IMAGINE THIS SCENE FROM A MOVIE:
It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page. When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk.
She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.
All is good in her world.
NOW IMAGINE THIS ONE INSTEAD:
It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END. She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose. She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty. So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper. The roll is empty.
Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a note off the refrigerator — one that says BUY TOILET PAPER — and uses it as a makeshift kleenex. Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge. It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.
And it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete mess.
Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?
Me, I’ll go with the second one. In fact I have, in a wonderful movie called Romancing the Stone. And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.
Version one just sits there. LAYS there, in fact.
Because it has no conflict.
Conflict is the cornerstone of good storytelling. Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue watching or reading. And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.
How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories? People THRIVE on conflict, and anyone who thinks a story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.
Your basic plotline — no matter what kind of book you’re writing — always centers around characters in conflict. There’s usually both an internal conflict AND an external one. And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).
Otherwise what is the point? If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world, then I might as well watch paint dry. I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat, to give rise to my emotions. To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero. And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.
There is a writer/teacher, now dead, whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment (maybe someone can remind me), who likened a story to a basketball game.
You have opposing characters. Two teams. Each of those teams has a goal: to make as many points as possible by putting a ball through a small “basket” at the opposite end of the court.
But because these teams are both determined to get the most points, one side puts up all kinds of obstacles to try to prevent the other side from reaching their goal.
This is conflict at its finest. Its most compelling. And if you have a vested interest in one of those teams, you will scream and cheer and jump up and down whenever they encounter and, hopefully, overcome those obstacles.
If all you had was a single team bouncing a ball down the court with no one to challenge them–
–nobody would watch.
And it’s no different for storytelling. Your characters must have a goal — no matter how trivial it might seem — and they must have strong opposition to that goal.
Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. Sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us. What thrills us. What sends us soaring.
As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”