Mini-Lesson: Conflict—You Gotta Have It.
The hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn (and am still learning) about writing is the absolute necessity of sustained, believable, and relevant conflict. I was really stubborn about it when I first started, because the whole reason I was writing fiction was to get away from the conflict in real life. If I was going to write stories, they’d be happy, damn it. And so naturally they would be happy all the time. This is how I fell into the misfortune that is the string of pearls.
A “string of pearls plot” is one in which each of the stories conflicts are separated and solved apart from each other only to have a brand new conflict introduced, leading to the next pearl. (There’s probably a better definition on the net somewhere, but I can’t find anything but Sweeny Todd stuff when I search for it.) It’s not considered an asset, and it’s not very satisfying either to read or to write. A better example might be “a series of small fires the hero or heroine puts out in an orderly fashion.” Even in the hands of a storyteller with a great voice, these tales are not ones that stick with you. At best they’re cotton candy: tasty at the moment but after a bit of sticky residue are easily forgotten.
Conflict is the skeletal structure of your story. It’s the support beams, the foundation—all the boring stuff you don’t pay much attention to and yet without things get ugly fast. As I’m writing this I’m flashing back to writing Hero, which not only gave me some conflict hell but had a lot of construction themes within it. Morgan, a shapeshifter, controlled the environment around him, but he focused too much on how it looked and how he felt about it and not how solid it was. His love interest and the POV character, Hal, is a construction worker, and Hal’s first thought on entering Morgan’s domain is, “This place doesn’t look stable.”
This was the second mistake I made in learning to write. Once I’d finally written myself a Rubbermaid bin full of Perils of Pauline, I went whole-heartedly in the other direction, and in many ways I’m still trying to free myself from that snare. I went from pearls to complicated plot that often literally needed a map. Some of this is that I really do love intricate puzzle-type plots, stories which seem chaotic and crazed only to come together in a splendid magic at the end. What I lacked there, however, was the bit of wisdom I’m sharing today: conflict at its basest core should always be simple.
Here is a graph I got from, of all places, a fifth grade learning site. Actually, that makes a lot of sense: conflict is very basic stuff, and we forget this to our detriment. All the best stories boil down to bones so basic that elementary school children can spot them. Boy meets boy. Boy has problem being with boy. Boy overcomes problem and is with boy. Simple, right?
The challenge of course is keeping those problems varied and making them feel new. And as the chart to the right indicates, in a longer story especially there is more than one step to solving the problem. Also, notice those arrows? Here’s the most important part of all: each one of those events needs to be connected.
The best stories are the ones where we realize in the beginning that there is no way the hero can have his happy ending yet, because he isn’t ready. He isn’t smart enough or hasn’t worked enough, or in the case of romances doesn’t know enough about his partner (or knows the wrong things). He needs each of his challenges to complete his journey to the resolution. He can’t skip ahead, and he can’t take a different path. It’s this or failure. Each part of the story leads to the next, making it not a string of pearls but a fully integrated structure, each part relying on all the other parts. It functions as a whole or not at all.
The example always trotted out for this is Star Wars, one because even if you haven’t seen it you know the story, and two because it’s such a big, fat universe and world and yet such a simple, clear tale. (I’m talking the original trilogy, which is why the prequels are so especially sad. You wonder what the hell happened when you look at the two units.) The very first movie is the best as far as illustration. Boy finds droids who lead to a call to adventure. Boy rejects call, feeling unready and bound to his family. Antagonist then burns his family. Boy is abruptly on the adventure. Boy learns fighting (and social) skills; he has some setbacks and has to rely on his companions, but ultimately he keeps moving forward. His companions also highlight both what he has yet to learn and what makes him a worthy hero. Boy loses mentor to antagonist and gains further impetus (along with loyalty to his companions) to face the antagonist directly. Boy helps inspire one of his companions to go against his nature and better himself. Boy goes into final battle humble and ready to participate as a cog, but his innate skills and worth combined with a bit of fate turn him into a leader and then the only one who can possibly save the day. Relying on all he has learned as well as a renewed belief in himself, he does save the day. We like seeing the Death Star blown up, yes, but what we love most is following along as a hero is fully born. That’s why it never gets old. Every time we watch that movie or even relive the story in our heads, we are reminded of hope and faith and the belief that goodness, loyalty, and right can win, and for that time we are in the story we’re able to believe that they even probably will win.
Because above all conflict is not there to delight the reader: conflict is there to highlight character. It’s there to show how badass Bruce Willis is as he blows up buildings, to make us also feel strong and invincible. It’s there to allow us to submerge fully into the struggles of an orphaned young man as he discovers the existence of magic and prepares to face foes he doesn’t even understand, let alone know how to defeat–and yet somehow always does. Characters exist in story for us to ride along with, and conflict is the track on which they drive.
Conflict is also why sequels are so difficult and are usually unsatisfying unless handled with extreme care. This becomes evenmore of an issue when the genre is romance. What readers are wishing for is a repeat of the first experience, this time with surprises. But for the characters to return to a novel-length conflict, they must have conflict. Problems. Peril. Which means authors must either negate their original happy ending or find a way to build on it.
Personally, I have two ways of facing that snarl. One is the method I use in the Special Delivery series: the subsequent story will have a new romance, and the returning characters will have their own parallel (and usually quieter) struggle. The other type of sequel I know how to make work is the not-quite-finished plot version. I’m still trying this one out, so we’ll see how it goes. For the Etsey series, I want each book to be a unique and closed unit of conflict, but the actual relationships are ongoing. This means several things: one, I’m dealing with the romances on the side, letting something not romantic at all be the main plot. Secondly, I’m examining romantic conflicts which sometimes go outside the usual mode. What happens to couples after great trauma? Do they grow together? How do they keep from growing apart? What do those changes mean to their relationship? What happens when life forces their journeys to part, either physically or emotionally? How can HEA be sustained over the long term? I also play with what bringing other people into the relationship means–either romantically or just what new non-sexual partners do to change the dynamic. So the romantic entanglements are unusual and slower-moving and uncertain, but the external conflicts are always “Bad guy, ten o’clock! How do we get him?”
I don’t think there’s a sure-fire way to solid conflict. In fact I think that’s what makes story so fun, that there is no right or wrong way. What I do know is that you have to have conflict. That story is, by definition, a tale of something happening. Something new. Something unusual. Something that gets our attention. Something usual but told in a way which engages us. Something which, even if we know the ending, makes us want to take the ride. And no matter how crazy and wild and wonderful your ride is, it has to have a solid base or it won’t be worth anything.
Conflict is the structure on which our characters live. Make it good. Make it strong. Don’t reinvent the conflict wheel too much, not at its core. Save the wows and amazements for what you build off of the foundation. Because as any contractor will tell you, even the grandest, most amazing mansion is at its core still a house constructed with the same physics and structural principles as the humblest shack. Using basic principles that work don’t make you boring or tired. Usually it just makes you smart.