Elizabeth: Conflict Conundrum

ConflictWe’ve talked about conflict a number of times here on the blog including Jilly’s post here, my Back to Basics post here,  and Justine’s recent Fiction Fundamentals posts here and here.

“Let’s be clear about one thing: conflict must be in each scene in your book. Every. Single. One.”  ~ Justine

Jenny Crusie also has a great set of posts all about conflict on her Writing/Romance blog, full of details and examples.  With all of these discussions, along with our McDaniel class notes and presentations, I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the role conflict plays in building a strong, engaging story.

Conflict is a specific struggle between two people, the escalating action of which moves the story forward.” ~ Jenny Crusie

But . . .

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks in waiting rooms and on airplanes, which means I’ve been doing a lot of reading.  That reading has included books by first time writers, authors I’ve read and enjoyed before, New York Times bestsellers, RITA award winners, and fan favorites.  In many of stories the character goals are established but I’m not seeing conflict in every scene.  Overarching story conflict, yes, but scene-by-scene conflict, not so much.

When conflict exists in the story and is well established, the goals of the protagonist and the antagonist in the story are clearly identifiable. 

For example, I’m on page 95 of the current book I’m reading and I can’t really tell you what the main conflict in the story is.  I’ve met the male and female characters who will wind up living “happily ever after” at the end, but I don’t know what either of them truly wants.  Things have happened in the individual scenes, but nothing really feels like it is Conflict.  In fact, some of the scenes may very well have been heavy with back story (gasp!).

But . . .

I’m really enjoying the book so far and looking forward to finishing it.

When I take off my “reading like a writer” hat, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.  The characters are interesting and I want to know what is going to happen as the story progresses.  I’m not feeling that “oh my goodness, what’s going to happen next” tension, but I’m being pulled along by the story nonetheless.  I’m getting the “enjoyment” and “escape” that I look for from a book.

Which leads me to conclude that either:

The conflict is there and I just don’t recognize it

Or

Every single scene does not have to have conflict

So help me out here.  What are your thoughts on conflict?   I recognize major Conflict, but what does smaller, nuanced conflict in a story look like?  Examples, please.

15 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Conflict Conundrum

  1. Conflict and story have been giving me fits in my own WIP, so I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Remember how in class we talked about Bet Me? It was a discussion about who the antagonist was, and nobody got it right. The antagonist is Fate. So when Cal is arguing with himself that he’s not going to see Min and he makes toast and burns his fingers, and then they both wind up at the Elvis movie together, and all that—those scenes had conflict because the antagonist was Fate, pushing back on what Cal said he wanted, and then Cal going ahead and seeing Min anyway. To me, those scenes didn’t read like conflict much, except that Cal was arguing with himself. In some ways, because the antagonist was invisible, those scenes looked like sittin’ and thinkin.’ But they were very engaging scenes, or at least, I thought so.

    I don’t think the conflict has to be big. I think it can be very, very small. But something has to happen in that scene. It has to move plot or demonstrate character, right? You can’t just describe the scenery. So if your H and H are going for dinner and one wants Chinese and one wants Mexican, and your girl says, okay, fine, Chinese it is, then that shows character, because she’s willing to compromise. That’s enough, at least theoretically. (Although of course you would make this scene a lot more interesting than I’ve just demonstrated.)

    However, I’ve noticed that I, too, enjoy books that don’t seem to conform to the theories we’ve been learning. Those books probably don’t follow the established patterns. Maybe those writers have to work harder to make us interested in a book that doesn’t have much overt conflict, I don’t know. In my own writing, I find that if I don’t have a situation where characters’ goals are clearly differentiated, my writing really bogs down, and I can’t make it interesting. But everyone’s mileage would vary.

    • Kay, I think your point about how “something has to happen in that scene” is right. Who would be interested in reading about a character like me who ate breakfast, went to the eye doctor for a scratched eye (nothing serious wrong), then came home and did some work on her book. Boring! (Or at least I think so.)

      Perhaps “conflict” or even mini-conflict isn’t the right word to use, then, to describe what’s happening in every scene. Call it “character growth” or “character development” or “butting heads” or “story development” or whatever. Georgette Heyer does this a lot at the beginning of her books, to lay out the story, character circumstances, etc. I still think they’re riveting reads. I agree that one might be hard-pressed to identify the conflict (or call it conflict), but sometimes it’s as small as a differing opinion about another character or an event that happened. I suppose technically that isn’t conflict, though, if one uses a traditional definition of it.

      In terms of my posts, I’m emphasizing fundamentals. Anyone can can break the rules, so long as you have a compelling reason to do so.

      Elizabeth, I’m curious what book you’re reading and what is happening in the scene you mention above.

