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Conflict, or Why It Matters

June 18, 2012 by Kiersi

Dick and Jane regarding an airplane

“Hey, Dick.”

“Hey, Jane.”

“How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m fine. Would you like to go for a jog down the hill?”

“Okay, Dick. Sounds great.”

“Great. Let’s go.”

“See you at the bottom!”

Most. Boring. Story. Ever.

But I didn’t need to tell you that. You can already tell after a cursory glance that nothing happens in this little ditty–I mean, technically, Dick and Jane are having a conversation that results in the two of them agreeing to go for a jog, but from a reader’s emotional standpoint, it’s pretty much empty.

Why?

Stories need conflict. Read this (slightly) revised version of the conversation:

“Hey, Dick.”

“What the hell, Jane? Where were you last night?”

“Having a life, Dick, that’s where. I was out with my friends. Like you should talk–you were up all night chatting with Sally and playing Diablo!”

“God, is your PMS really that bad?”

“Does everything have to be about PMS with you? Can’t I just be angry because you’re a monumental jerk?”

“Damn it, Jane. I just want to go for a little jog. Just a nice jog down the hill. Let’s drop it.”

“You brought it up. You think a little jog will solve everything, Dick.”

“Maybe it will.”

“Let’s go, then.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

This story contains many levels and forms of conflict. There’s long term conflict: “Does everything have to be about PMS with you?” Dick and Jane have probably been fighting about the same old thing for as long as they’ve been together. Then there’s short-term conflict: “Where were you last night?” This question’s probably been on Dick’s mind since he went to bed by himself. Even better, there’s a conflict happening inside this very conversation: “You think a little jog will solve everything, Dick.” Jane doesn’t really want to end the conversation here–but she’s being diplomatic, and despite how she feels about Dick as a whole right now, she acquiesces to a little reconciliation.

Though it sometimes bugs me when people in the know about writing boil storytelling down to a single rule, I think that in this case, it’s appropriate:

Everything you write should contain conflict. If a scene doesn’t have some kind of conflict–even something long-term and deep down, like “Does everything have to be about PMS with you?”–then the scene won’t work. Conflict are the wheels of the plot, the very base element that keeps the story moving and the audience engaged.

Just go back to the first conversation again. If you ever have a scene that ends with everyone agreeing happily, your reader’s going to get bored. Mix it up. Make your characters angry at one another. Make them irrational and bitchy, and you’ll see the spice come to life.


12 Comments »

  1. Conflict is sooo important! I love it. And there are so many ways to add to existing conflict or throw in a new one.

  2. Having learned to read from the (un)real Dick and Jane, I was thrilled when my own kids were given actual stories with actual conflict in K and first grade. I love your updated version! …And as a writing coach, I find that often people think there’s more conflict in their stories than actually comes out on the page. Great post!

    • Kiersi says:

      Thanks, Helen! I’m trying to think back to how I learned to read–and it was my dad reading me The Hobbit (and me looking over his shoulder), so I guess I learned about conflict early on. Good to know what you’ve learned as a writing coach. I’m sure I do that in my work all the time, it’s so hard to be objective.

      • Kiersi, Be sure to stop by my blog and pick up your One Lovely Blog award. (I’ve been studying yours as a model for my upcoming website. No theft, just a little friendly note-taking!)

  3. Brenda says:

    I think conflict is a must, or as a reader, I like seeing the main character growing as a result of solving it, how she/he gets over the issue, what comes of her/she as a result.

  4. RYCJ says:

    Fun parallel. You had me wanting to add on to what all happened once they got to the bottom of that hill! LOL.

  5. […] last week’s Dick and Jane post about buffing up your story or manuscript with conflict, a commenter suggested I discuss and share […]

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