Beginning writers often hear that “conflict makes good fiction,” it’s right up there with “show don’t tell” in the pantheon of oldie but goodie writing advice. It’s true that conflict, or more broadly, issues between two or more people that cause tension are the meat and potatoes of good fiction. Lately the issue of how to write more literal conflicts– fights, arguments, brawls–has been popping up again and again in my writing class and with my individual writing clients so I thought it might be valuable to share a little bit about how I think about weaving literal conflict into a narrative.
In my experience beginning writers behave in writing as they do in life, meaning if they are nice, reasonably well adjusted people, they often find it difficult to send their protagonists headlong into a painful argument or physical confrontation with another character. Often these well-meaning writers lead their characters right up to the edge of the nasty comment, the thrown punch, the terrible cruelty, and fade to black, leaving the reader to flounder in a vague or unsatisfying dénouement. The exceptions to this rule are the nice, well-adjusted writers who have spent a lot of time for one reason or another thinking about how people fight. These folks have often survived hard things and are ready to dive right in to the heart of darkness and expose the nastiness of life in all its gory details. What this style of writer occasionally neglects is the ambivalence of conflict, the messiness that can dance in the gray areas of right and wrong and good and bad. In either case, one thing is true: writing interesting conflict means truly and finally writing fiction, which means separating the self from the narrator, and the self from characters and their unruly and occasionally delightfully ugly actions. Sorting out one’s own ideas about conflict is not always as easy as it might immediately seem but it is an important step to understanding how your characters might respond to tension in a given situation.
Conflict, like most things, is so deeply culturally defined that we sometimes can’t see its parameters or the way our individual experiences shape our understanding of what constitutes “appropriate” or “inappropriate” behavior. We like to imagine that we share a universal good and bad. We imagine that there are some things for which anyone would fight and some things which would incite even the calmest person to rage, but no emotion is universal in that way; right and wrong are often far more relativistic than any of us would like to admit. We learn first about what constitutes conflict from our parent(s) or the people who raise us. Some people grow up in houses where their parents never raise their voices above a whisper to disagree but the animosity and bitterness is as palpable as a knife blade cutting down the center of the family. Other people come from homes where their parents yell about everything from politics to peas, yet the parents remain a team, a unit, and consider themselves happy. Our race, ethnicity, religion, region, socioeconomic class, education, and any other number of cultural factors may or may not blend into our formulation of what separates say “a disagreement” from “a fight.” I believe it is dangerous to draw broad conclusions about how any single aspect of culture might determine how one defines conflict, especially when you are imagining the inner life of someone completely “other” to you, but I think it can be useful to think about how each aspect of your own experience taught you lessons about conflict, tension, and when it is socially acceptable or unacceptable “to fight.” Once you’ve spent some time making your own subjective values around conflict more visible to yourself you may find that you are better able to enter the world of your fiction with fresh eyes.
Below are some suggestions to get you started and enliven the conflict and tension in your stories:
- Put it all on the body. Far too often I notice that when the hard emotions hit, characters suddenly become strangely disembodied, floating in la la land discoursing on just how darn ticked off they are. This disembodiment is the exact opposite of what generally happens in real life when you are angry, humiliated, uncomfortable, heartbroken, etc. You feel hopelessly embodied. You feel your heartbeat, you feel heat rise on your skin, you feel sweaty, you may not be able to stop moving in a certain way, or you may not be able to move at all. You may be terribly immobile, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck irrevocably in your body, so talk about the prison of your body. Talk about pain and bile. Talk about being scared to throw up or cry or piss your pants or bleed. I know there are many people who do completely disassociate from their bodies in times of violence, stress, trauma or fear, but I would argue that there is a way to write an embodied disassociation. Toni Morrison is great at this, so is Dorothy Allison. Whatever you do, don’t tell us how mad, sad, or bad your character feels, put us in his body and let us claw our way out with him.
