Deb: Head-butting, and other pursuits of a writer

“We could never learn
to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” ~ Helen Keller
The youngest writers have no problem with conflict. Ask
six-year-old Billy to tell you a story, and he’ll dizzy you with an unflappable
hero who prevails against bad guys at every turn. But then Billy’s idea of
conflict resolution is to whack Bobby over the head with the Tonka truck he
wants. Grown-ups will spend lots of time and energy training Billy out of this
impulse. For the sake of the greater good, he’ll eventually do a full 180 and
spend a good part of his adult energy avoiding conflict. If he’s not careful,
the characters in his stories will do the same.
To make sure your stories have enough conflict, you don’t
have to re-inhabit your six-year-old self (though let’s face it – you know a
person or two on whom you’d like to execute that Tonka truck maneuver). But you
do need to acknowledge the importance of conflict and understand how to unleash
it in your prose.
Conflict matters in story precisely because of how we train
Billy and all of our children. To play well together as grown-ups, conflicts
are channeled and rerouted and boxed in to sanctioned activities. They acquire
protocol. The outing of conflict in literature allows us to validate that Tonka
truck. As Sol Stein says in How to Grow a Novel, “Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their
real lives.
“Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit
demonstrate in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal,” Stein says. “A
writer has to look only to his own humanity to find the material for conflict.”
Those seven deadly sins? Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony
are all about conflict of one type or another.
Speaking of types, we all know these three: person versus
person, person versus nature, person versus self. We also know that for
conflict to matter, there must be something at stake, and that the obstacles
need to stack up – in other words, the conflict gets complicated. What’s
trickier, perhaps because of those suppressed Tonka truck impulses, is probing
the emotional tension that accompanies conflict. Even as we love our
characters, we have to prod them through hell and back.
In an article in the The Writer (“Get the Emotion into Your Fiction,” September, 2007), Eric Witchey
suggests making at least three agendas for each of your characters: an overall
agenda, as in her broad goals and hopes; a scene agenda; and a compulsive
agenda fueled by deep needs known to others but not acknowledged by the
character herself (pane 3 of the Johari Window). Conflict tests a character’s
need to succeed, Witchey says, and it forces her to play out her own deep
“Conflict is not merely obstacle,” Witchey points out.
“Conflicted characters can’t win. The best they can do is choose well. That
makes them real to the reader and much more compelling.”
Conflicts unfold in many ways – that’s part of what makes
them so interesting. Where do your readers first discover the conflicts your
characters will grapple with? If it’s not early on, why are you holding out?
Are the conflicts obvious? Why hide them?
From page one of One Mississippi (by Mark Childress), here’s the first indication of one of the
conflicts young Daniel Musgrove is up against (overall agenda): “My father was
a good man – I can say that now, after all these years and everything that
happened – but on a day-to-day basis, he was about as fun as Hitler.”
Two pages later, after the father announces the family will
be moving, Daniel’s oldest brother bluntly objects (scene agenda), and we learn
the conflict runs deeper (compulsive agenda – the reader sees complications
that Daniel appears not to realize): “Bud took my breath away saying things
like that, things that would have got me backhanded and sent to my room. Dad
darkened and loomed in his corner, but stayed silent. Bud looked like Dad, and
Dad respected him for that.”
Chapter One seeds additional conflicts within Daniel’s
family, complicated when along the highway they come upon the moving van loaded
with all their belongings, wrecked and on fire. After refusing to admit he’s
driven past their destination, Daniel’s father turns abruptly into a motel
parking lot and comes back with a key. The chapter ends like this:
don’t know why I felt moved to speak. It was like when I was little, playing
hide-and-seek – I could find a good place to hide, but I couldn’t stay hidden.
I always gave myself away.
got up on my knees in the backseat to peer out the window. “Dad,” I said, “are
you crazy? We can’t stay here. The pool doesn’t even have a slide.”
a good thing there are laws against killing your kids. What I will never know
is how he managed to hit me all the way from the car to the room without making
a sound of his own.
A literary version of the Tonka truck? Maybe. Conflict
doesn’t require such overt acts of violence, and you may favor a more lyrical
style than Childress opens with. Regardless, the conflicts should be clear, to
propel the reader forward.
Try This: Want to
learn more about your characters and their various agendas? Give them an object
to fight over.
Check This Out: With
chapters like “Getting Intimate with Readers” and “A Few Guidelines for Living
Forever,” Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel covers the territory promised in its
subtitle: “The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them”

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