For the last ten years I’ve had a mantra, “No conflict, no story.” I said it so often that writers said it for me during our writer’s group and chanted it during workshops. It even turned up as a t-shirt by popular demand.
But I was turned on my heels when I was asked this question:
“Is there such a thing as bad conflict?”
The answer I gave was absolutely; some conflict can be bad for a story.
The idea that the very ingredient I offered as vital to any story might be something dangerous to it seemed a flat out contradiction. My absolute spoken with so much confidence for so many years was now being scrutinized and I had to admit was not so absolute.
Conflict is not always two dogs, one bone. That’s an easy image to visualize and one that says it all about conflict: there’s definitely going to be a fight.
That kind of conflict is direct and palpable. You know something is going to happen. That kind of conflict comes out of the one thing any character in any story has to have: desire. And it’s also an immediate desire.
That’s direct conflict, good conflict, and it makes for a good story.
So what if it’s two dogs that could talk? (Play along with me.) And these two dogs argue, which is a form of conflict, over who deserves the bone more?
Granted, there’s a story in the argument but if that’s all there is and the desire for the bone becomes secondary all you have is a back and forth that would bore a reader to death.
This is indirect conflict and too much of it, too much arguing, too much dialog explaining the whys and wherefores of two sides of a decision can literally kill a scene. It’s tug of war and no one is winning.
Without an obstacle smack in the middle of a scene, a character isn’t facing direct conflict, only indirect conflict. Characters may be thinking, plotting, going back and forth in their heads with great angst, great conflict, but there’s no “other dog” going after their bone.
It doesn’t mean a story shouldn’t have indirect conflict.
Characters will always show conflict through thought and dialog. There needs to be a balance between indirect and direct conflict. Indirect conflict defines a character in many ways. It gives the reader a look inside the character’s mind and their process of thinking things out.
Direct conflict is the POW. The action. And without action nothing moves forward. If the plot doesn’t advance the story, the story dies.
It goes like this:
Want (Goal), Obstacle (Conflict), Action (Plot) = STORY
Not all conflict is good conflict. Indirect conflict is not enough to carry a reader’s attention. A character faced with an insurmountable obstacle, like a good adversary, gives a reader a dog in the fight.
I guess I’ll hang on to my mantra, “No conflict no story” with these comments added for clarification. And it still looks good on a t-shirt.
Christina, for PenPaperWrite
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