IMAGINE THIS SCENE FROM A MOVIE:
It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page. When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk.
She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.
All is good in her world.
NOW IMAGINE THIS ONE INSTEAD:
It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END. She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose. She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty. So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper. The roll is empty.
Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a note off the refrigerator — one that says BUY TOILET PAPER — and uses it as a makeshift kleenex. Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge. It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.
And it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete mess.
Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?
Me, I’ll go with the second one. In fact I have, in a wonderful movie called Romancing the Stone. And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.
Version one just sits there. LAYS there, in fact.
Because it has no conflict.
As you may have guessed by now, I’m piggy-backing on yesterday’s post by Tess. I was so struck by the aspiring writer’s attitude that I couldn’t contain myself to just a comment.
I needed more space.
And while I was certainly struck by the refusal of the woman in question to face reality and take the advice of the multitude of people who had tried to give her constructive criticism, what got me most of all was her insistence that her story just didn’t need any conflict.
I’m sorry — what was that again?
Conflict is the cornerstone of storytelling. Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue watching or reading. And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.
How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories? People THRIVE on conflict, and the person who suggests that her story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.
Your basic plotline — no matter what kind of book you’re writing — always centers around characters in conflict. There’s usually both an internal conflict AND an external one. And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).
Otherwise what is the point? If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world other than they can’t make up their minds, then I might as well watch paint dry. I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat, to give rise to my emotions. To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero. And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.
Now, to be fair, none of us really knows what this woman’s love story was about. And just because she wasn’t able to articulate the premise in a few sentences, does not mean it’s terrible.
But based on her apparent disdain for the concept of conflict, I’d say the chances are pretty good that it won’t set the publishing world on fire. Many of you said as much.
So does this mean that all love stories suck? Of course not. Some of the greatest stories ever told have been love stories. There are a boatload of pretty wonderful romances — the books this woman so despises — out there, and they have conflict up the wazoo.
What about coming of age stories? Again, no. They don’t all suck. One of my favorite books of all time is James Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony, about a teenage boy coping with a troubled, movie star mother. Kirkwood was a wonderful writer who certainly understood what makes a good story tick.
There is a writer/teacher, now dead, whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment (maybe someone can remind me), who likened a story to a basketball game.
You have opposing characters. Two teams. Each of those teams has a goal: to make as many points as possible by putting a ball through a small “basket” at the opposite end of the court.
But because these teams are both determined to get the most points, one side puts up all kinds of obstacles to try to prevent the other side from reaching their goal.
This is conflict at its finest. Its most compelling. And if you have a vested interest in one of those teams, you will scream and cheer and jump up and down whenever they encounter and, hopefully, overcome those obstacles.
If all you had was a single team bouncing a ball down the court with no one to challenge them —
— nobody would watch.
And it’s no different for storytelling. Your characters must have a goal — no matter how trivial it might seem — and they must have strong opposition to that goal.
Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. Sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us. What thrills us. What sends us soaring.
As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”
And anyone who doesn’t — or refuses — to understand that had better learn it fast or give up storytelling altogether.
I think it was Donald Maas’ WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL that suggested that you needed tension on every page to keep the reader mesmerized. It doesn’t have to be the big conflict of the story every minute, and it doesn’t have to be a car chase or a fistfight, but every scene needs to give the reader a reason to care.
There’s conflict in picture books and easy readers, too. No, it isn’t the depth of conflict you get in a novel. When you only have 500 words to play with, you better get a kiddo’s attention and keep it for the duration. Check out any picture book and you’ll see what I mean.
Zero conflict==boring yawn-fest.
I love ROMANCING THE STONE. There I was in 1983, a young writer myself…
This woman put her work out into the world and got hammered. Maybe she just needed to be defensive, snobby and stubborn to get past it. Ahem, but I don’t know a writer who’s always been in a place to receive criticism and advice with an open mind and grateful heart.