      • Justine – I’m currently reading Rachel Gibson’s new book What I Love About You(at least I think it is a new book – I’m kind of behind.) The only conflict that is crystal clear right now is that the hero is battling with alcohol. I don’t know what the heroine wants, and the blurb on the back of the book isn’t much help. But again, I’m liking the story so I’m willing to wait it out and see what develops.

    • That’s a good point Kay. The scenes in the book I am reading that seem conflict-free do seem to be demonstrating character, so they are doing something. I liked the “fate” antagonist in Bet Me. It made sense and made the story work for me.

  2. Oddly enough, Elizabeth, I’ve been having the exact same thoughts – in fact, if I hadn’t wanted to write about Shakespeare, I would have written a version of this post a few days ago. I’ve also been reading quite a bit lately, from old-skool classics to new-to-me bestsellers to new authors, and I noticed that quite often I’ve enjoyed stories where there isn’t major conflict by my definition (a single antagonist whose goal is as strong or stronger than the protagonist’s and the two goals are mutually exclusive, so simply by pursuing their goal each character blocks the other, forcing them to grow and change and act).

    Many of the stories I’ve been reading have a protagonist with a clear goal and a big character arc, so lots of choices under pressure, obstacles to overcome and lots of change, but not always driven by conflict with one antagonist, unless I get really twisty about my definitions of goals and conflict.

    Take Lord of Scoundrels (again! sorry, but I love that book). It’s Dain’s story, and over the course of the book he is redeemed and transformed, but do he and Jessica have opposing goals? It’s more like a series of escalating mini-conflicts that build up into an overall pattern. Or Susan Wiggs’ The Charm School, a classic shipboard romp I read a couple of weeks ago. Our heroine Isadora, a frumpy, brainy Boston misfit, escapes the misery of the social round by wangling a place on a trading ship bound for Rio. Over the course of the journey, with the assistance of the captain and crew, she gains confidence, blossoms, wins the love of the captain and returns to Boston in triumph. One could maybe argue that she wanted to transform herself to win the man she has a terrible crush on (the shipowner’s spoiled son) but since the son has one cameo at the beginning and one at the end, he’s not the one pushing Isadora to change. Or the first Marie Force Gansett Island book, where the beloved son of one of the grand old families falls hard for the impoverished single-parent hussy with an appalling reputation. The hero and heroine have to make major attitude adjustments to turn their attraction into a lasting relationship, whilst battling the prejudice and misconceptions of everyone else in the community. That’s a bit like the ‘fate’ example in Bet Me that Kay wrote about above. The prejudices and misconceptions of a community aren’t an antagonist, but they can put terrible pressure on a budding relationship, force choices under pressure and drive change.

    I’m still thinking about this, but I’m pondering the idea that character arc/change in story values is absolutely necessary, but perhaps this can sometimes be achieved by other means than a strong antagonist driving the change by pursuing a conflicting goal???

    • Jilly – that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing – “lots of choices under pressure, obstacles to overcome and lots of change, but not always driven by conflict with one antagonist.” That’s why I was starting to think I needed a better definition of what conflict really is. For the last couple of books I read, I would have been hard-pressed to fill out a conflict box or show a conflict lock.

      Funny you mentioned Lord of Scoundrels; that was one of the books that came to mind when I was thinking of books I really like where I couldn’t really see that the main characters had opposing goals. It feels more like Dain is fighting against the demons of his past in the main conflict rather than with Jessica or any other character. They have some conflict regarding her brother Bertie, but that is resolved part way through the book so that is just a small sub-plot.

  3. You are wise to consider that not every scene has to have conflict. Like many writerly maxiums it is basically a brule (a bullshit rule). I have seen many articles both ways. Conflict is crucial, story and characters are vital. There is also breathing space, some reality, some art, and some magic. I know we exaggherate things in a story by putting our characters in a time-driven crucible of trouble, but characters and story need time to breathe. I don’t care if you’re Capt America and thrive on conflict…if it is every moment of every day it is going to exhaust you to death…. There would be no hope. Your readers also need occasional pauses to breathe and think. If you are being true to your story and characters then the pauses and breaks also demonstrate character and can round out your characters and story. They can still give momentum and forward push, and they can help balance the conflict for the reader and the story.

    I needed a writely break and reached out for some Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I had the last release on my iPad and I decided to really study it on the basis of writerly craft…. Which is sooooo difficult, because I get pulled in from the first paragraph and then it just feels like non-stop, ferocious conflict and energy until the end. I had to force myself to stop at the end of every chapter, think about it, and write some notes on what was going on. Many chapters were full on life or death conflict, some were more delicate conflict – like that mentioned by others above – conflict with self/choices, how others perceived and reacted to what you were, were doing, were involved in, or with whom. Some seeming gave some information, dreams, flights of fancy, random seeming occurances or conversations … But they were all true to the character and the story… And the little things, when laid in well, become big payoffs. Those things that you might have missed in the slow time, or mistakenly thought weren’t conflicty enough, were actually set ups for later.

