I recently read some work from a friend and as feedback, advised them to introduce more conflict to their scenes.
And boy did I feel like a hypocrite.
The advice to make it all about conflict is pretty common to western literature. Let’s pluck one example of that at semi-random – a post by Jim Butcher on Conflict, Logical Response, and Point of View, that contains the following quote:
“Conflict–It’s Not the Best Way. It’s the Only Way.
First things first. This is the absolute core truth of telling a story, and is as important to your writing as the laws of physics are to the real universe:
Stories are about conflict.
One more time, because something this important bears repeating.
STORIES ARE ABOUT CONFLICT!”
He’s not the only person to say stuff like this and frankly, I’ve spent a lot of my writing life looking for ways to rebel against this sort of blanket ultimatum. It’s why Malinda Lo’s sadly now gone post on mystery appealed to me so much. But, over time, I’ve come round to it in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s not the only way, but it gets work done. It’s amazing how often a scene that feels flat and meandering works with more conflict.
Nevertheless, it irks me somewhat. Just because I’m embracing conflict doesn’t mean I want it to be everything. And is it? Well, maybe that depends on where you’re standing.
One of my favourite fictional scenes is the one in the movie Heat, where Al Pacino’s detective hunts down Robert de Niro’s career criminal and brings him to a diner to meet face to face. They sit there, drink coffee, and exchange mostly amiable words. You could argue that it’s the detective trying to persuade to the criminal to walk a different path, that’s the conflict, but that’s kinda weak. The detective’s attempts at that are half-hearted at best. Mostly he just wants to meet and understand the guy, and arguably that understanding is one of the pillars of the film. In that light, you can write a great scene that has nothing to do with conflict. Where you can write scenes, you can write stories.
But from a different angle in a different light, there’s a conflict. It’s between the detective and his own thinking, subtle but obvious. On some level, Pacino’s character can’t understand the choices De Niro’s character is making. The guy’s smart, arguably smarter at what he does than the detective is at what he does. So why is he willing to take the risks he takes when he could be anything else? The detective isn’t there to persuade the criminal, he’s there to persuade himself. To learn. To work out to his own satisfaction why the criminal does what he does. It’s a subtle, understated thing, but it’s there. And in learning, he understands something about himself too.
If you are looking for conflict, you will find conflict. I wish I could find Lo’s post on mystery but I suspect that what’s she advocating could be seen as a conflict between a character and the facts, and that many of the scenes will be built around that.
Perhaps calling it conflict is the wrong way to view it for some of us; it’s a loaded word after all. You can talk about creating obstacles, or creating scenarios that cause tension about how events will go. Or talk about difficult steps on the road to change. There’s a great video by Film Crit Hulk on Star Wars that I linked to in a previous Friday Five in which he talks about how scenes are about people trying to persuade people to do something (but sometimes we get the resolution of them agreeing). It’s all roughly the same thing.
I don’t want to to get into “stories are this” or “stories are that” but at heart, good stories are somehow interesting. You look at the list of potentially interesting things and you get things like change, disagreements, quests, mysteries… things that will be full of conflict and things like conflict. Are there interesting things that don’t fall into that category sooner or later?
Probably, but I can’t think of them right now.
Whatever phraseology we use, conflicts are a good shortcut to interesting. And I am happier for having embraced that at least a little.