Maybe she doesn’t understand conflict and needs to figure it out in terms of what she’s writing — to find a path to getting inside her vision of her work and realizing it.
Maybe her book *is* brilliant. I remember an agent telling me she’d dug through her rejection files after a mega-star author said he’d been rejected by dozens of agents until one took him on. It just killed her to think she’d been one of his rejectors.
Of course, this woman could also be shooting herself in the foot and unable to stop. My point is: the way it’s done is the way it’s done. You never know in this biz.
I recently got tired of beating my head against the wall over editors who said my detective was boring, even though my critique groups and agent liked him. I’m going back and giving him some baggage to carry around that is well suited (I thinkk) to his stories. I hope I walked up to the line between stubbornness and persistence without crossing it.
My favorite quote on this is Hitchcock’s Axiom: "A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out." So what’s dull? No trouble, conflict or tension.
James Kirkwood! I love James Kirkwood and his stories had TONS of conflict.
If the lady in question wants to read a story about a woman waiting for her man to come home from the sea, she should read Cindy Dyson’s "And She Was", which is fabulous. And she grows up and learns about herself, but man is there conflict involved!
Whenever people grow, it seems to me, there has to be some conflict to inspire it. Otherwise, why grow at all?
Glad you continued this, Rob. It can’t be repeated enough.
As I read Tess’s account of the the conversation yesterday, all I could think of was, "Even SIDDARTHA and STEPPENWOLF have some conflict!
If I remember correctly, Romancing the Stone was itself a love story in the end.
I recently read Child 44, and talk about tension on every page! It’s a textbook for Thriller Writing 101.
Wow, this post came just when I needed it the most. I’m in the middle of rewriting a scene that didn’t have enough conflict. I took the guy’s money away and voila! Conflict!
Romancing the Stone stands out as one of my all-time favorite movies. It had conflict on so many different levels. It’s the classic romantic suspense tale.
Yes, Romancing the Stone is full of conflict and balances it all perfectly. Another great movie to watch for the use of constant conflict is Back to the Future. Poor Marty gets hit left and right and the story zips by.
Couldn’t agree more, Rob. And for another example…this one not a thriller…how about MARTY? What a great movie, full of conflict, but really a coming of age (late) AND love story wrapped in one. Ernie Borgnine even won an academy award for his performance.
Conflict is what keeps readers coming back.
Rob, I think Back To The Future is a great example of a thriller. But what makes it a classic is that every plot hole is sewn up, and everything in the story is meaningful. That’s what makes it so fun to go back and watch it over and over. Every single bit of the opening segment before Marty gets sent back in time is critical to the plot, from the frozen clock tower to the seemingly pointless story about how Marty’s parents met. The filmmakers seize each information nugget and turn it into conflict that drives the story and characters.
I remember the following scene from TV. Anybody have a guess?
"I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: NOTHING."
"What does that mean?"
"The show is about nothing."
"Well, it’s not about nothing."
"No, it’s about nothing. What’d you do today?"
"I got up and came to work."
"There’s a show. That’s a show."
"How is that a show?"
"Well, uh, maybe something happens on the way to work."
"No, no, no. Nothing happens."
"Well, something happens."
"Well, why am I watching it?"
"Because it’s on TV."
Good Stuff Rob.
I recently did an excercise with my students using DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY. Coming of age storyline, but TONS of conflict. You have to have it. If you don’t, you have no story.
Hell, Absurdist plays don’t even have true sequences of events, and even they have conflict.
I think too many people writing coming of age stories focus too much on the internal conflict and forget that what makes the internal conflict worth reading about is how external conflicts play into it, or vice versa. My objection with too many contemporary thrillers is that every conflict has to be not just life and death, but the life and death OF THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE. That gets old after a while.
I agree, Dana. After a while the fate of the world stuff can get stale. I’m finding myself leaning more and more toward thrillers that involve a few people dealing with life or death issues on a very personal level.
Hell, that’s the kind of thrillers I WRITE.
Amen, Bro RGB!