- Slow it way down. If you think about the truly traumatic things that have happened to you, you probably remember them with a kind of horrible precision (that or you don’t remember them at all which is a different can of worms). Our brains can remember bad things with alarming clarity, recalling the lines around a mugger’s eyes, or the smell of a violent ex-lover’s breath till the day we die, but good days are as fleeting as sunshine and fluffy clouds. So write the way our brains work. Slow down moments of fear, horror, anger, betrayal and let us feel them with that horrible clarity our brains possess. Wring every detail out of a scene of conflict. You can always cut it later. For now, act like your character’s trauma is your own, and this fight is the one you will always remember.
- Don’t let a fight be a “clean win.” Too often I read stories where folks have one terribly unambiguous conflict where the bad guy is so bad and the protagonist is so deserving of the victory that the story quickly becomes so boring. The fact of the matter is that we rarely get clean victories in real life. It’s the Rolling Stones principle of conflict, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Although, perhaps your character might not even get what she really needs without also sacrificing something else she needs or really, really wants. Put your character in a situation where winning is also losing. Your protagonist finally gets the chance to audition for Alvin Ailey’s dance ensemble but she has to leave the same week her beloved twin brother is shipping out to fight in Afghanistan. Should she stay or should she go? What if instead of her brother shipping out, he’s coming home in a body bag? Does her choice change? What does this do to our notions of “right” and “wrong?”
- Overwrite conflicts in first drafts. You know that moment when you have a bad interaction with someone and they totally best you but you are so taken off guard that you can’t properly respond in the moment, so you go home and hours later you think of the perfect comeback to really hit ‘em where it hurts? Well that moment sucks, but the joy of being a writer is getting to change all of that on some micro level by writing your comebacks into your novels. So rather than pulling your punches and fading to black next time your characters need to get into it, really get into it, I mean dig deep, and go nasty. Forget that anyone will ever read this particular draft and go hard. Say the meanest thing that your character could feasibly say in the situation and say it well. Hit below the belt. Shock the other characters with your protagonist’s moxie. Just try it. It might not work. You might feel dumb and throw it all out in a future draft, but best case scenario, you’ve unlocked some fighting spirit that you didn’t know you had and worst case scenario you’ve brainstormed some new witticisms for the next time some entitled business man cuts you off in the supermarket checkout line.
- Fights, both physical and emotional, usually occur in fits and starts. It’s not uncommon for a fight to build in dramatic tension over the course of several hours or even several days. Depending on your taste, here are two totally stylistically different movies that illustrate the timing of fights between close characters. The first film is the “The Deer Hunter.” You don’t even need to watch the whole movie. Just watch the first hour as these guys get ready for a wedding and then a hunting trip and then prepare to ship out to Vietnam. The tension in that movie is almost silent for the first third of the film but it is always there and the first dramatic arc culminates in a fight about whether or not one friend can borrow another friend’s hunting boots, when really the viewer understands they are fighting about growing up, and being terrified of growing apart and leaving home and dying. It’s brilliant. Sometimes you fight about shoes because you can’t fight about the things you actually fear. The other film is “Crimes of the Heart” which is about three over the top, kind of crazy Southern sisters whose mother committed suicide when they were girls and who all have secrets of their own as adults. The women love each other desperately and sometimes can’t communicate at all. Their fights, when they do finally have them, are the unleashing of twenty years of pent-up good Southern lady rage. It’s admittedly a little cheesy and rife with Southern stereotypes in places but the dialogue is great because it’s based on a play and the tension is strong throughout. The films couldn’t be more different but they both have much to teach about unspoken feelings and resentments among groups of friends/siblings.
- As a final exercise, consider writing a scene in which two characters who are good friends or even close family members interpret a negative interaction with a third character in completely different ways. (For example: a store clerk blatantly follows two young men around her store because she suspects them of shoplifting, how do they each react? Why?) The goal of this exercise is to get at what shapes your character’s understandings of what is “okay” in the world and what is not. This exercise also has the secondary possibility or triangulating the tension between the two close friends who might object to each other’s reactions to the source of the original tension.