conflict: the little engine that you can’t do without

People yearn for stories. It has been argued that human beings need stories as much as they need food and shelter and community. Stories are how we pass along the most important and most subtle elements of being.

At the center of any story is at least one conflict. A person can be at conflict with him or herself; a town can be in conflict with a storm or a bully or a plague; two people can be in conflict because each wants to dominate the other.

You could sit down and think up conflicts all day long. When I taught creative writing I had a little store of games that generated conflicts where you wouldn’t expect to find one. What conflict could there possibly be between a grandmother and a kitten? Between a soccer coach and the school’s cafeteria ladies?

If you starting with a new character or a character you know very well, you still have to figure out the underlying conflicts — both the bigger and the smaller ones.

The way I handle this is pretty simple. I sit down with the primary characters and ask them some questions, the most basic one of which is: what’s important to you at this point in your life?

There’s a more structured way to go about this, and it may work for you. I’ll demonstrate. Imagine me sitting in the kitchen with Cinderella, doing some research so I can tell her story.

Me: So Cindy, tell me. What do you most want, right now?

Cindy: I’d like a pretty dress.

Me: And why do you want a pretty dress?

Cindy: Because my step-sisters have pretty dresses. You need a pretty dress to go to the ball.

Me: So, go out and get yourself a dress.

Cindy: I have no money, and my stepmother won’t give me any. And anyway, I have all this housework to do.

Me: It sounds like your stepmother is a bitch.

Cindy: She is. I wish my father hadn’t died.

So we started with the dress, but we ended up with a lot more. The bottom line is that Cindy’s life has been miserable since her father died. She misses him. She feels powerless in the face of her stepmother’s cruelty and stinginess. And she’s not especially smart or willing to think.

So that’s one main character. We know quite a lot about her now but we don’t know the stepmother. So a little talk with her:

Me: What is your name anyway? I’ve never heard it mentioned.

SM: Of course not. Of course you’ve never heard my name. It would be inconvenient for me to have a name, then you’d have to think of me a a person. My name is Georgia.

Me: Georgia, can you tell me what you want right now?

Georgia: Yes. I want to be free of this house and responsibility for these teenage girls. They’ll drive me to drink. My own two are bad enough, but then there’s Henry’s girl. Married a week and he drops down dead, leaves me with this old junk of a house and his kid. I can just see myself in twenty years with three cranky old maids, trying to keep them in bonbons and lingerie.

Me: So really what you want is…

Georgia: I’m so angry I don’t know what I want. I’m so angry that every time I look at Cindy I want to pinch her. She looks just like Henry, you know. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t keep her here unless she’s willing to earn her keep. I need all my energy to find husbands for my two, or I’ll be stuck with them forever. Wait, I know what I want. I want to open up a kiosk at JFK. Perfume and makeup. I’ll get all free samples, and I’ll look good all the time for all the pilots and businessmen who go through the terminal. I’ll find a healthier husband. One with a lot of money, but no kids.

So now we know them both, and we understand why they are in conflict. The underlying anger, the resentments, the dashed hopes. Now we can tell this story. Of course, unless we decide to give Cindy a backbone and a real personality, we’re going to have to inject another element to even out the playing field. We’ll have to bring in fairy godmothers or good witches or something to make up for Cindy’s insipid self.

Really what I’m trying to make clear here is that this process is quite complex. You can’t just ask the character what they want; you’ve got to figure out why they think they want what they say they want.

I’m going back to work now, but I wanted to say that I’m thinking of putting together a couple free pdfs, in each case a collection of posts over the last four years on particular topics. I know that people still refer to the series of posts on writing sex scenes, so I’ll definitely do that one. If there are any other craft-related subjects you think you’d be interested in, please speak up.

PS: this is not something that will happen in a hurry.

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9 Replies to “conflict: the little engine that you can’t do without”

  1. I learned quickly that the math novel-like book in my head needs to stay in my head while I learn enough to do anything about it, and that may be an infinity.

    So I’m still at the stage of indiscriminately soaking up any words of wisdom thrown my way. I don’t know what to ask for; so please throw anything you want my way. The best I can do is ask for clarification.

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