Let me kick things off with blasphemy: Conflict is not the engine of story.
Allow me to explain.
The longer I teach, the more writing texts I seem to read, if only to find out if someone else has a clearer, simpler, or more insightful way of presenting the material. (To my chagrin, that’s often case. Fortunately, I’m not too so old a dog that I’ve forsaken new tricks.)
In some of my recent reading, though, I’ve detected a bit of an uproar over the supposed centrality of conflict in our stories.
Ursula Le Guin, for example, in Steering the Craft, takes serious issue with the “gladiatorial view of fiction” that the seemingly obsessive focus on conflict has nurtured. She considers this a kind of tunnel vision that minimizes depth and complexity, “just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable.”
Le Guin herself noted that though Romeo and Juliet revels in conflict, that isn’t what makes it tragic. “Conflict is [just] one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.”
Though Romeo and Juliet revels in conflict, that isn’t what makes it tragic.
Debra Spark, in Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing, chimes in by noting that the centrality of conflict has been with us since Aristotle—the terms protagonist and antagonist both derive from the Greek word for conflict, agon, which the Greeks considered a fundamental aspect of existence—“but it doesn’t account for the emotional power of fiction as much as its forward motion.”
Spark adds that even Janet Burroway, who in her widely read and hugely influential Writing Fiction stated baldly “a story is a war,” nonetheless qualified this statement in later editions, noting that it’s a story’s “pattern of connection and disconnection between characters” that provides “the main source of its emotional effect.”
Rosalie Morales Kearns, in her essay, “Was it Good For You? A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasure of Plot,” revealed that Burroway in the third edition of Writing Fiction actually identified birth as an alternative metaphor to battle for story structure, and that though birth also suggests struggle, “There is no enemy.” Rather the story’s forward movement resembles a “struggle toward light”—understanding, experience, wisdom.
But if conflict doesn’t drive the story, what does?
As noted above, Debra Spark remarked that conflict, despite its limitations in providing emotional power, does largely account for a story’s forward motion.
I respectfully disagree.
Conflict, instead of creating movement, actually impedes it. Rather, desire creates movement.
Desire creates movement.
Desire emerges from a sense that something is missing or out of balance. This prompts the character to act, which puts him, figuratively if not literally, in motion. And unless the desire is easily gratified—in which case it’s dramatically trivial—that motion will generate resistance.
This interplay between movement and resistance creates dramatic tension: Will the character’s desire be gratified or not? Even if the desire creates only expectation, the sense that something will or should happen creates tension between what’s hoped for and what might instead occur.
It’s in this sense, and this sense alone, that conflict is central to story. Conflict is desire meeting resistance.
Whether the metaphor guiding your story is birth or battle, a movement toward light or a fight to the death, this principle of movement meeting resistance applies.
And as the resistance intensifies and the prospect of defeat or loss or failure looms, the character becomes obliged to ask himself: Why continue? Why not compromise or surrender or go back?
The answer lies in how intrinsic the goal is to the character’s understanding of himself, the way of life he wishes to lead, and the people he wants to share it with. He may not be clearly aware of those longings at the story’s outset, but as the prospect of failure, in any of its forms–loss, humiliation, ruin, abandonment, death–comes nearer, the sense of what’s truly at stake clarifies, intensifies.
This means there are typically three plot lines in any meaningful story:
- The desire line, which tracks the protagonist’s efforts in the “outer” terrain of the story world to achieve his objective, reach his goal, claim what he wants: rescue the miners, marry the loved one, claim the crown, hold off the attack, bring the killer to justice.
- The yearning line, which tracks the “inner” arc: how the character’s understanding of himself deepens or clarifies as he contends with the resistance he encounters in trying to achieve his goal: find love, secure freedom, establish one’s identity or authenticity, live with honor, achieve justice, come home.
- The connection line, which tracks how the character’s interactions with others impedes or facilitates his movement along the other two plot lines. (If the object of desire is a relationship with another—as in love stories, reconciliation stories, and the like—then the desire line and connection line are joined, with the understanding that other relationships beyond this main one will still offer opportunities for encouragement and support on the one hand, temptation and resistance or even open opposition on the other.
The most compelling stories unify these plot lines.
The character’s outer pursuit engenders a deeper understanding of who he is, who he cares for, and what world he can accept. Regardless of what form the outer object of desire might take, overcoming the resistance required in its pursuit presents the character with a transformative opportunity: to face himself and his life more honestly, muster the courage to strive for that life and sense of self, open his heart to the love necessary to make it meaningful.
The more I reflect on all this, the more I realize that it’s in the recognition of connection and disconnection as key to a story’s emotional impact, as Janet Burroway and Debra Spark point out, that an emphasis on desire over conflict potentially yields its most gratifying results.
People are driven by two equal and opposite instincts: the avoidance of pain and the desire for growth. It’s one of life’s more bitter ironies that the perfectly reasonable desire to protect ourselves from pain often limits our willingness to take the risks necessary to be truly happy. Growth, like birth, is painful.
People are driven by two equal and opposite instincts: the avoidance of pain and the desire for growth.
Yearning, by daring a character to pursue a healthier, wiser, more complete understanding of herself and the world, inevitably runs smack into the counterforce of avoiding the inevitable pain that healing wounds and overcoming weaknesses, limitations, or flaws will entail. Growth isn’t just painful. It’s work.
But it isn’t solitary.
Something I learned long ago from a friend, and something I use as a refrain in The Art of Character, is this simple observation: We don’t know ourselves by ourselves. (In my novel The Mercy of the Night, my hero’s mother puts it differently: A lone wolf is a lost wolf.)
The character’s world is populated by others either encouraging her, knowingly or unwittingly, to move forward toward that better self-understanding and the fulfillment or wisdom it promises, or contributing to her staying stuck in a way of life that’s non-threatening, comfortable, deluded, or even self-destructive.
And it’s entirely in the richness, subtlety, and complexity of those relationships that the story unfolds, with some characters nudging or kicking or flinging the protagonist forward, others holding her back—if not dragging her back—or steering her off-course, each with his or her own motives for wanting the character to remain the same or go back to the way she was before.
This is where the full complexity of the drama plays out. We may be born alone and die alone but we grow through our engagement with the world—specifically, other people.
We may be born alone and die alone but we grow through our engagement with the world—specifically, other people.
It’s a truism that everyone likes a fight, just as everyone slows or stops at the scene of an accident. But the deeper meaning of any battle isn’t tactics and strategy, but what the adversaries are fighting for, what it will mean to lose, and who will bear that price. Similarly, the accident is just a tangle of metal until we learn where the driver was hoping to go, and who was waiting for him to arrive.
Gin up as much conflict as you want, without desire to generate movement, yearning to create meaning, and other people to provide emotional richness and texture, all you have is sound and fury, and we all know how that phrase ends.
Which metaphor for story best applies to your work in progress: Birth? Battle? Both?
How have you allowed desire, yearning, and connection to drive your story forward?
How has the struggle to achieve the outer object of desire prompted a deeper understanding by the protagonist of who she is, what way of life she wants to live, and who she wants to share it with?
Which secondary characters have been crucial in providing assistance in achieving the protagonist’s goal or a deeper self-understanding? Which have impeded, opposed, or openly fought that movement? Why and how?
Note: I will be traveling part of today. I’m teaching a workshop (Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character) tomorrow at the RT Booklovers Convention in Las Vegas. If I don’t respond to your comment, it’s because I’m in transit. But you’re a pretty savvy group. Feel free to talk among yourselves.