Don’t Be Safe: Conflict in Fiction

Two fists with a male and female face collide with each other on light background. Concept of confrontation, competition, family quarrel etc. Black and white.Light slips through the bedroom window giving the air a bluish tinge; the walls are gray; the dressers—whatever they were during the day now drenched in night hues. A siren whimpers in the distance….

I’m awake, oh God, I’m awake, canvassing all my relationships, past and present, re-figuring which might be stable (you know, enough to pat on the back and say, ‘Go sit down, you’), and which are raw. Have I done all I can? Have they?

Goodness! Seems awfully unpleasant. But I’m talking about conflict. I’m talking about dis-comfort. There’s conflict aplenty when you go looking for it. On the milder end of the scale, my husband and I like to bicker over truly silly things. It’s no accident. We’ve been through trying times and major upheaval, worried that we each stood in the way of the other’s one safe path clear of it all. Consequently, nowadays, we try to keep it light. But we enjoy a little push-back. It keeps us plugged into one another while mindful of our separateness—respectful, you might say, of the fact that beneath the surface some of our needs differ drastically, and those needs must not be discounted.

When people are at cross-purposes with themselves or others, that’s interesting! That’s conflict.

little mouse hiding her muzzleThe Matrix got it right. Mice experiments confirm: too much harmony is bland—we go looking for trouble. To keep us engaged, a storyteller gives us trouble. Other people’s trouble. Lots of it.

Fiction is all about conflict—one hundred percent. A light, playful banter can help us shake off stressful events—perhaps those in a preceding scene. Gentle reads keep it light throughout and appeal to readers who don’t want their blood pressure spiking too high. Nothing wrong with that. By contrast, a thriller or horror or fantasy work with cascading life-death struggles will really commandeer our attention. That’s riveting stuff. But, if adversity is too constant or too jarring, there’s risk we’ll lose hope for the characters we’ve come to care about. Without that hope, we shut down, numb, in some instances suffering from PTSD—in which case, we’re probably not coming back for more. (Ahem, Walking Dead, Season 7, Episode 1).

At the very least, when there’s intense conflict, adrenaline runs high and we can’t see or feel much else. It’s loud.

Running Man,Network connection turned into, vector illustration.Every scene needs some conflict, though. Don’t forget resting beats, please, but Donald Maass says, yes, on “every page.” At a class during the 2018 Atlanta Writer’s Workshop, our instructor (who was excellent) suggested making characters argue to stimulate reader interest during otherwise dull interludes. For sure, it’s a quick, fun way to generate conflict—but I’d add that only plausible conflicts are stimulating. We need the argument to be meaningful, to reflect what characters want from one another. In the strongest fiction, all elements are interwoven and feed off one another. It’s not simply a matter of insert X, then Y. But conflicts are everywhere, easy to find. For example: you have conflict when a character’s uncomfortably hot, cold, it’s windy, etc., or the office chair feels like a torture device. You have conflict when there’s a schism between a character’s beliefs about himself and what society expects of him.

As a facilitative mediator, it was my job to help opposing parties communicate in a manner that moved them beyond their conflict. As trained, I reduced drama by encouraging negotiations that were ‘soft on the people, yet hard on the issues.’ If you want engaging fiction, do the exact opposite of that, to whatever degree seems appropriate. Arthur C. Clark in Rendezvous with Rama chose to go relatively soft on his people, maybe to maintain a tone of detached intellectualism. Obviously, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire did not.

3d Illustration depicting an illuminated neon sign with a conflict and resolution concept.The peanut gallery wants blood sport, yet some audiences will prefer a slower, more nuanced development leading to crisis. I am both. Stories I admire give me both.

But what about resolution of conflict?

To end the story, the main conflict must resolve, which is to say, come to a clearly identifiable end. But some conflicts, uber-conflicts, might remain, asserting themselves right up till the end: like the simplest, most forceful strain to a piece of music, evolving, until abruptly cut off at the close (which, by the way, makes for an excellent ear worm). The best pop example of the latter I can think of is the conflict between Mulder and Scully of The X-Files (the original). As long as their intellectual and sexual tension remained, we were invested in them. Add to that the fact the truth had to be ‘out there’—almost within grasp yet forever out of reach—the uber-conflicts simply could not ‘resolve’ without compromising their premises. Not gracefully, anyway. And they didn’t. The only sensible resolution would have been to permanently separate Scully and Mulder: one martyred to the other’s cause–no consummation of the relationship, no finding the truth. In fact, Chris Carter dabbled with that resolution numerous times only to pull back, but once we were hip to it, he’d spoiled even that release—we’ll call it uber-crisis resolution fatigue. A Song of Ice and Fire faces a similar quandary. A story like that can’t resolve. I don’t think George R. R. Martin ever meant it to. Arguably, with so many plot lines and characters, isn’t unrelenting cyclic conflict really what the story’s about? Like a fractal, or a timeless tide rolling in, rolling in. In the same way a war on terrorism isn’t winnable—so long as there’s a throne, there will be ‘a game of thrones.’ See my point? We the audience will either have to accept that Westeros goes on without us, though not necessarily ‘we without it,’ or he’ll have to shatter everything, just so we’ll let go.

I can dig it.

Conflict. Must have it, always. But when and how do you let go? What if the crisis isn’t what you thought? What if it’s a crisis of decision? A crisis of un-sustainability?


I don’t know how many of you know this, but there’s a process called saccades, a shifting of the eye, that allows us to fixate visually. If the eye did not maintain this constant movement—three-to-five times a second—we wouldn’t be able to see what was right in front of us. Conflicts in stories work much the same way, provide movement relative to the reader, a movement that pulls our attention by implying importance, discomfort, even danger. Storytellers, do not play it safe.Close up of woman's digitized eye

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