Why You Need Conflict In Your Fiction, Part 1

I recently unveiled my shiny new Patreon campaign to replace the Indiegogo campaign. As my mentor, “Afternoon Delight” composer and infrastructure fan Sean Conner, suggested, I set up the Patreon bit as a way to seek supporters of the epic 10-book journey that is my Permuted Press contract. One book is down, another is almost completed, but there are eight more to go before October 2016! (Actually, I said in my Patreon video that it was October 2017, which would be a relaxed and breezy schedule compared to the one I have committed myself to. Typical rookie mistake.)

Moose with Hunter

This cat knows what I’m talkin’ bout.

Anyway, I set a challenge to the people of the Internet (more specifically, the subgroup of people unable to resist my charm a̶n̶d̶ ̶g̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶l̶o̶o̶k̶s̶) that if I got to a certain (low but nonzero) support treshhold, I would post on my blog Part 1 of …

Why You Need Conflict In Your Fiction

And here we are. So why do writers of dramatic fiction need to understand how to use conflict? Only because anything that is even remotely interesting in fiction is suffused with conflict, immersed in conflict, third-verbed in conflict. You can write Ikea installation instructions without including conflict because people aren’t reading them for entertainment.

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Or reading them at all.

But in narrative, dramatic prose, you need contract. Some of you might say, “What about Waiting for Godot? That don’t have no conflict whatsoever!”

Well, first of all, nice grammar. Second of all, Waiting for Godot is a play. And third of all, that play is steeped in dramatic and verbal irony, and guess what? Irony works because of conflict between what is said versus what is meant (verbal), what one expects to happen versus what does happen (situational à la Alanis Morissette), and what the characters know versus what the audience knows (dramatic). That, however, is putting the carb before the borscht. (That made no sense. Moving on.) First let’s talk about what “conflict” even means.

Conflict: What does it even mean?

Aaand we’re back. In fiction, conflict means that something is happening other than the way a character or the audience wants it to happen or expects it to happen. Delving back into my favorite of pure fiction writing instruction books, Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, here is what a “scene” in fiction consists of:

  1. A character, usually the viewpoint character, has an explicit goal. S/he may state it (“Dammit, Satan, I want that promotion!”) or it may be assumed (a character hails a taxi in the rain), but it is known to the audience at or very soon after the outset of the scene in question.
  2. The character in pursuit of this goal encounters external opposition. (Internal conflict, although sporadically interesting, is not dramatic conflict. Somebody deciding whether or not s/he wants a sandwich isn’t dramatic conflict. Someone attempting to take hold of a hot dog just bought from a cart but dropping it into rat feces on the sidewalk is dramatic conflict, since external opposition has kept the character from satisfying his goal of a̶f̶t̶e̶r̶n̶o̶o̶n̶ ̶d̶i̶a̶r̶r̶h̶e̶a̶ a delicious meal.

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Hey, all those pig lips and assholes aren’t gonna eat themselves, amirite?

And 3., Resolution to the character’s quest for that goal. S/he can achieve it or not, but what’s important is that the writer provides an outcome of the conflict. This can be a success or a failure, but much more interesting is when it’s technically a success but with unwanted consequences or when even seeking the goal has put the character further from that or another, bigger goal. (I will go further into this in later installments, but suffice it to say that this is key to writing a tightly plotted story.)

This is on the plotting level, but there are other vital levels of conflict in fiction as well.

Conflict between characters even when they aren’t in a specific conflict

Let’s say you have a teenage boy and his lifer Marine father. They have had many heated arguments over homosexuality and the role of gays and lesbians in the armed forces. If these showed up as scenes in your story, then one character’s goal may be to make his beloved family member respect his homophobia; the other character may, alternately, be shown trying to show that his homosexuality is no threat to anyone. (You would just pick one of these in any  scene–that is, there are always at least two sides to conflict, but you should only have one viewpoint character with an explicit goal in each scene.) So, in your story, let’s say that the father is trying to explain to his son that being a gay Marine is not a contradiction in terms, but the son is having none of it and calls his Dad some hurtful expletives.

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See? SEEEEE??? THE DAD WAS THE GAY ONE THE WHOLE TIME!

The conflict of these scenes where they fight are constructed in the usual goal-opposition-resolution structure, but every scene with the father and son OR the father OR the son will now be infused with this deep division between them. Scenes in which a completely different conflict is being dealt with (say, the son wants to have a friend stay over for the night) will now contain the conflict from those earlier scenes.

