It’s been a while since I wrote about writerly things, and there’s something specific on my mind.
Quiz: what makes for a better story?
A. Two women have to work together. Neither really likes the other, (not for any big reason), but things happen and they work it out in the end.
B. Two women from vastly differing ideologies must work together. But one knows something the other doesn’t, and fears, justifiably, that if the other found out she’d turn tail in a heartbeat. And when a work issue comes up that forces them to confront their own patterns, and secrets, they’re left with no choice but to work things out.
The primary difference here is conflict. Without it, a story has very little oomph, and can flatline to the point that a reader simply isn’t interested in the story.
The most common argument I hear about conflict is, “but life isn’t that complicated!” And that’s true. Daily life also isn’t that interesting. That’s why we make up stories. And the best stories require that you give depth and flesh to your characters, that you make them overcome things. And they can’t do it easily or with a shrug. You need to make it hurt; the reader needs to feel the character’s emotions and invest in their journey.
A. A woman is born to a middle class family, has typical money worry issues, but gets by. She moves, is happy, finds someone she dates, they fall in love. (Yawn)
B. A woman is born into a struggling middle class family. The child of a single parent, she’s had to grow up fast and has learned the hard way that people shouldn’t be trusted. She moves to get away from that life, but once she’s gone, finds that she doesn’t know the rules the new people play by. She always feels on the outside. When she meets a woman she likes she’s convinced there’s no chance in hell, and even if there was, she knows better than to trust someone with her heart… (and so on)
I think this is something we often don’t give enough thought to. It’s fine to say you’re a pantster, that you just see where it leads, but if you don’t have a solid idea of the main conflict, of the thing holding your characters back and the big thing getting in their way, you’re setting yourself up for one of two things: a massive rewrite or a flatline novel. You don’t want either.
Conflict is tied to emotions and emotional reactions. It’s not enough to say, ‘she just does’ when it comes to understanding why a character would react a certain way. If you give her enough depth, the reader will understand and stick with her. False conflict is when you put it in just to keep the story going (I.e the unasked and easily answered question), and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character/plot you’ve built. True conflict comes from a solid plot line and the emotional journey that character takes in relation to that plot line. They interlink and the more consistently and smoothly they do so the more believable and interesting your conflict will be. Ask yourself why. Why does it work that way? Why did the character react one way and not another? What would the simple answer be that would mean the story would end, and what specific and believable thing is keeping that from happening?
Conflict in a story is what makes a reader keep reading. If I say, ‘how was your day?’ And get ‘good.’ I’m going to shrug and zone out. If, however, I say, ‘how was your day?’ And she bursts into tears and tells me about the car wreck that happened before the coffee massacre and the donut box full of carrots…then I’m paying attention.
Conflict. Dig deeper. Make it hurt.