January 10, 2020 at 1:13 pm #52158
My daughter Jessica is my biggest fan, and she thinks it is very wonderful when I write a book, and even more so when it gets published, and not just because I take her out to dinner to celebrate.
But she cannot understand why I am so mean to my characters.
She thinks that the best story is the one in which everyone gets along and hugs each other and they all hang out together and have conversations about the things they love, and it’s even better if they take a few minutes to say some nice things about each other and if there is some Diet Coke in the refrigerator, that is especially desirable, and also if someone remembers to bring her some princess stickers, then that is perfect. But really all that is needed is some people who are kind.
I tell her that such a situation is lacking in dramatic tension, and that conflict drives narrative, and that in a story such a situation might be the happily ever after, just before the end, but it is quite hard to get there, and many challenges and obstacles must be overcome first.
“I see,” she says. “And that is how fiction is different from real life.”
She is a wonderful daughter but she would make a terrible editor. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with who don’t put enough conflict into their stories.
But here’s what fiction is about: it is about people wanting things, and not being able to get them, and what happens because of that. Don’t forget. Ever.
January 20, 2020 at 6:23 am #57176Jake NichollsParticipant
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a book that I read and absolutely loved last year: ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ by Irish writer Rónán Hession. (Incidentally, it’s just about to be published by Melville House in the US, and I highly recommend it to anybody and everybody!)
It’s a lovely book, very gentle and quietly witty. When I’m talking to customers in the bookshop about it, I often describe it as ‘slice of life’ because nothing overly dramatic happens – it just follows the steady friendship of the two title characters. But – and here’s where it proves your point, Jennifer – things do change, and the characters do face challenges and conflict. It’s just on a small, everyday scale. That’s what makes it so charming!
January 20, 2020 at 1:54 pm #57309
I think this is a great point, and it’s often overlooked by authors who are trying to create slice-of-life or impart a memoir feel to a novel (and the editors who edit them). Conflict does not mean blowing things up or stumbling over dead bodies in the library. In fact, often blowing things up and stumbling over dead bodies in the library doesn’t necessarily fuel conflict, it’s often just noise to cover up that the author doesn’t have a plot or a point.
And a goal doesn’t have to be “defeat the Russian terrorists before they blow up Grand Central station.” Who was it who said it can just be the character wants a glass of water?
In a quiet novel, the goal can be the longing to have things stay the same forever. This is harder to write effectively than a more proactive goal, but it can be done.
“Movement” and “change” may be better words to apply in less, well, aggressive novels.
February 2, 2020 at 3:27 pm #63266Nancy DisenhausParticipant
Hello, Jake and Jennifer. I have found my way to this thread at last, and I am so happy I did. A friend was writing a middle grades novel which seemed to have such minor conflicts in each chapter, and I finally realized that–oh yeah–fifth graders can have pretty tame lives compared to the characters in the types of fiction I tend to read. I’ve been trying to read a few middle grade novels now so I have a better sense of how these can work. My favorite line for teaching conflict to kids was “The cat sat on the mat–no story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat–now you have a story.” I can’t recall where I heard that, but I love it. Guess I need to get over to Brainy Quotes.
February 3, 2020 at 11:45 am #63711
Yes, great way to teach conflict and how it relates to story. Kids can imagine that something happens after the cat sits on the dog’s mat.
Minor conflicts can still matter to the characters. I remember being sent to the principle for talking in class when I was six or seven and it felt like the world was going to cave in on me! I was terrified.
February 4, 2020 at 8:29 am #64234Jake NichollsParticipant
“The cat sat on the dog’s mat” – I love that! One of those succinct explanations that sticks in your mind.
February 5, 2020 at 7:54 pm #65188Adrienne PondParticipant
I really love that idea about the cat on the dog’s mat–about 10 minutes ago my dog was whining and circling her bed because my kitty was on it. The drama in children’s lives is HUGE; it’s just different than adult drama. I wish I knew a lot more about the art of nailing YA writing. But I do remember being a kid all too well and all the things I thought were life/death at the time. Looking back, those conflicts are humorous or just tiny little speed bumps compared to adult conflicts. But as a kid, I read a lot of YA books and they meant a lot to me (Someone finally gets me!!!).
February 6, 2020 at 11:05 am #65527
Adrienne, I am picturing your poor dog right now!
I think good middle grade and YA writers have a knack for putting themselves back in time. I don’t have the knack but I appreciate the people who do!
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