Please welcome WU’s newest contributor, Kelsey Allagood, whose powerhouse guest post–What Gandhi Taught Me About Telling Stories that Mean Something–you may recall! Kelsey’s background as a political analyst specializing in the genesis of war and oppression informs her writing, which is part of the reason today’s post is so interesting: What does a writer who focuses on war and oppression in some parts of her life do when she can’t seem to bring conflict to the page? Welcome, Kelsey! We’re so glad to have you join the team.
I have a confession: I have been a writer for more than two decades, but it was not until the last year that I understood conflict.
“But Kelsey,” you may say, “how can you write a story without conflict?” And I would respond, “This is why so little of my fiction has been published.”
It’s vulnerable to admit that I’ve spent so much time not understanding this basic tenet of my craft. I am not new to writing. I am not new to workshops or critique groups or craft books. But something about the idea of conflict in a story was not clicking, and I knew it. I knew it because as soon as I would read an essay or chapter in a craft book about “conflict” or its close cousin, “stakes,” something in my brain would just…turn off. Like it was trying to protect me from something.
I knew it because, in my first fiction workshop at the tender age of sixteen, my writing teacher—a self-professed grouchy old man who I thank for my thick skin in workshops today—turned to me and asked, “Where’s the conflict?”
I didn’t know. The story I’d turned in didn’t have one. It was about a teenager riding in the backseat of her parents’ car while they argued, and some vague insinuations about her father’s failing health that never came to any conclusion. In other workshops, I turned in similar stories, and was always met with the same question: “Where’s the conflict?”
Until about four years ago, I had never finished a complete novel manuscript, despite countless faltering attempts. The storylines would begin strong and then peter out as I ran out of ideas, or didn’t know how to get my characters logically from plot point A to plot point B. The unfinished drafts piled up. I began to wonder if I was really cut out for this writing thing.
But I kept coming back to the words. Reading had been my haven during a difficult and isolated childhood, and I wanted more than anything to bring that same sense of safety and escape to people through my own words.
And last year, finally, I had not only a complete manuscript draft, but a revised draft at that–one that told a full story.
And yet something was still wrong.
The plot meandered. Things happened because I needed them to, not due to choices my protagonist made.
So, I did what every committed artisan would do: I took advantage of a once-in-a-century global pandemic lockdown to teach myself something.
“Explain it to me like I’m five.” – Michael Scott
I began by scouring every writing blog I could find for someone who would just explain to me how to implement conflict in a scene. Many of those blogs talked about conflict as though it was something one should already understand. But now that I had enough experience and self-awareness to know what I needed, I was able to move on and continue my search.
Conflict seems to be one of those writing-related things, like characterization or rhythm, that either comes easily to you, or doesn’t. I see a lot of writing advice about how not to info-dump character backgrounds, or how to vary the structure of sentences, but less about how the nuts and bolts of a scene-level conflict can work. And I needed conflict explained to me. But it was either presented as this thing you simply should already understand, such as how to breathe, or in lofty terms like “a clash or two opposing forces” or “character versus society.”
But how do you break down your story’s capital-C Conflict into actual moments in prose? For example, your protagonist must choose between taking over her parents’ restaurant or following her passion for cave diving. I could never make that connection between “my protagonist wants to belong” and “what physically happens.” Sure, I could write scene upon scene from her daily life, where she feels torn about her decision in one setting or another, but they read as just that: scene upon scene. Not a story. Not a narrative.
I spent a huge chunk of 2020 breaking down my novel into disparate parts and moving things around, like a clockmaker laying out every gear and spring. I tried on different story structures like outfits, fitting the story into a Hero’s Journey, into character arcs, into Save the Cat! style beat sheets. I dropped my protagonist into a different geography and outlined what the story would look like from that angle. For our first anniversary, my husband bought me a gigantic double-sided whiteboard so I could write out the whole story in a grid, with an X-axis full of characters and a Y-axis of numbered scenes.
These were good exercises for building my story structure muscles, but did nothing for my main problem: that the plot felt dull, like a spark was missing. When revising, I felt like I was dragging my protagonist along by the ankles, not letting her loose to wreak havoc upon the world.
I was, I realized, being the overprotective parent to my characters that my own parents were to me.
In which Kelsey realizes, “Oh no, I’ve become my mother.”
