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Organic vs. Inorganic Conflict

For the past few weeks, I've been reading James Scott Bell's Conflict & Suspense on the recommendation of Lynn Viehl, the author of Paperback Writer. It's a short book, but it's jam-packed with advice that makes you stop and think. So whenever I start to read it, I'll get a few pages in and my brain will be whirring with ways to make my stories better, so I'll drop it again and hop over to the computer to tweak outlines. I don't agree with everything Bell says, and I'm not the biggest fan of his writing style, but for the most part his insights are the kind I would have written if I'd thought of them first.

The only shortcoming of the book is that, while Bell has lots of ideas for what writers can do to create conflict and suspense, he doesn't include any warnings about what they shouldn't do. Sometimes, in the blind pursuit of making a novel or screenplay "compelling," "exciting," or simply "not boring," writers throw narrative babies out with the bathwater. They sacrifice characters, consistency, and even basic ethics for the sake of "the story." The end result is that "the story" comes across as artificial, formulaic, and uninspired.

Your conflict will probably feel forced if...

Your protagonists act out of character.

Too often, writers force their perfectly capable protagonists to suddenly become immature, weak, and/or stupid for the sake of conflict. The fourth season of Castle is a prime example. The writers couldn't afford for Rick and Kate to get together before the finale, so they had to make these two intelligent adults act like preteens to drag out the stupid misunderstandings. Rick would overhear something Kate said, jump to conclusions, and sulk. Then Kate would take offense to his concerns for her safety, refuse to talk to anyone about anything, and run off alone to get attacked by assassins.

This is somewhat understandable in TV shows, when you have to fill a certain number of episodes and a drop in tension could mean a drop in ratings. But even when writing novels, authors have the deplorable habit of setting up the protagonist with a certain character, then making his/her actions completely contradict it to keep the story going. For example:

  • A modern, independent-minded career woman agonizes for 200 pages over whether she should marry her boss or her high school flame.
  • A kick-ass detective spends less time kicking ass than he does getting his own handed to him.
  • A sweet, selfless ingénue sits around crying about her misfortunes instead of actually helping anybody.

It can be difficult to come up with legitimate conflicts and obstacles, so making your characters act like wishy-washy idiots offers the easy way out. Love triangles wouldn't last long if the heroine had the spine to sit down with second lead and say, "Dude, I'm just not into you. Don't waste your time." Horror movies would be awfully dull if the characters had the good sense to stay put and stick together instead of running off into the woods/haunted house/zombie-infested island/wherever. And heroes in video games wouldn't have much to do if their princesses were competent enough to avoid getting kidnapped, trapped, or otherwise mortally endangered matter how many times they're rescued.

But audiences can usually recognize when the supposed conflict is entirely the protagonists' fault. And then the only emotions they feel for them are irritation and contempt.

You change the rules on the fly.

So you have perfectly strong, capable characters. They eat setbacks for breakfast and surmount insurmountable obstacles before lunch. But that doesn't make for much of a story, so what do you do?

You change the rules.

Bio-Hazard Man always used gamma rays to fry the bad guys' internal organs and save the day. But he's in trouble this episode tiny glowing rock made him sick. Now the best he can muster are pitiful radio waves. What on earth will Bio-Hazard Man do?

For years, sexy FBI investigator Betty Black has used her unparallelled intuition for human nature to solve unsolvable mysteries. But this time, serial killer is...a robot!

So your video game hero has been collecting equipment and painstakingly leveling them up for days. Now he can run circles around any enemy. But we've still got half a game to go, so...Whoops! The big bad's minions knocked him out in a cutscene and confiscated all of his weapons and armor. Yay, the game is challenging again!

You can occasionally get away with changing the rules mid-game. It's a given that in any long-running series, the heroes will be foiled by some random contrivance that renders all of their usual approaches useless. But in a stand-alone work, contrivances don't fly. If you'll have to weaken your characters in the middle, don't make them too strong in the first place.

The conflict depends on your audience sharing the same world view as you do.

In the first episode of the fifth season of Flashpoint, a disturbed man took his ex-wife hostage. The cops worked with his teenage daughter, May, to find him and rescue her mom. In the final climax on the dark roof of a hotel, just as the guy was about to be arrested, May whipped out a concealed handgun and started firing at him. When she refused to stop, the cops shot her. The End.

Or it should have been The End, except the writers believed the decision to neutralize the trigger-happy May would be controversial. So the cops fought amongst themselves whether it was the right thing to do, or whether they should have just let May kill her abusive father for "justice."

To people who think it's okay for police to turn a blind eye to premeditated murder if the victim is mean and the killer is cute, this episode might have been very emotional and thought-provoking. But to people like me and Sweetie, to whom murder is murder, there was no conflict at all. We had no sympathy for the girl, felt no suspense during the big showdown, and found all the yelling afterwards nothing but annoying.

Let's take a comedic example from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. Here's a scene from the first novel, One for the Money, as presented by Bell on page 53:

Joe Morelli, who "specializes in virgins," has his way with Stephanie behind a case of chocolate eclairs in the Tasty Pastry.

Then disappears from her life for three years.

Until the day Stephanie sees Morelli in front of the meat market. She is driving her father's Buick and guns it, jumps the curb, and bounces Morelli off the hood. She gets out and asks if anything's broken. He says his leg. She says, "Good," gets back in the car and drives off.

The intended reaction: "Haha! Awesome!"

My reaction: "So this woman had consensual sex with a guy three years ago and he never called, so she feels justified in committing vehicular assault?"

Once again, this scene is only successful if you think it's cool for "the weaker sex" to be excessively violent against men. If the roles were reversed—if a male hero broke his ex-girlfriend's leg and drove away laughing—suddenly it wouldn't be funny anymore. Stephanie Plum is supposed to be quirky and strong, but because my sense of ethics is very different from Evanovich's, all I see is someone petty and sadistic.

Granted, there are some genres of drama or humor that will never resonate with people outside of your niche audience. As an atheist, I couldn't give two hoots about a heroine in Christian fiction whose big crisis is that she's lost her faith, and the emotional suspense comes from whether or not she can find her way back to God. A lot of historical novels base their central conflicts on issues that are no longer relevant, like rigid distinctions of class. To people who love Regency romances, Pride and Prejudice is brimming with drama and tension. But many in the twenty-first century will watch half of a film adaptation and say, in the words of my eloquent college dorm mate, "Jesus, who cares! Just fuck already!"

The Moral of the Post

Conflict is integral to any story. But it's not so integral that you can afford to slack on the other narrative elements. In fact, doing so can reverse the effect you were going for in the first place—what was supposed to be thrilling becomes contrite, and what was supposed to be dramatic makes people roll their eyes.


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