Conflict in characters, settings, societies

Most of my commuting this week has been spent bent over Donald Maas’s Writing The Breakout Novel. I’m not entirely sure if I’m trying to write a bestseller or not but I’m certainly trying to write the best book I can and Maas’s book is by far one of the better craft texts I’ve encountered. I’ve just finished a section on plot and one chapter “take-out” particularly struck me:

The essence of story is conflict

Maas treats issues of conflict in characters, story arcs, subplots and much much more in great depth. He dissects how many ‘best-in-class’ authors use conflict to maintain tension, carry the reader on from scene to scene, engage us with characters and structure the overall novel from beginning to end. It’s one of those writing lessons which you’ll find all over the blogosphere but Maas goes into the kind of concentrated technical detail that seriously contributes to one’s writing.

The current exemplary YA treatment of conflict would probably be the ruthlessly efficient conflict-driven story-telling of the Hunger Games trilogy. But it doesn’t always have to be geometrically precise love triangles or alienation-by-numbers. I recently re-read Tove Jansson’s haunting Moominvalley In November and conflict is as much at the core of her story as in Collins’ (admittedly thrilling) books. The Moomin family are missing and a new temporary family of strange creatures assembles at their empty home to wait for them. But the Hemulen, Toft, the Fillyjonk and the others are severely conflicted in their vision of the absent Moomins. They bicker, compete and contradict each other over the validity of their increasingly suspect memories (“It’s just how Moominmama would like it!”) until it gradually becomes plain that the source of their external conflict is each character’s inner turmoil. The story may begin as a ‘where are the Moomins and when are they coming back?’ mystery but the true plot deals with how these individual character conflicts are resolved.

Another use of conflict between characters (as well as all the plot driven layers you’d expect), is found in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. He frequently carries us through entire scenes on the back of the rancourous conflict between the demon Bartimaeus and pretty much anyone else engaging with him, generally born out of his utter contempt for pitiful human beings. Then there’s the inner conflict driving the demon – his instinct to destroy and lie to anyone he’s beholden to and the constraining spells that oblige him to obey and support his masters. One might argue that another layer is provided by the conflict between what the denizens of the books’ twisted alternate reality consider to be ‘good’ and  and our own expectations of the just and the ethical. What really makes it work in Stroud’s novels, though, is the utter conviction which carries it along – the mechanics of the writing, the wires and CGI work delineated by Maas, stay hidden.

Charles Dickens uses the enormous social conflict of the French Revolution in A Tale Of Two Cities to illuminate and shadow the class, social and emotional conflict of his characters. Rather less loftily, in my own work-in-progress, the main characters find themselves in a more liminal situation – torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties with the conflicts within both societies causing them to constantly question any temporary resolution they might find.

How do you deal with conflict?

Good stuff relating to conflict by people who know what they’re talking about? Lack of conflict? Call in a dragon! “A psychologist writes…” Stakes vs Character vs Suspense Establishing conflict from the very first line!

And, of course, Maas’ book. (We’ll pass lightly over the section where he predicts that ebooks will never take off…)

About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

4 responses to “Conflict in characters, settings, societies

  • joem18b

    Because nothing I write lately runs longer than 300 words or so, any conflict must be innate, or strike quickly, or… whoa, am I going to need to think about this. Too tired for that!

    I did run my eye over my last few pieces and they seem to focus on conflict in basic political, religious, and other such realms. Or not. I’m guessing that humor uses conflict in its own special ways. Perhaps I’ll check out some of your suggested experts to see what they say about that.

  • phoenixaeon

    I think I might have to check this book out. Sounds like it could be really useful.

    And Bartimaeus rules! 😀 Definitely one of my favourite YA trilogies, and for many of the reasons you state in your conflict dissection.

  • rolhirst

    When you get down to it, writing conflict is more fun that anything else you can do with your characters. If I find myself writing a scene without some kind of conflict, I generally ask myself whether that scene is actually necessary. Characters in books should constantly be facing conflict – from other characters, from the world at large… or from themselves.

    I’ve added the Maas book to my reading list, cheers.

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