I’ve read a lot of how-to books about storytelling. Back when I was devouring such works on a daily basis, but before I ran across Hills’ book, I developed a dull negative reaction to the topic of conflict. The more a book talked about conflict as being central to drama, the less interested I generally was in that author’s storytelling advice.
Why? Because equating conflict to drama always struck me as meaningless. It’s like equating water to melted ice. What in life isn’t about conflict? Dog. Cat. Mouse. Fleas. Plague. Death. Culture. Religion. Life. Gravity. Comet. Fire. Water. Ice. Is it really saying something insightful to say that drama is about conflict? Or is saying something easy and obvious?
When I finally did come across Hills’ book the first paragraph in this section brought my dull discomforts into focus:
Conflict is thought by many to be a basic element in fiction, and certainly it is true that conflict of some sort is present in most stories.
Considered for the moment, however, purely as a plot device, conflict leaves a good deal to be desired when it is made the main structure of a story.
Hills goes on to talk about external conflict, how external conflict must sooner or later be realized as internal conflict, and how internal conflict necessarily devolves into some sort of “willy wonty” choice. While this admittedly creates suspense, at what cost?
Storytelling gurus would have you believe the agonizing characters go through when trying to decide which fork in the road to take necessarily fuels a big payoff initiated by conflict. To tell any story, then, all you have to do is A) set up a conflict and B) flog that conflict until the main character chooses one fork or the other, cliffhanger style, often at the point of a gun. But again, is that really useful information?
Pretend for the moment that you’re a storytelling guru. Think of a movie or book or TV show you’re familiar with, then draw up a list of conflicts included in that work. In fifteen minutes you can probably fill a page or more, ranging from high-level plot devices to character motivations all the way down to season, setting and time. You can cite conflicts in goals, conflicts in philosophies, conflicts in culture, conflicts in families, conflicts in nature, conflicts in careers — it’s absolutely endless. And because it’s endless it’s also meaningless.
But if you’re less concerned with telling stories than you are with selling your storytelling wisdom, how can you go wrong with conflict? It’s so ubiquitous, so inherent in every situation that you can blather about it endlessly and never run out of relevant examples.
Even conflict-driven labels like protagonist and antagonist aren’t defined by craft and technique, they’re defined by conceptual models of criticism and analysis. Like stock brokers explaining why the market moved after the fact, explaining and analyzing conflicts in an existing story has nothing to do with the authorial skill of using conflict as a technique when writing a story.
Conflict is inherent in individuals, in relationships, in life. To see this clearly, ask yourself which is more amazing: two people in conflict or two people in harmony? If conflict isn’t the existential norm then it’s the norm-in-waiting, supplanted only by the eternal struggle of avoiding conflict in everyday life.
So the student asks, “What is drama?”, and the guru says, “Drama is conflict.” Whereupon the student treats this trite observation as the mathematical formula it is purported to be, realizing with glee that if that if D=C, then C(Tons)=D(Tons). The result is rock’em-sock’em fiction in which every man, woman and child carries both a suitcase nuke and a long list of intractable personal grievances.
As noted previously, you can’t simply make a story better by blowing up more buildings or adding more sex. The same holds true for conflict. More conflict does not equal more drama. And if that’s true — if there are other factors at play in determining the force of drama — then it’s simply not the case that drama is conflict. Conflict may be part of drama, but it’s not the whole story.
At this point the guru chuckles at the student’s preposterous amalgam of conflicts and acknowledges that there’s more to conflict than tonnage. What’s key in creating drama from conflict, the guru says, is heightening the reader’s uncertainty as much as possible. Immediately the eager student grasps the deeper implication: conflict is an engine of drama because conflict creates uncertainty and uncertainty is a reliable agent of suspense. Which is exactly backwards.
The more uncertain a reader is made to become as to what the outcome of a story is going to be, the less likely it is that he’s going to be convinced by the ending when it finally arrives. This, of course, is because he hasn’t been prepared for it.
The inevitability of retrospect helps a reader feel as if the uncertainty of a story has been resolved. Straining at the bit to constantly inject uncertainty into a story until the last possible moment undermines preparation for that ending. You can’t have it both ways.
Like suspense in the genre sense, or sex or mystery, conflict and uncertainty can suck readers in. But if that’s all you’ve got they’re probably going to feel shortchanged at the moment when you most want them to feel rewarded.
Next up: Tension and Anticipation.
— Mark Barrett