Hi, folks. Joe Stalwart here. I’m a PI, a well-motivated character who overcomes obstacles in pursuit of a goal. My old buddy Lloyd Meeker asked me to come by and talk about writing conflict because he’s sulking and doesn’t want to deal with it.
Nah, that’s not really fair. The truth is he doesn’t mind conflict as long as it’s an authentic part of the story. It’s when it just gets manufactured for its own sake and shoved into a story that he gets pissed off.
But I’d better start at the beginning. Like I said, I’m a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the goal. That’s the essence of a story, and I make a great protagonist, even if I do say so myself.
It used to be enough that one of my stories would start when a gorgeous dame walked into my dingy office while a solo saxophone played slow, blue, and hot, the movement of her hips making the kind of sweet promises men might kill for. She’d sit at my desk, cross her legs with a whisper of silk stockings and blow out a sexy stream of cigarette smoke. She’d have my attention, that’s a sure thing.
She’d hire me to solve a problem and then I’d go ahead and solve it. The reader would get a decent amount of conflict along the way, as well as some entertaining wise-ass dialogue. Sometimes the dame liked my solution to her problem and sometimes she didn’t. Hell, once in a while she didn’t even make it to the end of the story. So sometimes I got paid, and other times, well, you can figure it out.
Nowadays, though, that’s not enough according to most of the writing coaches that shout on every street corner in novel-land the way crazy preachers used to in Des Moines during the Depression. Don’t get me wrong, some of those folks know what they’re talking about. Others? Well, not so much.
The ones that get under my skin are the ones who tell you conflict is more important than story. They’ve made a goddamn fetish out of conflict and they don’t seem to give a shit about what else happens between the covers of a book as long as there’s conflict on every damn page. I kid you not. They look for it, and they keep score.
It’s a writing rule of some kind now, like everyone has to cheer for the Emperor’s new clothes even though he’s nekkid as a jaybird. And before you get yourself in a lather, this isn’t a rant about clichés and stereotypes, so back off will you? I’ll get to them someday when I’m damn good and ready.
So where was I? Oh, yeah. Conflict on every page. I got news for you. Sometimes a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal has to sit down and think. I hope you’re not disappointed. A protagonist who takes time to think or reflect actually gives you a better story.
I can tell you from first-hand experience, being chased down the street by goons shooting at you or being tied to the to a chair and pistol-whipped is not conducive to productive thought or reflection.
You like that word, conducive? Bet you didn’t expect it, comin’ outta my mouth, did you? That’ll part of our conversation about clichés and stereotypes, the one we’re not going to have today.
Some of the writing honchos say conflict reveals character, and they’ve got a point. But stop the presses—a character engaging in conflict that’s not necessary to the story shows he’s too stupid to belong to the story and you should stop reading right there. That cheesy technique also reveals the character of an author who laces his stories with gratuitous conflict. Cheap thrills, I say.
I mean, how many times do I have to be tied to a chair and pistol whipped, or thrown in a car trunk so I can kick out the taillights and jump out just before the car gets onto the freeway, or crawl out as the car is being crushed in the junkyard just because “I know too much,” or “I’m getting too close”? Gimme a fuckin’ break.
I tell you, the phony writing coaches are like drug dealers in a schoolyard. They’re trying to get everyone addicted to conflict for its own sake, and that’s just plain tragic. Stories are ruined through conflict abuse. And like an extra-thick coat of paint on the wall, conflict can be used to mask more serious problems hiding underneath it.
They’ve got this thing that they like to call terrible trouble. Well, I can tell you that my favorite sidekick is named Terrible Trouble, and he’s around a lot in my stories. But he’s never parachuted in like a commando just to give readers a better adrenaline rush.
If you want a satisfying story, read a good book. If all you’re after is an adrenaline rush, go ride a good rollercoaster or take up skydiving. They’re not the same thing as a good story, and you can’t confuse them. You’ve got to make up your mind what you want.
Next time you’re caught in a pack of writers and you’re not sure you’re if you’re talking to a conflict junkie, there are warning signs to look for. They got buzzwords out the wazoo. If it’s not terrible trouble its micro-tension, or maximum capacity, or raising the stakes, or some other goddamn thing. They just never fuckin’ let up.
A while ago a bunch of writing pundits proclaimed that the sequel was dead. That’s one of the stupidest things I ever heard. Because of that, story shit supposedly has to happen faster, more often, and harder—and usually making more noise in the process.
Then at the end of the story, when it’s all over you’re supposed to be satisfied as a reader as if the point of reading the book was the same as going to Knott’s Berry Farm. As if a well-motivated character isn’t adequate if he has to draw breath or, god forbid, stop to think. I’m here to say the story is not just about conflict. It’s a story, ferchrissakes.
More often than not nowadays, the story ends by pointing to potential terrible trouble just around the corner, just in case it’s a hit and there has to be a series. You probably haven’t bothered to count the writers who take that idea and trample all over their story with it. It’s not worth doing a body count, but it’s still a damn shame.
