down to Conflict

Update: I spend a half hour or an hour every day sorting through old weblog posts in an effort to bring some order to the chaos (for example, if you care to have a look, the FAQ section is actually starting to come together). But every once in a while there’s a post that’s been culled somehow from the herd, so I have to either do some research to figure out where it originated, or repost it. Today time is short, so I’m reposting this, after some editing.

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The nature of conflict in a story is so complex it’s hard to talk about. I’ve rarely run into a teacher or book that does a good job of laying out the very subtle manouevering that goes into establishing and building on conflict. There’s a good chance I won’t pull it off either, but I’m going to try.

People who are just getting started with writing fiction often take things too literally. Yes, you need a major conflict. A couple married seventy years who are thinking about divorce? Yes, excellent conflict. But how do you put that idea into actions, into a story that makes the reader want to turn the page?

You might set the whole story at the breakfast table, your two characters arguing and fighting — but that’s very restrictive for you as a writer, and really hard to pull off well. Your characters will give you an idea of where to start.

Imagine them sitting at a table with you. You are interviewing them.

Writer: Sam, can you tell me why after seventy years of marriage you want a divorce?

Sam: She’s too damn picky. She never lets up. I’m ninety-two, I think I deserve a little peace in whatever time I’ve got coming to me.

Sally: Aren’t you going to ask me?

W: Of course. What’s your version of this story, Sally?

Sally: Sam is selfish. He never thinks about anybody but himself. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a cup of coffee. Does he think to ask me if I want coffee? No. If I ask him will you bring me a cup too? — He makes faces like he’s got a sore tooth. For seventy years I have put dinner on the table. You know how many meals that is? 40,320 meals! And that’s just dinner! And he makes faces about bringing me a cup of coffee.

W: Any response, Sam?

Sam: There was that week I went fishing with Marty, you didn’t cook that week.

Where are you now? You know quite a bit about your two characters’ personalities, but you still don’t know what’s really up. Ask them one more question.

W: But you’ve been coping with things that irritate you — both of you have been coping — for seventy years. Why now? What set this off?

Sally: Mind your own damn business.

Sam: See, now she’s got nothing to say.

At this point you have the backbone of the story. Something happened before the curtain opened. We don’t know what. Sally is defensive about it. Sam is resentful. Maybe she lost all their money at roulette. Maybe she revealed an affair she had fifty years ago. She might want to move to Argentina, while Sam is comfortable outside Santa Fe. As the story unfolds, you’ll start to understand how these two communicate, and a lot of that won’t have anything to do with talking. So I could narrate a scene:

At dinner Sally puts a big pot of Carbonada Criolla on the table. It’s her mother’s recipe, which Sally brought with her when she came from Argentina eighty years ago. She serves Carbonada Criolla only when she really wants to irritate Sam, because she dislikes it as much as he does.

This narration would be the absolute wrong way to handle this scene, but for the moment I just want you to think about what’s the conflict of the moment. Any conflict of the moment has to feed the big conflict, or it doesn’t belong in the story. Does this scene about Carbonada Criolla move the story along? It could. Carbonada Criolla can serve as a big fat symbol for what’s wrong between them. Sally insists she wants to go back to Argentina, and she won’t stop harping about it… but on some level she’s counting on Sam to talk her out of it.

On the other hand, Sam always wanted to travel, and he likes the idea of Argentina — but after seventy years of saying no, he’s got to find a way to say yes that will save his pride. In this chapter or story, there will be very little direct discussion of Argentina, but you will see conflict on an every-day-to-day level. And each scene with its conflict of the moment moves us closer to a crisis in this ongoing struggle of wills.

I’m going to jump over the crisis for the moment and get straight to the resolution. You could be lazy. You could send them off to Argentina, and wave goodbye. But isn’t it more interesting to let the reader participate? If you followed the story of the HBO series The Sopranos, you probably heard all the controvery about the ending. It left everything up the air. Maybe a hitman was going to come through the door and shoot Tony; maybe the FBI was going to arrest him on some charges that he won’t be able to sidestep; maybe he’ll just have a dinner with his family. As the viewer, you take everything you know about the characters and what’s happened thus far, and draw your own conclusions.

In a nutshell: The resolution doesn’t have to be a summary about Sam and Sally’s trip to Argentina. You can lead the reader up to that point, and if you are devious enough, you can leave the question for them to answer. Here are some possible very symbolic final scenes to this story — each of which provides a very different idea of the story that went before it:

Sam goes into a travel agency and asks for brochures about visiting Sweden.

Sally calls her awful sister in Argentina and says she’s sending her a first class, one way ticket to Sante Fe.

Sam opens a book to find a photo of Sally when she was twenty-one.

Dinner time, and Sally puts Carbonada Criolla on the table.

Sam buys a bathing suit.

So what we’ve done here is: we’ve got our characters fleshed out and moving around. And we’ve got the resolution. With only this much, a whole story can blossom into being. I realize this may not be very clear at this point, but bear with me a little longer.

Yesterday you put down some thoughts about a character based only on a photograph. Today you’re going to think up five possible symbolic resolutions — not for your character, but in isolation. These symbolic resolutions may not be huge or emotional events; they may not be completely passive, either. Here are some examples:

(character unknown) …. buys a red velvet cape. …. jumps the stile instead of paying the subway fare …. takes a half eaten sandwich out of a public trash bin and tucks it in his/her pocket

resolutions that won’t work: Character X gets run over by a train (too big); brushes her teeth (too little).

Tomorrow I’ll pair the characters with yesterday’s exercise with resolutions from today’s. You’ll be astounded at what pops out of the Story Machine.

3 Replies to “Digging down to Conflict”

  1. You are so awesome! I’m not an author, but your posts on writing techniques are really fascinating and even enhance my reading experience by giving me a better understanding of the mechanics of storytelling.
    I really enjoy your blog, thank you!

  2. Thanks for these posts Rosina. So interesting. I can identify a good story when I see one but I didn’t know why some stories fall flat.

    I love your books and admire your great skill as a story teller!

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