Monday, September 14, 2009

Conflicting Feelings

I have never been good with conflict.

I hate it. If there's even a hint of an argument or a fight or someone being offended, my stomach cramps up, my hands get shaky and tears hover right near the corners of my eyes, just waiting to spill out.

As much as I hate it, conflict is a part of life. Which means conflict needs to be a part of our stories. Without conflict, we lose the realistic tone we want our writing to have. But there is a balance - too much conflict and we risk sounding like a cheesy soap opera.

Conflict can be as simple as two characters having a fight and as complex as two characters being thrust in a situation where one ultimately has to kill the other one. It can be as easy as a quick fight over a mustard bottle and as hard as someone dying of a horrific disease.

Characters + Conflict = Plot.

You could have the best, most memorable, wittiest, most insightful character in the entirety of fiction, but if you don't have conflict in their life, you don't have a plot. Which means there is no story.

I would never in a zillion years tell you to come to me with questions about conflict. Like I said earlier, I hate it. I hate experiencing it and I hate writing it. Writing scenes teeming with conflict is about as much fun for me as getting an ugly case of tonsillitis.

So, the fact that I'm writing a post for Scribble Chicks about this is just kind of funny.

How do you react when you're faced with a huge conflict?

I remember one of the worst fights my husband and I ever got into. I was so mad, I couldn't even speak, much less look at him. I just sat there on the couch, tears brimming in my eyes, my hands, arms and legs felt unstable like one of those Fruit Gusher snacks, and my stomach was twisted up so tightly I couldn't swallow. I was staring at the TV, but I wasn't focusing on anything on the screen. My head felt too heavy for my body. And I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and just cry.

This is how we pump conflict into our stories. We make our characters feel in hopes that our readers will experience that same emotion. We make our characters suffer, hoping that our readers will cry for them. And, we make our characters face decisions they never thought they'd have to make so that our readers will identify and feel even more.

Conflict doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, either. Right before Jon and I got engaged, I was sitting in the chair in my pastor's office, bawling my eyes out. I knew I'd fallen in love with Jon, but I also knew that if things progressed like I thought they were going to, I wasn't going to be living with my family anymore. It was sad, but it wasn't. It was scary, but it was exciting. It was confusing my heart, so on came the tears.

And the emotional conflict.

Next time you watch a movie, try to keep a running list of every conflict in it - both physical and emotional. Notice how the two lists intersect (unless you're watching something like James Bond. Pick a different movie). Keep notes on how each of those scenes made you feel.

Now look at your work-in-progress. Is the conflict real or does it feel forced? Does the conflict stay true to the characters? To the story?

Here's a few things I look for as I'm writing conflict into a story:

* Why does this affect my main character?
* Staying true to their personality, how do they handle it?
* How does this affect the other characters?

Personalities play into conflict scenes. I have two brothers and one sister. One of my brothers and I like to just avoid confrontations. We slink around hot button issues like butter sliding around in a hot skillet. Just don't say anything and the moment will pass!

My other brother and my sister, though, love conflict and they thrive off of a good long debate. They don't get emotionally attached and you can almost see the sheer giddiness in their expressions during the battle.

It's annoying. But it's true. Think about the personalities around you and then think about your character. How do you react? How would they react?

"Write what you know." I don't know who said this first, but I think they were on to something. I believe that it's when we really focus on what's around us and what God is teaching us in this moment that our most meaningful work is written.

How about you guys? How do you come up with conflict? How do you feel in the midst of it?


  1. I'm with you, Erynn! Conflict and I try to avoid each other wherever possible...well, no that's not true. I run from conflict but from time to time it chases me down :(

  2. Great post today, Erynn!

    My characters come to me in a scene, and usually it's a scene of conflict. A girl driving down the open road with tears streaming down her face, a woman who has locked herself in the bathroom rather than come face-to-face with an ex-boyfriend... It's almost always some state of emotional turmoil. Then I just have to figure out what exactly is causing them to be so upset. Sometimes, like in the woman in the bathroom, it's clear, other times, like with the girl in her car, it takes some probing to figure out.

    My problem always is, once I figure out the scene, how do I plot out the rest of the story?

  3. I really enjoyed this. :]
    There was a time a few years ago when my dad and my mom's father, who was also our pastor, got into a huge argument. We left my grandfather's church against my mother's will and it almost ruined my parents marriage. For a year, every Sunday I would wake up with an overwhelming sense of dread because I knew there would be conflict that day. But through prayer and forgiveness, I was able to overcome my gut wrenching fear of conflict. Now I've learned to harvest it into my writing.

    All that to say, the conflict that you've dealt with will carry over to your writing and lend it authenticity and relatability. :]

  4. Here's a no-conflict hug. Haha - how did we become writers, anyway?