In 2004, I wrote and produced a play. I was convinced it was brilliant.
I was especially proud of all the conflict between its two main characters, believing that this made the play an honest portrayal of life’s complicated issues.
When it debuted, I hoped that my friend and professional actor, Landon, would be mightily impressed.
“Why are they fighting?” he asked me. “They just scream at each other. It doesn’t make sense.”
I was horrified.
How did it not make sense? Maybe Landon didn’t get the brilliance of my play.
Or, as I found with time and maturity, maybe my play was deeply flawed in a way that repulses readers like crazy.
When Conflict is Inauthentic
I came to understand Landon’s frustration when I judged the Winter Short Story Contest hosted by The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break.
Many of the stories I read began with violence and screaming. While the restraints of a contest certainly put a premium on word counts, some of conflict in these stories was startling in its suddenness and extremity.
- In the first paragraphs of one story, a husband called his wife “Woman!” and slapped her to the ground without any build-up or explanation why.
- In another, set in a far-off fantasy land where a child must prove her worth in the wild, the parents used modern language, including frequent “F”-bombs, to describe the beasts of the wildnerness.
None of this felt real.
Just like the screaming and shouting in my play felt unreal to Landon, who had the kindness and courage to tell me so, this left me puzzled at best and repulsed at worst.
“Puzzled” and “repulsed” are not feelings you want your reader to experience!
It’s essential to understand
that readers encounter conflict every day.
It’s in their marriages, their jobs, their commutes, their friendships, their love or hate of politics – everything.
And conflict, like every other element of a story, must be presented authentically, or the reader will be turned off and probably never return.
So how do we capture the essence of something as complicated as conflict?
Why does screaming and shouting and violence – all obvious forms of conflict – fail to do the trick?
The Power of Relationships
The secret lies in another aspect of everyday life: Relationships.
Some of the conflict in our lives comes from random little annoyances: Red traffic lights, loud people in line at the grocery store, a troll leaving a mean comment on your YouTube channel.
But the meaningful conflict we face isn’t random, nor does it come from little moments with insignificant strangers.
The most meaningful conflict in our lives comes from Relationships.
In a story, a relationship is the interaction between two characters.
But this definition alone cannot hold up. If “interaction” is all you bring to your writing, you’ll end up with what I wrote, and what Landon didn’t enjoy: shouting, cursing, and slapping.
That certainly counts as interaction, but it is only a brief – and excessive – expression of the complex relationship that these two characters share.
True, meaningful, interaction is this:
Time spent sharing or opposing one another’s goals.
This is why the relationship between Frodo and Sam is so strong in The Lord of the Rings: They share a common goal and spend a boatload of time together pursuing it.
Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader also have a relationship, but theirs is antagonist, as their goals oppose one another in very direct ways.
Both of these relationships have fascinated readers and filmgoers for decades. Some of the best scenework between them isn’t in battle or shouting, but in the quiet, tense moments.
- Think of Sam’s steady encouragement in the arid desert of Mordor, urging Frodo toward the shared goal of destroying the ring.
- Think of Vader inspecting his son’s custom green lightsaber, igniting it behind the boy’s vulnerable back (and sparking fear that could lead Luke to try to save his own skin).
Authentic conflict can only come when characters with deep, relevant stakes are involved, and they share a relationship that is undeniably authentic.
Sure, the Force isn’t real, and Mordor doesn’t exist on a map.
But no one would suggest that the relationships between these iconic characters aren’t real.
Readers Quit When the Conflict is Fake
This is why Landon couldn’t enjoy my story.
The characters were basically sitting and talking about the weather, only to devolve into a petty shouting match. It wasn’t authentic – it was a young playwright trying to emulate the masters, and failing gloriously.
And this is why I couldn’t like, and therefore couldn’t shortlist, a number of stories in the Winter Short Story Contest. Their characters hadn’t done anything meaningful together. They hadn’t helped or hurt each other’s pursuit of goals.
Instead, they just shouted. Or swung. Or did really nifty things in battle.
But it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I didn’t enjoy reading it, and neither will our readers if we don’t fully commit to crafting honest, believeable, and relationship-based conflict.
Story Secret #6: Invest in Relationships
The first key is to embrace Story Secret #2 and frame your story around the pursuit of physical goals.
- When characters spend time pursuing goals together, they learn about each other. They change and grow.
- When they oppose each other, they are challenged and frustrated. This, too, causes change and growth in your characters.
Your writing should be focused on creating scenes built around the pursuit of a physical goal.
The key here is to avoid the trap of focusing your draft on setting.
(“Wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote a scene in a barbershop…?”)
Sure, a particular setting may seem “cool” to write about, but this is a dangerous pitfall of the unintentional writer.
Settings are not cool.
The things character do in settings are cool.
Settings also are not goals, nor are they the pursuit of goals. Settings are settings. Window dressing. Texture. Decoration.
When you draft, make each scene about a person pursuing a goal and his companion or enemy. They can process the goal, debate over the goal, challenge each other about the goal, change goals, or even blatantly avoid the goal for a little while.
The scene doesn’t have to be violent or crude whatsoever. It can even be a part of the build-up to, or fallout from, a goal.
But goals – and the characters who gather around them in pursuit – MUST be central to every story you write.
This is what forms relationships, and relationships form authentic conflict.
So if you find yourself writing an abundance of curse words, or an abundance of combat, inspect your work very critically.
It may be blighted with false, flimsy conflict that will turn away your valuable readers!
So devote yourself to crafting authentic conflict out of authentic relationships.
Your stories will be favorites in no time!
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading!
What do you think? Do Relationships lead to authentic conflict, or does authentic conflict come from a different source?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: essygie, Creative Commons