I’ve been working on a short story recently. Unlike most of what I’ve been writing the last few years, it’s solid realism. I didn’t expect this to make it a particular challenge for me, but as I have been slogging my way through outlines, a first draft of one-and-a-quarter scenes, doubt has besieged me of a different kind than I normally encounter.
Is the story exciting enough? I ask myself. Will it draw a reader in? Where fantastic or sci-fi elements have helped me leap this hurdle in the past, now that I’ve chosen to make these old tools unavailable, I need to consider this question afresh. It speaks to questions of conflict, realism, of reader engagement, of authenticity and truth–the central question I’m pondering is, in order to explore a particular issue, should a story exaggerate stakes and conflict in order to best emphasize its themes? Or, instead, should a quieter, calmer, more realistic situation be explored at depth? Let’s consider.
Quick caveat: note that for this discussion, I’m assuming that the purpose of the stories we’re telling moves beyond that of entertainment, into social discourse, empathy-building, literary portrayal. The question becomes, I think in a way, does modifying story elements in order to heighten conflict promote these aims, or hinder them? When we are writing primarily for entertainment, then I totally get it. I’m all for the conflict in that case. If we are writing literary fiction, then, however, how do we handle this fuzzy little conflict’s conflict?
Of all the concepts prevalent in the world of fiction, conflict is the one I find perhaps the most bizarre. Generally accepted as central to the Western canon, we writers learn to pressurize our stories, give our characters no way to avoid the central, burning, high-stakes conflicts we craft for them. We condense slower, broader stories into the rushing torrent of a few days, and upon everything must hinge a kind of life-or-death struggle so that there is more meaning to the outcome.
There’s a part of me that wants to reject this idea. It smacks to me of gimmick, artifice. Why must the conflicts of stories invariably dwarf those of everyday life? Why is the slower, more mundane world considered slow and mundane? I’ve sometimes wondered if there’s a kind of desensitization at work here, a kind of fascination with conflict that draws us to highly charged stories at the expense of our ability to appreciate the conflicts of real life.
And yet, I understand why we do it, and not just because of dry convention. I understand that a seemingly innocuous issue can, when made the pivot of a dire conflict, take on new life, so that we see the issue clearly for the first time and the real implications it does have. A bothersome cramp, when it becomes an unbearable pain, forces us to look for a solution, and that solution would make us feel better even with the original minor ache. Inflating conflict by heightening stakes, limiting characters’ choices, and adding urgency can throw the minor but very real conflicts of life into sharper relief, thereby making a real impact on people’s understanding of the world.
So what is right? What is the way forward? To explore this in a bit more depth, let’s take a look at a couple of example works of literature and how they handle this question of the exaggerated versus the minutely explored but ordinary conflict:
Death and the Maiden
Trigger warnings for this section: sexual violence, torture, military coup.
I wrote last week about reading Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden. I’ll explore it through another avenue this week, as an example of a literary work seeking to heighten conflict through the stake-raising techniques mentioned above. The caveat here, of course, is that Death and the Maiden is not a work of prose fiction but of drama. I’ll speak, however, to the story itself. Hopefully this comparison is fair.
Dorfman’s play explores Chile’s post-dictatorship reckoning with atrocity. In the real world, the Chilean government established a commission that looked into deaths perpetrated by Pinochet’s military regime. In his afterword to the play, Dorfman explains that Chile “was at the time… living an uneasy transition to democracy, with Pinochet no longer president but still in command of the armed forces.” He calls the Rettig Commission “an important step toward healing a sick country… recreating a community fractured by divisions and hatred.”
Everyday Chileans, including both Pinochet supporters and opponents, would certainly have had a stake in the commission’s work. For the minority who had actually experienced or perpetrated atrocities, it would have been a very personal one. Yet it seems highly unlikely that anything resembling the play’s vigilante kidnapping-turned-trial would actually have occurred. Dorfman creates this situation as a kind of crucible for the very real (albeit less intense) conflicts experienced by everyday citizens.
