Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48: No Conflict Between Characters
I slapped the FedEx guy this morning.
Okay, not really. My FedEx guy is totally cool. And he brings me cool stuff. I’d never slap him. But that got your attention, didn’t it? Way more so than if I ‘d said, “I thanked the FedEx guy this morning.”
The difference between the two accounts, of course, is conflict. You may not have thought well of me for slapping that poor, undeserving FedEx guy, but I guarantee you would have been interested! Conflict isn’t nice, but it’s inevitably interesting.
And yet writers sometimes create scenes in which there is no interpersonal conflict between their characters. The result, of course, is that everyone’s happy. Except for the readers–who are bored out of their minds.
How to Bore Your Readers With No Interpersonal Conflict
Here’s what your story looks like with no interpersonal conflict:
Geraldine walked down the road to the Averils’ house. The scent of jasmine wafted all around her as she entered the yard through the trellised lych-gate.
Percival’s sister Cordelia answered the door. She looked fetchingly splendid in a new dress of lavender organdy. She beamed. “Gerry, darling! You’ve come for tea after all. Percival will be pleased. Mama too.”
Percival was going to ask Geraldine to marry him today, she just knew it.
Overcome, she flung her arms around Cordelia. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
Now just assume this scene keeps playing out without a hint of irony. Geraldine and Cordelia have a simply wonderful teatime with Cordelia’s simply wonderful brother Percival, who has a simply wonderful proposal in mind, after which he and Geraldine can ride off into a simply wonderful HEA.
James Scott Bell calls this the problem of “happy people in happy land.” Believe me, I totally get why someone would want to write this. It’s happy. All the characters are friends. They get along. They smile, they wave. There’s no violence, no dissension, no fear, no sadness.
Heavenly it may be, but interesting–or realistic–it ain’t.
How to Grab Your Readers’ Interest With Conflict
Here’s the thing about great stories and great scenes: they revolve around three simple factors.
GREAT SCENE FACTOR #1: THE CHARACTER WANTS SOMETHING (GOAL)
GREAT SCENE FACTOR #2: THE CHARACTER RUNS INTO AN OBSTACLE (CONFLICT)
GREAT SCENE FACTOR #3: THE CHARACTER DOESN’T (COMPLETELY) GET WHAT HE WANTS (DISASTER)
Q. What does this mini version of proper scene structuretell us?
A. That if your character is happy, from the start to the finish of your scene, you have a problem.
You know that classic movie trope of the “perfect world”?
On the surface, they may all seem to be perfect examples of “happy people in happy land,” except–without fail–they’re all just masks of irony upon worlds of deception, corruption, and pain. In other words: conflict.
With that in mind, let’s see if we can write Geraldine and Cordelia into a more interesting scene.
Geraldine trudged down the road to the Averils’ house. The scent of jasmine wafted all around her as she entered the yard through the trellised lychgate. It smelled like regret.
Percival’s sister Cordelia answered the door. She looked fetchingly splendid in a new dress of lavender organdy. Her expression was flat. “You’re here for tea.”
Geraldine found she had to clear her throat. “If I’m still–that is, I know Percival is shipping out on this afternoon’s train. I wanted to say… goodbye.”
“You already did that.”
Oh yes, she’d done that and more. She’d tossed his proposal back in his face and stormed off. But she couldn’t let him go off to war without apologizing for at least that much. With Rupert missing in Flanders, Cordelia, of all people, should understand.
Geraldine cleared her throat again. “May I come in? Please?”
Cordelia barred the doorway with her arm. “What do you think?”
Not quite as interesting as slapping the FedEx guy, I’ll grant you. But it’s a big improvement on the first example, wouldn’t you say?
Evaluate every single scene in your book. Does your protagonist have a specific goal in each one? Is that goal being met with resistance of some sort?
Even low-key scenes in which friendly characters do nothing but chat must have some sort of undercurrent of conflict, fueled by the protagonist’s need to reach a goal. Otherwise, that scene isn’t going advance the plot, and, worst of all, it’s going to try your readers’ patience.
Don’t make things easy for your characters. Keep them on their toes by challenging them in all their relationships. This does not mean every character has to have it out for your protagonist. But it does mean every character must have his own personal agenda–and that agenda shouldn’t line up perfectly with your protagonist’s.
Give it a try! Not only will you hook your readers, you’ll also have all the more fun writing these fascinating scenes!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What kind of interpersonal conflict is happening in your current scene? Tell me in the comments!