A story without sound conflict quickly fails

Everyone likes a happy ending. But in order to fully appreciate it there has to be some stuff that comes before it; a struggle, a cause, a problem. It is this which makes us appreciate the protagonist triumphing. Now, many works of fiction don’t become a tedious read because the subject matter is boring—I read a variety of genres. Most become problematic because the conflict is not defined, we couldn’t care less if the protagonist lives or dies, or there is too much drama drowning out the central focus of the story, thus taking our focus off the real conflict (if there is any).

 I critiqued a story for a young man about a football player caught doing drugs and a former member of the team found out about it and threatened to expose him, in which case he would’ve been kicked off the team. And the conflict was just as plain and flat as the sentence I just wrote. The thing which drives conflict is the extinct to which we feel we know or connect with the protagonist or the person for whom the conflict is against. If their character is too general (all we know about them is the way they look, for example), too cookie cutter (dumb jock or blonde, nerdy with glasses, angry or cool Black person) or if we don’t in some way connect with them, frankly we won’t much care what happens to them. Characters are so multi-dimensional and flawed we want to see all of that because on some level they are as we are; imperfect and complex. And we feel a psychological need to “protect” this person.

Other times there is so much going on it’s like spooning our way through a bowl of mystery stew. Mind you, drama and conflict are not the same things. Conflict is the battle that your protagonist faces; drama is all the stuff within the conflict. But if there is too much drama or if there is so much going on without a focus it becomes convoluted and just way too much to care about, especially if the drama isn’t centered toward one central conflict. For instance a Black family is being discriminated because they moved to an all-white neighborhood and the neighborhoods hate them, their employers are threatening to fire them, and the people are their kids’ schools shun them. All of it is centered around being discriminated. But if, in addition to that, the wife’s mother is dying of cancer, the husband is having an affair, the daughter is thinking about dating an older guy and the son is diagnosed with dyslexia, well, that’s a whole lot happening and the central conflict of the story is in jeopardy of being over shadowed–unless of course we can somehow tie it into the central theme and even then…

If you notice often biopics are narrowed to the central theme of a story, even if in real life the protagonist had much more going on. If we have too much to care about, we stop caring about any of it.  Often it seems as if writers feel the need to have a lot of drama going on in order to make the story interesting. But if the central conflict is focused and intent, if you can deftly build character and suspense, you will find that you need less “stuff.”

In Martha Southgate’s, A Taste of Salt, all of Josie’s family members had issues to deal with but they were all centered on the problem of addiction.  In Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, all of the friends had their individual trouble, but it was about the general issue of the women finding themselves. In Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaney’s , all of the family members had issues to battle but all  focused on the central conflict of the story, which was dealing with the rape of the daughter.

Conflict is like the filet mignon or the main course of a meal. If it is under or overcooked or drowning in sauce, we will not walk away praising the vegetables and potatoes. We will be griping about that awful meat. But if the filet is good we will talk about it for days and forget that the veggies came from a can.

How Do You Find Your Voice?

When I hear people talk about finding their voice, it sounds like a mysterious process where they sit very still, eyes closed and channel in that spirit which reveals the profound and peculiar. To some, maybe it does, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You see, you don’t exactly find your voice, no more than you find your personality. It’s already a part of you. But you must give place to it.

I look at it this way, when you were a child your mother decided what clothes you would wear and how she would style your hair. She picked out the cutesy outfits with the colors and patterns she loved. Then, as you grew older you begin to imitate the styles from T.V. or magazines (spiked hair and fluorescent colored eye shadow…remember the 80s…yikes). As you matured your style became a compilation of various looks; you honed and adjusted them to fit you.

Now, compare that to writing. In the beginning your voice may replicate a particular writer you enjoy or admire. But the more you write and seek within to tell your story as authentically as possible your true voice will emerge; like that wallflower of a girl who suddenly gets the revelation that she is beautiful. Your own rhythm, choice of words will develop and come alive. Your work may speak whispers of writers you love, (No one would be upset because they were compared to Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates.) but it is your voice that will blare. Do not push it. Don’t set out to define it. It will define and reveal itself to you.

Remember your reasons for wanting to write. Most likely, it was not because you wanted to, ‘be’ someone else. It was probably because you had a story to tell and you either couldn’t find anyone that could make it as compelling as you could or you felt you needed to express yourself. No matter, say it as truthfully and honestly as possible and your voice will ring loud and clear.