I’m reading Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron. One particular section made me think.
She mentions a successful business man in his 60s, married to his high school sweetheart, with successful grown children. He brought Cron an 800 page novel, and, noting the absence of conflict in it, she asked him how he felt about conflict in his own life.
“He frowned. ‘I don’t like it,’ he said, tensing. ‘Who does?’
The answer, of course, is no one (drama queens notwithstanding). That’s exactly why we turn to story—to experience all the things that in life we avoid … in real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting every upward, for deliciously long as humanly possible.
… In the same way that a vicarious thrill, being one crucial step removed, isn’t nearly as powerful as the real thing, neither is the pain we experience when lost in a story … And that, my friends, is what makes stories so deeply satisfying. We get to try on trouble, pretty much risk-free.
Ignoring the occasional redundancy (presumably used for emphasis) and floweriness of the writing, I still got an ‘aha’ moment from this. I already knew I will do a lot to avoid conflict in real life, but I realize now that likely affects my ability to infuse scenes and storylines with conflict. I can do big conflict in single scenes (a kidnapping, a rape; a fight, verbal and/or physical), but I don’t manage under-current conflict well, in either the short or the long term. IRL I don’t see it or prefer to ignore it, and I do the same in the scenes that I imagine.
IRL, people don’t see things exactly the same. Even when they agree, their reasons for agreeing, for stating the same thing or appearing to do so will be different, even if only slightly thus. A long-married husband and wife can agree to see a movie but with different side reasons (time together, escape from kids, get out of the house), even if their stated reason is that they both like Pierce Brosnan. New co-workers on a business trip can agree to stop for lunch at a Denny’s for the stated reason of hunger, though one may hate the cologne of the other and just be happy to get out of the car, or the other has fond memories of Denny’s from his first date with his new girlfriend.
Those side reasons, verbalized or not, shared with the reader via inner dialogue or not, should shade or tint the interaction.
In addition, there’s the whole world of actual conflict. Even though I avoid it or belittle or ignore it IRL, I need it in my fiction. A lot. Big, small, short, long. And I know that, but I think my aversion to conflict is hindering my ability to imbue degrees of conflict in my fiction.
In a TV comedy, there is constant misunderstanding and misinterpreting generating conflict between characters or between a character and the world as it really is. In each episode of ‘The Waltons’ one member of the loving, peaceful, happy family does something, hopes for something, has something done to them, or somehow has conflict with another character. In ‘Columbo’ there is always a battle between Columbo and the mystery of the truth and the villain who is hiding from him, as well as the ongoing apparent discrepancy between Columbo’s sloppy, unassuming personality and his ability to outthink the villain. On reality TV there is the conflict between the goals of the contestants and between the contestants themselves. In sports, well, the conflict is obvious.
What about informative programming? Travel shows would be conflicts between our home versus travel, an inner conflict contrasting our regular life with a more exciting life, like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” used to be.
Conflict and life with tension is crucial to worthwhile writing, even if I try to avoid and minimize it in my daily life. That’s something that has to become automatic every time I put words down.