Still don’t see what I’m getting at? No problem. I can overcome that obstacle pretty easy.
Let’s say you got a protagonist supposed to drive up to Topanga Canyon to scatter his murdered friend’s ashes. He does it, with hardly a whiff of conflict in the whole damn scene. Protag’s had this guy’s ashes sitting in an urn on his coffee table through the whole damn story and now, just a few scenes from the end, he finally figures out where he’s supposed to spread them. And he does it. It’s a moment of completion, and part of the protagonist’s movement toward his big sacrifice yet to come. He feels connected to his murdered friend forever, knowing they’ll see each other again. Kinda mystical. Let’s say the whole thing is six hundred words. Two fuckin’ pages.
But if those conflict junkies get hold of that scene? Fasten your seatbelt.
The protagonist looks at the beautiful dame still sleeping in his bed, tucks the urn of ashes under his arm and heads for the door. He’s left her a note, everything’s cool. A floorboard squeaks.
She wakes up. “Honey, come back to bed,” she calls out.
“Can’t,” he says. “Gotta set my friend’s ashes free.”
The dame isn’t impressed. She’s got a different agenda—that’s how we set up conflict. “If you come back to bed, I’ll give you a vewy special treat,” she pouts, licking her lips. She looks like Marilyn Monroe, all tousled and luscious.
The protag is noble, in spite of the fact that he likes the dame’s special treats. A lot. “Thanks, but no. I got business to take care of.”
The dame is insulted. “If you don’t come back to bed I’ll smash your guitar while you’re gone.”
The protag is a sensitive guy. He loves his guitar. “Then you better be out of California by the time I get back,” he says, and closes the door too hard.
He stands in the garage, and has a moment of inner conflict. Should he take his motorcycle or his beat-up economy car? He’s torn. How would his dead buddy prefer to make his last ride? He opts for the motorcycle. Wild and free. He pulls on his leathers, rolls out of the garage, fires up the horse and roars away.
It’s a beautiful day, and he guns it. He’s got to be back in town in time for an appointment with someone who wants to hire him on a new case, and he needs the money. That’s called a ticking clock, in case you can’t tell the players without a program.
He’s partway up the Pacific Coast Highway, the urn of ashes in his backpack when he’s pulled over by a cop for speeding. Protag apologizes and tries to be nice, ease out of the problem because he just wants to do the right thing with his friend’s ashes. But the cop is being a real jerk. Rising conflict ensues.
This is going to cost him, as well as make him late. This is raising the stakes, one of those writing workshop terms I mentioned earlier. He doesn’t have the money to pay the damn ticket, and might not get the new assignment if he can’t get back into town in time for the appointment.
Back on the road with that high-priced citation in his pocket, the protag takes risks on the road to make up lost time. He hits some sand on a curve and spins out. He comes to, his arm is pretty badly banged up, and so is one leg. He sees the urn lying in the ditch next to his ripped up backpack.
Another round of internal conflict—protag beats himself up for not being more careful. Then he argues with himself as to whether he’s able to go on to Topanga Canyon. An inner voice tells him he’s a quitter—a flashback to an old failure when under enemy fire he couldn’t drag his army buddy back to safety in time to save him. After moments of intense angst he resolves to go on to Topanga Canyon and to hell with his busted up body and the appointment in the city.
As he drags himself to the urn, a scorpion hiding under a rock stings him as he pulls himself along. Now he’s in terrible trouble, plus he’s got a real ticking clock. He’s got to dump the ashes right there in the ditch because he has to get to a hospital quick. He has a moment of self-loathing, apologizes to his friend and empties the urn, says a brief word. That’s the best he can do.
He’s beginning to feel the effect of the scorpion venom. He hobbles to the motorcycle, finds it’s still functional and jumps on. Sweating and semi-delirious, he weaves his way back toward the city (and guess what, no cop bothers to stop him now—how’s that for author fuckin’ convenience?) and collapses unconscious at the emergency entrance of a hospital.
That’s a different story, isn’t it? And you’ve already read or watched a scene just like it at least a zillion times. Paint by numbers predictable. Big fuckin’ deal.
But the original scene is about the friend’s goddam ashes, not the stupid motorcycle trip, which didn’t even exist in the first one. In the first there’s no ticking clock and no scorpion. The reader is just going to have to deal with a genuine quiet moment and try to stay awake all on his own.
Because here’s the point. Conflict isn’t the only way to reveal character. Remember that old saying, that actions speak louder than words? Well, that’s the essence of character. Character is shown through action. That action may or may not be in response to a threat or conflict, but it also might be the act of observing a scene, or holding vigil. It’s all meaningful action that reveals character.
He likes Donald Maass’ new book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, a lot. In fact, that’s his current favorite. One of the best pieces of enduring writing advice Meeker ever got, he told me, was from Jim Frey: “Just tell the story.” He’s got that sucker taped above his computer.