While the Rettig Commission did not reveal perpetrators’ names, was directed by lawyers, and concerned itself only with the cases of victims dead or presumed dead (meaning that none of the actual victims faced their torturers in court), Dorfman’s play pits Paulina, a survivor of torture, still suffering from that trauma, against Roberto, the man she believes (although the truth is left ambiguous) to be responsible for her ordeal. Paulina threatens to kill Roberto for his crimes. The conflict is thus made palpable, direct, and life-or-death serious.
Dorfman has quite explicitly heightened this conflict, and in so doing, has thrown it into vivid relief. Take a look at this excerpted speech by Paulina:
I was horrified at myself. That I should have so much hatred inside - but it was the only way to fall asleep at night, the only way of going out with you to cocktail parties in spite of the fact that I couldn't help asking myself if one of the people there wasn't - perhaps not the exact same man, but one of those people might be... and so as not to go completely off my rocker... I would imagine pushing their head into a bucket of their own shit, or electricity.
Paulina is able to give explicit voice to her suffering, in ways an everyday Chilean might not have had cause or desire to do. To me, it is moving, harrowing, tragic, cathartic. It caused me to think about issues I might otherwise not have. It has certainly caused me to learn more about the Pinochet dictatorship than I otherwise would have.
My Brilliant Friend
On the recommendation of a friend, and because I will be spending some time in Naples this summer, I listened to the audiobook of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in Ferrante’s quartet commonly known as The Neapolitan Novels. My Brilliant Friend is a thoughtful, interior story of childhood and early adolescence among the poor of Naples in the 1950s and 60s.
Unlike Death and the Maiden, Ferrante’s novel focuses on largely everyday occurrences (the loss of a doll, competitions in school), but with a meditative intensity that magnifies and transforms them into powerful, formative experiences for the characters. The narrator waxes at length about characters’ facial expressions and interprets in small actions or turns of phrase deep personality attributes, trends, buried desires. She teases out a vast bounty of significance from what to most would seem the uninteresting quotidian.
I find the effect here marvelous. There is a gorgeous sense of revealed truth in the everyday here, of fathomless depth to the characters, like a microscope taken to pond water.
Interestingly, my husband, who has listened to a few chapters as well (although he’s not a frequent reader), has not been hooked. He found the school scenes boring. Maybe this is a me thing.
I’ll confess, I feel drawn to Ferrante’s approach. I like the idea of examining believable events with a close eye. I feel a resistance to the heightening of conflict for the sake of reader excitement. I would rather pan the sands of the everyday, pore through them for the meaning in simplicity that I believe the world contains…
Yet, perhaps this is only snobbery. A self-isolating puritanism. Conflict is inspiring. It is engaging. I have done a lot of conflict-heightening in my own writing. I expect I will continue to do so. I should say, too, that it’s not that Ferrante does not heighten conflict. I think she very much does, not perhaps to the extent of Dorfman, but she seeks to entertain as well as explore, and let us remember that, if we hope readers to read for pleasure, conflict can keep the pages turning. Even Ulysses has its conflict.
A side issue that occurs to me–perhaps the difference I’m sticking to is one also of external as opposed to internal conflict. Dorfman has taken what for many people who have lived through trauma might be a primarily internal conflict and externalized it. Ferrante emphasizes the internal conflict through her narrator’s careful observation and analysis.
As ever, truth comes best in the synthesis (although maybe this even is a copout)–that conflict can be heightened, but not as a whim or a one-size-fits-all dictum. Conflict can be heightened to emphasize, to engage, to reveal the cracks in our ideas that might be too fine otherwise to see. Yet those same cracks might also be revealed by a zooming in, an accepting of situations in all their mundanity, then to peer beyond, see what we find.
Thanks for reading. What do you think? How do you handle conflict in your stories? What about some of your favorite reads?
Best wishes for the week. It’s the last week of the school year here, and there remains a lot to do before the end. Happy writing, and happy being.