Tayari Jones on adding conflict to wake up a sleepy story.
When I was in high school, a harsh reprimand was, “Stop instigating!” (Odd diction for kids, but it’s what we used to say.) In a more formal parlance, it meant, stop provoking conflict. While this is a good rule for life, it’s not such a good rule in fiction. In an earlier post
about personal problems morphing into writerly problems, one of the commenters shared that her real-life aversion to conflict, spilled out onto the page. Many of us have this same issue, so this post is going to be all about learning to be a proud instigator.
How do you know if you’re avoiding conflict in your story?
There are plot tics that may indicate a problem.
- Is your story populated by strong silent types? For example, when the husband reveals that he’s having an affair, does the wife sit there in stony silence?
- Are the people in your story the type that “don’t talk about things”? So when the son in a traditional 1800s farm family gets caught in bed with the field hand, everybody agrees to ignore it.
- Do your characters tend to leave the room when things get hot? What does your character do when she finds out that she’s been passed over (again) for a big promotion? She walks out the room. When she catches her fiancé in bed with her sister? Same thing. So why do you avoid conflict? Like Dolen, the commenter that inspired this post, your real-life personality may leak into your art. But there may be another reason. Perhaps you are too in love with your main character to let her get smacked around by life. This especially happens with autobiographical characters. Let’s say she finally gets up her nerve to confess that she has been lying all along and she’s not really the Princess Anastasia. If you are hiding from conflict, the other characters will forgive her right away because the not-Princess is a good person at heart and everyone can see it. Or maybe you are just ending the scene too soon. You think that the chapter is over when the character discovers something. For example, he discovers that his boss is manufacturing meth in the men’s room. Try making the plot point—the discovery—the next-to-the-last thing to happen and end with the fall-out of the discovery.
Here are a couple of exercises that may help you.
- Don’t let your characters leave the room. Go to those scenes and just write out another page or so with all the people forced to react to each other. For my own work, I actually employ a more dramatic device. A friend and I act out the missing conflict. It’s amazing how much potential conflict another person can come up with off the top of her head.
- Write a character sketch of your main character from the point of view of someone who doesn’t like her very much. This is more challenging that it sounds. You don’t want it to end up sounding like those job interview questions when you have tell your own weaknesses, so you make them sort of like compliments. (“My weakness is that I never give up!) You want to really go there and try and see what kind of feathers your character may ruffle- advertently or inadvertently. That’s where the conflict will come from. Then, return to the scene and let the characters duke it out.
- Take all scenes where there is even a hint of conflict, and turn it all the way up. I think of this like running a bath. You turn the heat all the way up, and then turn it back down until it’s just as hot as you can stand. Don’t worry about being a drama queen. Amp that conflict, just to see what will happen. And what may happen is that you may wake up your sleepy story and give it enough energy to sprint to the finish.
As always, I hand the disucssion off to you. Are YOU good at conflict in writing or in life? What are the techniques that help you face conflict?