What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
I once heard bestselling author John LeCarré give an interview in which he spoke about the role of conflict in fiction. He said: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ — that’s the beginning of a story.”
Readers love to see characters thrown into a crisis, forced to grapple with problems. Why? I don’t think it’s because we’re sadists. It’s because we read novels to experience an emotional bond with a character who faces a dilemma. We feel: what would I do in that situation? That’s the reason we read stories.
Yet emerging writers often shy away from depicting their characters’ conflict. This undermines the power of their book, because nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict. So, embrace all richness that conflict gives you as a writer.
When I’m planning a book, scene by scene, I ask myself, partly in jest: “What could possibly go wrong for these characters?” Ask yourself that same question continuously about the story you’re developing: “What could go wrong?” Then, seriously, make that happen.
Here are three tips for working with conflict in your story.
Tip #1. Don’t be intimidated by the word conflict. Conflict does not mean combat. It just means problems. What problems does your protagonist — your main character — face in trying to achieve his or her goal? Conflict occurs because the protagonist, wanting something, comes up against some someone with a goal that’s in direct opposition to theirs. So, create situations that put increasing pressures on your characters, forcing them into ever more difficult dilemmas, so that they must make increasingly risky choices, leading them to take actions that eventually reveal their true natures.
Tip #2. Escalate the conflict in your story gradually. To be believable, characters in a story, just like people in real life, will naturally start by taking the most conservative action possible to get what they want. If they don’t – if they leap into taking extreme action – they will come across as unrealistic, and you’ll lose your reader. So, the long middle section of your book will be composed of a series of events that spring from conflict that gradually escalates.
Tip #3. Your protagonist can be in conflict on three possible levels:
• Internal conflict: conflict with oneself.
• External conflict in the form of inter-personal relationships: family, friends, colleagues.
• Extra-personal conflict: conflict with the larger community in the form of powerful institutions, such as the government, the church, the school system, the army.
The most compelling stories, the stories that stay with us forever, often involve conflict on all three levels: personal, inter-personal, and extra-personal.
In contrast, consider what we call “soap opera.” The term is often used as a pejorative. Why? After all, soap operas, watched by millions, are highly engrossing.
I think the reason we sense weakness in the soap opera form is that it shows us conflict on only one level: the interpersonal. It does that with great panache — it’s the strength of soap opera, because interpersonal relationships are so engaging. But it’s also incomplete. Characters in a soap opera rarely face internal conflict – there’s rarely a crisis of conscience – and they never do battle with extra-personal forces. For example, if a cop enters a storyline on a soap, you can be sure he’ll soon be caught up in the highly personal concerns of other characters — the story will not be about corruption in the police department. So, there’s virtually no conflict with the self, nor with society. It’s all one level – momentarily very engrossing, but ultimately unsatisfying.
We are moved most deeply by stories in which the characters are engaged in all three levels of conflict. That’s partly what creates the enduring power of classics like David Copperfield. Frankenstein. A Passage to India. Heart of Darkness. The Age of Innocence. The Grapes of Wrath. Gone with The Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird.
Never shy away from embroiling your characters in many swirling currents of conflict. It will prove their mettle, make them reveal their true selves. Conflict is the fuel that propels every page-turner.