Growing up, my family argued about everything. Hell, even to this day, when we get together, we yell and cuss and make our asinine opinions known; religion, politics, or the proper way to peel a banana, nothing is out of bounds. Our heated arguments don’t mean we love each other any less than other more passive aggressive families do. We just know that conflict builds character.
And we are always right about everything… Always.
A lot of writer’s struggle with conflict because society views it as a negative. When there’s a disagreement, the most painless resolution is often encouraged. You must compromise! Unfortunately, however well this work in marriage, the opposite is true for writing fiction. Fiction without conflict is about as riveting as the first nineteen meters in a twenty meter, snail race.
Unicorn Happy Land
My wife and I are currently designing a D&D world called, “Unicorn Happy Land”.
“Okay,” I say, “now we need to figure out what goes wrong in Unicorn Happy Land.”
“No,” she replies. “Nothing ever goes wrong in Unicorn Happy Land.”
But if our unicorn hero always gets’s what they wants, if there is no mustachio-twirling villain to steal all the rainbows from the cotton candy forest, there is no story.
Okay, okay. You get it. You’re not an idiot. You know that there has to be conflict in fiction.
So why do writer’s get it wrong so often?
I think the problem lies in a misunderstanding about what conflict is on a deeper level…
In order to have real, meaningful conflict in a story, you must have at least two characters that yearn for things and their yearnings need to be diametrically opposed. If you are saying, “Well what about man vs. nature or man vs. self?” What you don’t understand is that in both of these scenarios “nature” and “self” are distinct characters from “man”. Semantics.
So… John wants an apple, but his lover, Jim, wants a banana. They go to the store and find they only have fifty pence between them. They can’t buy both fruits. If John gets his apple, Jim is bananaless and vice versa. Dum dum dum.
But no one really cares about who gets what piece of fruit, which brings us to the other piece of this puzzle: Stakes. If neither character gets what they want, it doesn’t really matter. Introduce a serial killer doctor that will murder John unless he produces an apple a day and Jim is dying of a potassium deficiency and now we start to have something interesting.
Once we have this setup, adding internal conflict will make things even more intriguing. Both John and Jim love each other very much and they know if the other person doesn’t get the fruit they need, they’re as good as dead. What on earth will they do?
“Just steal the fucking banana.”
And admittedly, this scenario isn’t all that well thought out, but you get the point.
Conflict, goals, and stakes are execrably linked. Without them, your story is boring.
So what to do?
If you’re ever struggling to write a scene, it’s almost always because there is a lack of conflict. Go back to your work and write down what each character desires and why it’s important. Figure out what would make it more important that your character accomplish their goals. What’s at stake? Do this, and I promise the words will fly like a rainbow, rocket propelled unicorn onto the page.
P.S. If you’re not familiar with the idea of scene vs. sequel, you may be confusing one for the other. If you can’t find conflict in a certain passage of well-known fiction, this may be the case. However, I still feel like the best sequel has conflict built into it even though it doesn’t necessarily have to (this is a whole additional topic of conversation).
Arguments are welcome in the comments section below!