    • The Lensman novels by E.E. “Doc” Smith were my first exposure to what happens when an author thinks that conflict is the be-all and end-all of writing. Even as a teen, I recognized that something was dreadfully wrong with the novels, although it wasn’t until (decades later) I heard a critique of the movie “Speed” that I realized that they both lacked any sense of pacing.

      The Dresden novels, despite being fast-paced, are *well* paced. Butcher understands that the quiet moments make the loud bangs all the louder. (Sidebar: It’s been 2 years since “Skin Game”! Isn’t he overdue for another?)

      • Yes… He’s a total slacker. He took a break and put out his new Aeronaut’s Windlass book and bumped Dresden… I think, last I heard, until this fall or next May…. Uggggggh! My friends and I have a bad habit of getting a new one and devouring it so fast that we forget to breathe and taste it. 😀

    • Penny – love your term “brule”. I second the need for breathing space. Maybe it’s just my personal reading preference, but I prefer stories that slowly build, rather than those with a constant, high-energy push forward. If I want tension/thrills, I’ll go ride a roller-coaster.

    • Hi Penny, I read a book by Jack Bickham, I think it was, called Scene and Structure, and he talks about what it sounds like you’re describing—where something big happens (he calls that the scene), and then in the aftermath, there’s a space where the characters regroup, think what to do next, decide, and prepare (he calls that the sequel). According to Bickham, that’s the natural flow in real life and for characters, too. And it helps the reader recover and make the same decisions the characters would. So the scenes have conflict, but the sequels, not so much.

  4. I’m going to point to Pilcher’s “Winter Solstice” as an example of a well-written novel that has no conflict in many very satisfying scenes, and only subtle conflict in the others. It’s a novel without antagonists, unless you want to get quite metaphysical and start talking about people’s internal struggle against the emotional momentum (or emotional inertia) of their individual histories.

    • Winter Solstice is still in my TBR pile. I’m going to have to move it up to the top, for research purposes if nothing else 🙂

  5. Like everyone who has commented so far, this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I don’t know that every single scene has to have conflict, certanly not overt conflict, but something has to happen. I attended a critque session once where we exchanged partial manuscripts ahead of time. One woman had this beautifully written story about a young woman returning home, where something awful had happened years before. There was a scene where she discussed her plan to return home with a friend that went something like this:

    Girl: I’m gong home this weekend.
    Friend: Good idea. You should do that.

    The friend was close enough to know what going home meant for the protagonist but there wasn’t even a whisper of, “Wow, Do you think that’s a good idea?”

    Sometimes the conflict can just be a friend verbalizing the discomfort the protagonist is feeling, or even the protagonist sittin’ and thinkin’ about it. The level of conflict should be gauged according to what the story needs at that moment. I generally do this by gut, then adjust it when I start getting feedback from beta readers.

  6. I’ve got to agree that not every scene needs rock ’em-sock ’em conflict. But for most beginners, the problem isn’t that they have too much conflict — it’s that they are kind of drifting around in search of a plot.

    Of course, for class, I did overdo things. So much blam-blam-blam, and not enough connective material — people knew something was happening, but didn’t know enough details to know what actually was going on. Still, too much conflict was better than writing world-building for four pages, and then getting writer’s block because I didn’t know what to do with that world.

    All that said, I think people like to read about gossip (if it’s interesting — what makes it interesting? Conflict, I suspect). And also about how to do something. I think many of us, especially readers, are on the look-out for how to do something better — sometimes how to do a relationship better. But, I will often read descriptions about breadmaking or some other craft with a great deal of interest. So . . . is that a conflict? The conflict between the chaos of the un-knitted skein, vs. the order of the finished scarf?

    When Justine brought up conflict before, I went looking for examples of lower-level conflict . . . there’s some interesting stuff about half-way down this blog post. http://theeditorsblog.net/2015/02/07/get-pushy-push-character-conflict-and-reader-emotion/ Feelings of hopelessness can be a conflict, they say . . . . Well, it needs some more thinkin’ and sittin’ on the part of this author.

    But, I guess the big thing is to assume if a scene works great, the conflict is there. One way or the other.

    I would like to see more of this subtle conflict stuff, though. Like Penny, if I’m reading good stuff, I get sucked in and don’t want to analyze it. But maybe . . . . A friend of mine lent me her copy of O, Pioneers, and Cather is pretty subtle about things. Maybe I can find some examples. I have to return the book before the end of the month, so I might as well make it a double-deadline. (-:.

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