There was not one “Aha!” moment that I can point to where everything clicked into place. Even now, I don’t have everything figured out, and I doubt I ever will. I will say that I was deep into Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and K.M. Weiland’s How to Write Character Arcs series when I began to pay attention to the show my husband and I were binge-watching at the time: Bob’s Burgers.
If you’re not familiar with Bob’s Burgers, please remedy that immediately. But in the meantime, I’ll tell you that the show follows a cartoon family—parents and three tweenagers—that owns a moderately unsuccessful burger joint. When you watch an animated show with ten seasons one right after the other, you begin to notice patterns in storytelling. The stories weren’t formulaic; each episode was different, even as the seasons passed and the characters never aged. But I did notice one thing, and it made the idea of conflict make sense in a way no number of craft books had:
Every time a character wanted something, something else got in the way.
But these weren’t lofty desires like “Tina wants to find true love” or “Teddy wants a normal family.” These were low-level, practical conflicts that added up to the loftier ones. These were “Louise dropped a necklace down a storm drain right when she needed it” and “Linda gets on the wrong bus on her way to something important.” It was those little conflicts that I couldn’t make myself write, and that was what was holding back the plot from moving forward. Which led me to my actual (and only) “Aha!” moment:
Every time your character wants something, make it harder to get.
This is the only thing that has ever made sense to me, and it worked wonders in my novel rewrite. Character heading to the bathroom? Out of order. Character wants to go get water? Somebody interrupts and asks her for something.
Put. Things. In. The. Way.
But why was this so difficult?
Conflict as a requirement for a good story is a Western concept. Other methods, like kishōtenketsu or robleto, do not prioritize confrontation and domination like the Western three- or five-act dramatic structures. I could have tried to adopt a non-Western approach to my storytelling, but that felt like cheating: Not only would I be appropriating a structure from a culture to which I did not belong, but it felt like I was writing a grammatically incorrect sentence and claiming I was doing it on purpose, rather than out of ignorance of the rules of grammar. I do still hold to the adage that you should know the rules of your craft before you break them.
I knew I needed to interrogate my own relationship to conflict. And it turned out that, as with so many things—thanks, therapy!—I needed to look inward.
I am a white woman from a middle-class background. My parents are from working-class backgrounds, both Southern Baptist and Irish Catholic. For me, in childhood as well as adult life, everyday conflict was something to be avoided, to be smoothed over as quickly as possible, even at great inconvenience to me. I was raised in a culture where women bear the responsibility for managing the emotions of others–particularly those of men.
And so, for a long time, I was doing this same thing in my stories. Oh no, I put my protagonist in a difficult situation? I need to alleviate it as quickly as possible. Does she need a horse to escape this castle? Here’s a full conversation where she convinces someone to lend her one, instead of stealing one and—gasp!—angering somebody. Things happened far too easily, and then all the tension left the story like wind leaving sails.
Of course, I didn’t realize I was doing this. I’ve always prided myself on not being precious with my words, with killing my darlings (as soon as I realized that “kill your darlings” did not literally mean “kill your characters”). I have no problem tossing out paragraphs, storylines, characters, entire manuscripts, if they’re not working. I am not averse to making my characters suffer, and there were times in my stories when characters did not get what they wanted.
But I would become so uncomfortable by putting my characters in difficult situations that I avoided doing so—even at the cost of a story.
I’m still early in this discovery, but I can tell it’s been transformational in my writing journey. So here are a couple of practical items that have helped me, in case you find yourself as the frustrated owner of countless unfinished drafts, drafts with sagging middles, or just want to strengthen your craft:
- I’ve been conducting, essentially, “conflict drills” by drafting microfiction (<1,000 word stories) for the first time. Micros force me to focus on one conflict. There’s no room to dance around it.
- Take a break from your story for a bit, then come back and comb through it with an eye toward making everyday actions more difficult for your character. Make a note on the side: “What if he can’t find A? What if B happens instead?” Explore which complications can push your character to act or grow.
- Go through each scene in your draft and summarize them in a couple of bullet points, as though you’re reminding someone what happened. This has helped me boil down the key points of the plot, which I can often lose in the details of scenes.
What about you, WU community? How do you strengthen conflict, tension, and stakes in your writing? Is there an aspect of writing that everyone else seems to get, but you don’t? Who is your favorite Bob’s Burgers character and why is it Louise?
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