If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it a thousand times: Story is all about conflict. No conflict = no story. Because nothing involving is happening and nothing’s at stake and, really, who cares. There’s a good word for a day spent watching the clouds go by and the waves roll in: vacation.
Do you really want to read an entire account of someone’s vacation? Unless it’s interrupted by cannibals?
Big Conflict: The Backbone Of Story
The conflicts rich enough to drive a narrative are easy to get a handle on. We usually know them before we ever write the first word in the novel or story that frames them. Like these:
I’ve found a bunch of money surrounded by a bunch of dead guys, so what’s the worst that could happen if I take it? (No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy)
I’m a career woman who smokes and drinks too much, my weight yo-yos up and down, I’m my own worst neurotic enemy, and I just want to find the right guy. (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding)
I’ve gone back to my hometown to finish a novel I’m writing and the damned place is stunk up with vampires. (Salem’s Lot, Stephen King)
Big conflicts all, that merit hundreds of pages to play out. They drive the novels.
But while big conflicts drive the novels, and are the spine from which everything else hangs and sprouts, they don’t necessarily drive the reader from page to page to page.
For that, you have to start thinking much smaller.
The Limitations Of Big Conflict
Examine most any novel with an eye toward its big conflict, and you’ll typically find that only a fraction of its pages are devoted to pivotal, high-water-mark scenes that unequivocally develop and progress that conflict. The rest are taken up with things like set-ups, aftermaths, backstory, reflection, and all the other quieter moments that help us understand the characters better.
Not that these are padding — at least, they shouldn’t be. Rendered well, placed well, they involve us in the grand sweep of things.
Think about the last movie you saw that strove to be max-volume, constant motion, all the time, yet ended up boring the ass off you. Why? It was probably because nobody involved seemed to think it was important enough to dial it down long enough to give you something to latch onto. A reason to actually care.
A novel that tries to be all high-water-mark scenes eventually just becomes exhausting, and starts to choke on its own contrived sense of urgency. Even the series 24, at its most frantic, slowed down to take a few deep breaths every now and then.
How, then, to pull the reader through all those scenes devoid of actual or emotional fireworks, without letting her interest ebb?
You can nearly always pull this off if you remember just one simple rule:
Never populate a scene with characters who do nothing but agree with each other.
Pervasive harmony, no strife, and everyone happily conceding to everything we say may be the gold standard for getting through our real-life days. But compelling reading it does not make.
While your characters may exist on the page, they can’t all be on the same page.
So instead of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, make this — Never populate a scene with characters who do nothing but agree with each other — your new Golden Rule.
And next time, we’ll dig deeper and see what this looks like in practice as well as theory.
[Photo by Mercedes.. Life As I Pictured]