This is how you keep your whole story interlaced with tension. In the book and movie No Country For Old Men, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem’s hair, the scene in the gas station is, on the surface, a conflict in which the owner seeks the goal of completing a friendly interaction and he is stymied by the intense, almost surreal non sequiturs of Javier Bardem’s hair. BUT that alone as a scene wouldn’t be terribly dramatic or exciting (although it WOULD qualify as a dramatic scene because of the goal, opposition, and utimate resolution) without knowing that Javier Bardem’s hair had previously used his coin-toss shtick to oppose the goals of some other people to, you know, stay alive. Check it:

The actual conflict of that scene is nothing. (“Call it.” “What are the stakes?” “Just call it.” “I ain’t put nuthin’ up.” “Oh, yes, you have …” and so on. Just two peeps having a very low-key argument about one of them guessing the result of a coin toss.) ALL of the real conflict was injected into this scene when (a) the audience saw Javier Bardem’s hair flat-out murder people because he is a complete psychopath; and (b) when the gas station owner realizes there is something seriously wrong with the hairstyle in front of him.

It is genius (as is most all of the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy), but its genius lies in its layering of conflict. There is so much going on here because of the earlier conflict of the story rather than the (still real and needed) conflict of their current conversation. All writers would do well to follow this movie’s lead.

In my award-winning novel Ain’t That America (recipient of the coveted “First Novel I Published” prize, given out by the voices in my head), I make it very clear from the first sentence that the viewpoint character Gordon is planning to kill his wife. The first scene starts out with him fantasizing about her untimely death. Then the actual conflict of the scene begins–Gordon haggles with a customer about the price of an RV–and, even though it has nothing to do with Gordon plotting a murder, every moment of that scene is rich with conflict and subtext. But what is the subtextual conflict in the scene, since it’s the first one of the book and therefore couldn’t be set up by an earlier conflict as in No Country For Old Men? It’s manifold and multifarious and mani-pedi and more by raising story questions in the reader’s mind:

  1. Wait, why is this admitted murderer wannabe working so hard to sell an RV?
  2. Where’s the wife?
  3. Why does he want to kill his wife, anyway?

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“She always makes fun of me for being monochrome.”

Take a look at your favorite movie, TV show episode, god-forbid-an-actual-book. You’ll see conflict in every scene, and the conflict from your big scenes will heighten the conflict in those scenes where the stakes aren’t as directly high.

Conflict in how things are said, not just what things are said

Finally, there are two kinds of conflict expressed in dialogue. The first is “verbal irony,” which is usually sarcasm.

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Suuuuuuuuure, all of Hollywood can’t wait to work with you again!”

The more interesting conflict expressed through dialogue–and remember, this is about the words being used in dialogue, not about the underlying conflict of the scene–is that shown through indirectness. When characters say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say, it is a recipe for absolute boring disaster. Pick up any professionally published book or any movie not directed by Uwe Boll or Tommy Wiseau. Or that’s called Sharknado.

If you pay attention, you’ll see that all of the dialogue is indirect. It’s at a slant to the speaker’s real meaning. The only time you will see a character speak with absolutely no indirectness is when they are lying or otherwise putting forth something that isn’t real. An example:

Direct: “You look pretty in that dress, Aunt Sadie.”
Indirect: “Say, did someone order a plate of hottie, extra old and wrinkly?”

Note how much more the indirect line conveys than does the direct line. It is playful, even a bit harsh in its jovial tone, but it is saying that Aunt Sadie, one hundred and six years old, is being complimented but also insulted. (I don’t know what situation one would use this particular line in, but you get me.) Another:

Direct: “I hate you and hope you die.”
Indirect: “When you’re playing around today, see if you can’t find an open manhole to fall into.”

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“But I don’t know what a ‘manhole’ is, Mommy.”

Using indirect dialogue for all your dialogue needs will make your fiction sparkle with conflict in an extremely satisfying way. As the immortal pre-Carbonite scene in The Empire Strikes Back put it:

Direct: “I love you, too.”
Indirect: “I know.”

The indirect line above says volumes more about Han and Leia and their relationship than it would have if they went with George Lucas’s original, direct line above. Moral of the story: Lucas needed to get out of his own goddamn way as far back as 1980.

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“How wude! But also twue!”

Next up: Part II of “Why You Need Conflict In Your Fiction”: Resolutions That Just Make It Worse

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