Imagine this scene from a story:
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 post-it note off the refrigerator—one that says BUY TOILET PAPER—and uses it to blow her nose.
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 to celebrate finishing her book, 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 despite this celebration, it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete and utter 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 from the eighties 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 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 plot line—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).
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.
Your characters must have a goal—no matter how trivial it might seem—and they must have strong opposition to that goal.
Even the simple act of searching for a way to blow her nose makes the second scenario above the more compelling one.
I can’t say this enough. Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. And 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.”