July 28, 2014

Talking Shop: What is Conflict?

(This post originally appeared as a guest post at Literary Lagniappe.)

A story is nothing without conflict. There must be a some form of obstacle to overcome, big or small...there must be stakes, something for your reader to invest in. Without a conflict, complications, and resolution, a story can really fall flat.

How does your writing measure up? Are you giving your characters the dynamic plot and conflict they deserve? Or are you pulling your punches just when it counts the most?

Stories are divided into "parts": the Exposition (background), Rising Action (complications), Climax (sort of self-explanatory), the Falling Action (aftermath) and Denoument (resolution).  Your simplest diagram of a story looks like this:

Some stories may look like this:


Here, you see the rising action/conflict stage makes up more of the story than the falling action.  A story following these proportions may feel more realistic, as events don't usually fall out in nice, balanced, equal states. 

This breakdown would work well for a short story. For something longer, you're likely to have multiple complications, several points of conflict. A novel's diagram probably looks more like this:


What is conflict? It would seem obvious, but many writers seem to misunderstand it. Conflict needs to be something that puts some real stakes on the table. It requires characters to take action, and it should always be followed by meaningful consequences and/or results.

Let's look at some actual published examples of "magically disappearing" troubles:

1.      Problem: In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ron and Hermione need to get into the Chamber of Secrets, which can only be opened by speaking parseltongue.

a.       Solution: Ron manages to "imitate" parseltongue (a language previously restricted to inheritors of the Slytherin bloodline).

2.      Problem: In Breaking Dawn, Bella and the Cullens are prepared for the worst when Bella transforms into a vampire. They expect Bella to have to endure a year of uncontrollable new vampire strength and bloodlust, meaning a year they will have to keep her away from humans (including her father).

a.       Solution: Bella is inexplicably different from every other vampire and has barely any trouble at all adjusting.. Life resumes as normal right away.

3.      Problem: In several  romance titles across sub-genres, the love pair is prevented from fully realizing their feelings for one another thanks to stubborn refusal to explain simple things.

a.       Solution: Someone finally decides to explain something they had almost no reason to keep to themselves in the first place.

It should be noted in the last example, it is the problem which fails to hold stakes or consequences, rather than the solution failing to measure up to the stakes.  This is becoming a very common problem presented in erotic romance: the love pair's biggest obstacle is their own refusal to speak to one another.  The problem with this device is the solution is far too easy for problem to be so complicated.

While this is not always a poor conflict, it often becomes bigger and more difficult than realistically necessary. This can effectively be used for comedic effect; when it is used for serious conflict, the author must be careful, else it becomes frustrating and unrealistic. Consider how satisfying it is to make a journey with a character whose biggest obstacle is becoming flustered and spitting out something they ought to have said in the first place.

Unfortunately, new writers are adopting this 'easy' method of removing obstacles for their character's stories. We see many, many more cases of characters solving their problems (or having their problems solved for them) in easy, convenient means. Conflicts are forgiven, dismissed, ignored or written away without investment.

This is a literary device known as a deus ex machina: "God from the Machine". It refers to a convention in Greek plays where one of the gods would descend to the stage and solve all the complications with a wave of his or her hand. But it is a cheap—and lazy—means of solving problems.

Conflict must be proportionate to the payoff, and vice-versa. As a writer, I am familiar with the daunting task of trying to untie the Gordian knots I've thrown my own characters into. However, balancing real conflict and resolution is a downright necessity to good writing. I owe it to my characters, and to my readers. So when I create a conflict, I have to give it a real meaning and real consequences. Conflicts can be big or conflicts can be small, but they must be what they are, and nothing less.

My encouragement to authors is to dive into your conflicts. Avoid deus ex machina—the easy solution handed down by the fates, the heavens, or just plain dumb luck. Make your characters take action and do the work of handling conflicts. As intimidating or uncomfortable as it may be, you'll give them a better payoff. Then they enjoy the fruits of a "job well done".

And so can you.

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