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.