Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Over the Edge

So here I am in the library -- staring at the blank screen -- asking myself, Self, how do I start this piece about conflict?

Be careful what you ask yourself.

Suddenly I hear an angry voice from the other side of the room. An old man has listened to 2 teens talk loudly for the past 5 minutes. He is no longer hunched over his newspaper, bearing it.

He has had enough.

"You know something?" he shouts. "This is the place for peace and quiet! If you've gotta talk -- go sit on the jon or something!"

The teens turn red and begin to whisper. Meanwhile the rest of us are thankful the old man just did what we've all wanted to do: cause a conflict for the sake of peace.

That is, after all, why most conflicts start.

We just can't handle it anymore. SOMETHING has to change. We can't handle the person who skipped us in line. We can't handle the lazy attitude of our coworker. We can't handle the jerk who shouts at his wife in the store. Suddenly we snap.

Conflict comes from pressure. It's hard to have one without the other. The pressure can be internal, external, or both. But there has to be pressure to have conflict.

That's exactly what we want to do to our characters. We want to put so much pressure on them that they finally do the one thing we thought they'd never do. Something that is so insane and completely out-of-character that we know we've reached the crisis-point for the character.

The Crisis Point

I had a crisis point last Fall. I'm generally a nice person. Like Erynn, I avoid conflict at all costs.

I hadn't even seen him in 4 years. So when he showed up at my writers' workshop, I thought -- Are you serious? Out of the 800 people at this seminar, with 50 people in my class, you have to be here?

The conflict had started 4 years prior. He read my short story and sat me down to tell me what he really thought. Contrary to the other editorial feedback I received that week, he thought my piece was [I'm not allowed to say this word here].

I cried. Like a little baby. In front of him. Because I thought, THIS MAN IS RIGHT. HE KNOWS WHAT HE'S TALKING ABOUT. HE'S AN EXPERT.

Later, an agent gave me a contract based on those same writing samples. Hmm, I said to myself. (Yes, I talk to myself a lot.) Something's fishy about the guy who said these were [still can't use that word] samples.

Fast-forward to last Fall. I bump into Mr. Meanie-Head again. I'm fine until the final day of class, when I'm giving a presentation. He stops me mid-sentence and says, "I have no idea what you're talking about. You're making absolutely no sense."

Bling. Bling. Bling. Alarm going off. Bells screaming, THAT IS ENOUGH! YOU WILL NEVER TO DO THIS TO ME AGAIN!

To put it kindly: I became posessed. There is no other explanation for what I said next.

"Sir," I said, "You're entitled to your opinion. But you can keep it to yourself."

The man blubbered. The class sat there in shock. They had never seen this side of me. I had never seen this side of me.

And suddenly I realized... the workshop was being taped. People were buying copies. And I'd just told off one of the students.



So go ahead. When you get to that part of your book -- you know, the climax -- go push your character over the edge. Leave a little thread for her to hang onto. But don't let her climb back up that cliff with ANY dignity or grace.

After all, I didn't get to.


  1. Oh, my gosh. I love that line! "You're entitled to your opinion. But you can keep it to yourself." I'm so stealing it!

    But that's usually how I handle conflict. I keep it all inside until one day, I reach my breaking point. Case in point, I never let my college roommate know that the fact that she was stealing my food (without telling/asking me first) was bothering me. I just let it stew. Until one day, I came back to my dorm room after working to find out I had NOTHING in there for me. She had just left the room and I yelled at her down the hall. Not my proudest moment but she did end up restocking my fridge. :) And that's how I handle conflict.

  2. Great post today, BJ! You broke the topic of conflict down into small, easy-to-swallow bites. It's never been so clear to me before.

    Fantastic example! Although I'm so sorry you had to go through that, (What a jerk! He obviously had no idea what he was talking about.) it couldn't have given you a more perfect and relatable illustration for conflict and confrontation.

    Nice job!

  3. Good use of life to illustrate your point here! Life is so like that don't you think. Just when we think we've handled a situation and we're "over it" God promptly plops it back into our laps and says.... "ok, will you trust me to defend you or will you forget about me?"

    thanks for your honest thoughts and tips about conflict.

  4. Wow, that was great! Something to keep in mind.... After all, most people talk about conflict like it's the starting point, but you've shown that there's definitely something that comes before the conflict.

  5. BJ, you crack me up! This was hilarious! :) Awesome examples of conflict - glad to know we both hate it. If I'd been there when that mean guy said those horrible things to you, we could have cried together and gotten a hot chocolate or something. And then squashed the cup and thrown it at the mean man. :) Love the keeping your opinion to yourself comment! Preach it, sister.

  6. Stephany - BTW, I love the way you spell your name. And it' so good to know that someone else handles conflict the same way!

    Christiana - Thanks for your kind words! LOL. I guess I learned a lot from that experience. I hope...

    Christina - That's almost word for word what I told my husband after it happened! Too funny!

    Abby - Thanks so much! :) It's nice to "meet" you on here.

    Erynn - That is so awesome. I love the way you think. And whenever we finally meet up in person we're totally doing the hot chocolate thing. Only I hope we never have an occasion again to throw the cup at anyone. That experience wasn't really worth repeating... but at least I wouldn't be alone next time :)

  7. I want to sit in on one of your sessions. ;)

  8. Pencil me in for a future hot chocolate, most definitely! :)

  9. I love the way you broke conflict down, BJ! This was an awesome example of conflict. And I love the story at the end. :)


  10. CJ - Yeah... well... it was more like a 3-minute blip... :/

    Erynn - Sounds awesome!

    Deb - Thanks so much! :)