Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

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