Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Butting Heads, and Other Pursuits of a Writer

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 psychology.

“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:

I 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.

I 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.”

It’s 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.