Monday, April 15, 2013

Conflict: it doesn't only mean fighting, so why are we so stuck on war?

Conflict. Tension. Stakes.

If you've been around the writing boards, or conferences, for very long, you'll hear a lot about these. You'll be told that your story has to have conflict. There should be tension on every page (that's a quote from Donald Maass). The stakes should get higher and higher as you go.

I've heard folks say that these views are culturally based - which in fact they are. Some will argue that these are not "rules," or even if they are, they should be broken more often. You might want to consider those viewpoints, indeed, and look for alternatives. But say you want to work within those "rules," and write a story about conflict and tension, with escalating stakes.

Does it have to have a war?

This weekend I was reading a book, and when I came to the big revelation that there was a war brewing, I hardly blinked. Okay, I thought, is that all? It's not the author's fault, really. It's the fault of the majority of books and films I've encountered in the last several years. So much war. So much, in fact, that it ceases to surprise me as a narrative element. I think the last time I got excited about giant battles was for The Lord of the Rings. The most interesting part of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the series) for me was not the big battles, but the struggles of the individual characters.

When you think about it, war is one of those giant-stakes macroscopic conflicts that can easily lose its significance - in much the same way that ongoing conflict in the world gets forgotten in the distractions of life for someone who isn't directly experiencing it. The most successful stories of war that I've seen always establish what the direct personal consequences are for the persons involved. After all, real wars have very direct personal consequences. The experience of reading The Diary of Anne Frank is very different from that of reading a history book summarizing World War II.

You have a lot of options. After all, The Hunger Games has extreme conflicts and brewing revolution that struck me deeply without having to occur on a massive scale. By the time I got to Mockingjay the conflict had escalated enough - and more importantly, the involvement of Katniss had diminished enough - that I cared a lot less.

Okay, yes, there are ways to do war that are still fresh. I haven't lost hope for my current book, because I trust this author deeply. I found the war in Janice Hardy's books to be different from any other I'd ever read about, in part because it wasn't looming (war always seems to be looming), and in part because of the pain-centered healing economy that made ongoing war necessary (still something I've never seen matched). Myke Cole's books I find fascinating because they put a very personal face on the modern military, and I haven't seen that done previously. Other models, other viewpoints, all of these things are worth considering in the name of making fictional wars seem more fresh. Fine.

But I also know there must be other "ultimate stakes" out there that we haven't seen much of yet.

It's something to think about.


  1. Conflict needn't mean armed conflict. It only needs two characters with radically and contradictory goals in mind. Or even one character with two contradictory motives. Say two brothers engaged in sports: one wants to compete fairly, the other wants to win at any cost, including cheating. Do I turn my brother in to the committee or remain loyal to family? More subtly, one person is torn between cheating in the big race (the money is desperately needed for her mother's medical bills) and playing fair (so mother will be justifiably proud of her).

    War may be popular because the conflict is immediate, sensory, and obvious to the reader, whereas other sorts of conflict are often more muted, internal, and subtle. (I am including in "war" all kinds of deadly physical combat. Most mysteries are murder mysteries, not burglary mysteries.)

    1. Heartily agreed, OFloinn. I think my post can definitely be chalked up under "arguments against taking the obvious route." Thanks for your comment!

  2. I agree. Writers tend to get so into the idea of a massive conflict that they ignore the true conflict - that which is going on inside the characters.


    1. And usually it's most effective if both kinds of conflict - internal and external - are going on at once. Thanks for the comment, Jai.

  3. "But I also know there must be other "ultimate stakes" out there that we haven't seen much of yet."

    I've be thinking exactly the same thing!

    So, I've been on the hunt.

    I've created a document where I place all the different types of stakes I come across into certain categories. The insights gleaned from doing this have been revelatory.

    1. Sam, thanks for the comment! I'd love to hear more about what you've learned, if you'd like to share.

  4. Well, there's Diane Duane - in just about all of her books, her characters save the universe. For different sizes of universe (from a family, to a planet, to a universe, to a multiverse), but...

    I can't say it gets dull, but - yeah, I agree. I'd rather see conflict at the personal level (which Duane definitely includes) and leave out the grand sweep - it's too big to see, and certainly too big to feel. And then there's the question of what do you do in the next book!