Conflict is a word you hear a lot in writing circles. Many consider it a fairly non-negotiable aspect of storytelling, yet I have some reservations. Not because I disagree with it in principle, on the contrary much of what I love in literature could be classed as conflict, but because I feel it is often too easily misconstrued.
Its a big sweeping territory for one little word to cover and like other sound bite rules, that opens up a lot of ground for misinterpretation or misapplication. Taken at face value it tends to conjure images like this..
Which has its place. I’m not a fan of soaps, for this particular reason, though I’m not inherently opposed to cat fights, bitch slapping or wrist flapping sissyfits. The issue I have is that they can very quickly become grating – fighting isn’t pleasant nor is the shrieking that goes with it. It can work like acid on your readers nerves and no one is going to enjoy plunging into that constantly.
If you don’t use it sparingly it can very quickly lose its impact and steal with it something I do find essential in storytelling – suspension of disbelief. Fiction is a heightened reality, the happy endings, spaceships and what not, aren’t what we commonly associate with ‘real life’ but we still need to believe in what is occurring enough to invest in it. Maybe you know people who fight all the time. I don’t. On the other hand I don’t live a life where everyone agrees with me, though I’ll never understand why not. Variation is not only realistic it keeps your reader on their toes.
By adding too much conflict we can end up taking away all tension.
It very quickly becomes predictable and boring – the literary equivalent of a Roadrunner cartoon. If we know what the Coyote is plotting, we don’t need to keep watching.
Conflict should be present as a constant through your novel, but it must exist on a gradient. Just as it does in life. I would say there is such a vast difference between the Peggy Mitchell end and the Peggy Sue end, that to call it all conflict is misleading and unhelpful. I think the word ‘friction’ might work better, though that might suffer, conversely, from being too insipid. However it is this low grade conflict, conflict built into the background, the everyday, so that we don’t even notice it or identify it as such, that is often missing from novels and yet I personally think would do more to enhance a read.
Conflict is not just about relationships, it is built into the physical world of the novel. In the Power and the Glory, one of the main – perhaps the main – antagonists is actually the weather. The heat seems to rot the very heart of the people. In Twilight the weather is conveniently fogged over for around 99% of the time. There is little that threatens to expose the Cullens, yet as someone who lives in a fuggy, rainy country (call me a drizzle expert) I can’t help but feel tension and credibility was lost by this lack of very natural and expected conflict.
My biggest issue with the application of conflict is the martyr syndrome. The hero at odds with everyone, for no reason except that they’re the hero. This is not merely about the importance of internal conflict as well as external, I would agree with that, but rather that again it is too simple to be of much use, often resulting in psychotic mood swings. Conflict must arise organically out of the situation and the character’s natural reactions.
The contrived conflict, that which is shoved in simply because it was read in a glib article (a bit like this one) can end up leapfrogging good sense and shredding logic. Logic is not the same as predictability, it simply means that when things happen, they fit, rather than leaving us going eh? There can even be plot holes (like every time travel tale ever) and still be logic. Donnie Darko anyone? Conversely too much conflict, that which doesn’t fit the parameters of the world you have set up, can actually create holes, as the reader goes searching for an answer to the inexplicable mood changes.
In Hunger Games Kat’s worst fears are realised when her sister’s name is picked. This is a huge opportunity for tension yet a few lines later and Kat has solved the problem.
Conflict is not created by presenting a problem, but rather by the difficulty encountered in solving it. Had Kat had no immediate recourse, had she reacted in panic and claimed she was her sister, then the conflict would not truly have been resolved, as her solution would have raised more issues. What if someone revealed the truth? Her sister might still be re-entered at any given point into the games. Even if she won, her and her family’s lives might be forfeit. She must put her trust in all who know her in the Seam, carrying that potentiality through the book.
The most important conflict exists between the reader and the story. What the reader wants is to know everything, the why, the when, the who and the what. It’s the story’s job to deny them this, using all the above techniques like burrs, keeping them hooked til the final resolution. Give them what they want too early and you will lose them.