In my real life, I am a conflict avoider.
Conflict is so messy – it brings up unhappy emotions, and people get mad or cry and in my mind, despite all my counselor training, I tell myself that if only I were different and better and more accepting, the conflict wouldn’t be necessary. Which is totally absurd, of course. It’s not possible to go through life as a reasonably authentic human being without running into conflict.
And in books? In books it’s the opposite. No conflict = boring. As one of my favorite writing teachers James Scott Bell would say, “your book should never open with smiling happy people having fun.” In real life, we all (or at least most of us) want to be the smiling happy people having fun. But in books? I’m sorry, but nobody wants to read this. What keeps the pages turning is conflict.
And what is conflict, exactly? Well, it doesn’t have to mean a big action scene with dragon fights and swords and inscrutable penguins, or even spontaneous combustion in the ER, although these things are fun to write. Conflict can be quiet and internal – nothing more than a character pondering the nature of reality or wondering whether or not she should open a particular door.
But if the conflict is missing, the scene falls flat. These are the places where as readers we get bored and set the book aside. And where as a writer, I also get bored and want to put the book aside. I’m learning that when I’m trying to write and all I want to do is go have a nap, it’s very probable that I’ve left out the conflict.
The best writing trick for making sure a scene has conflict is something I got from Donald Maass. It’s basically this: check in with your point of view character at the beginning of the scene. What is she feeling, thinking? Check in with her again at the end of the scene. If nothing has changed – she hasn’t been through conflict.
I’m going to share an example from one of my works in progress. In this scene, what I need to do is get a woman out of a hospital bed, down the hall, and into a limo with an operative:
“They send me Doogie Hauser, or at the least his stand in. He wears the standard young medico uniform – a white lab coat open over blue jeans and polo shirt, stethoscope draped around his neck. His name tag identifies him as Dr. Henderson. But he doesn’t look a day over sixteen.
While he natters on about the way my life from this day forward will be limited and defined by this injury he and his fellows have so spectacularly botched the healing of, all I can do is focus on the brush of baby fine hairs along his cheekbone. Sunlight slants through the window and highlights them, a golden, delicate fuzz. I want to ask him if he’s old enough to shave but he hasn’t pissed me off quite that much.
“Now, Ms. K., this is very important. You qualify for some in-home nursing care – someone will be coming by your home tomorrow-”
“No. They won’t.”
I’ve been polite; I’ve listened. Now I’m done. From my position, seated on the edge of the hospital bed, it’s fairly easy to slide my feet to the floor. The place in my belly, the one that he’s going on about because of its refusal to heal, makes itself known as I stretch, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t let the pain show in my face.
My right leg is another thing altogether.
It’s damnably weak after all the bed rest, and when I put weight on it I swear to God I can feel the pins creaking in the bone. The knee buckles. When I tighten my muscles to correct the fall the pain sensors in my belly all fire at once. I gasp, feel the grimace of pain contort my face.
Dammit. Never let them see your weakness.
Doogie puts his hand on my arm, although I’ve already steadied myself and I’m not in danger of toppling.
“Oopsy daisy,” he croons, as though I am a child; as though I haven’t spent the last 50 years of my life fighting and shooting and chasing down the dark side. “Somebody get a wheelchair in here?”
He doesn’t know how close he comes to a healthy slap on that baby soft face. My fingers itch with the impulse, but he’s saved by my grasp of reality. The blow would knock me flat on my ass and they’d probably tie me into the bed and order in mental health. I’d have to tell lies to pass their little tests, and I’m just not in the mood for fun and games.”
Maureen is more than happy to get out of the hospital bed, but it would be rather dull if she is cooperative and pleasant with the medical staff and limps off happily down the hall. The conflict here is mostly internal – with her pride, and the betrayal of her own body – and the young doctor gets drawn into the conflict just because he’s the one who happens to be there. My goal – to draw you, the reader, into the story. If I’ve succeeded, you feel a little empathy with Maureen, and maybe a little curiosity.
Your turn – what are your thoughts on conflict? Does this scene work for you, or does it need to go back to the drawing board?