"When there is no peril in the fight, there is no glory in the triumph."
-- A. Alvarez
In life, conflict sucks. As a result, most people tend to avoid it.
But in fiction, it’s vital.
Here's the thing: it is possible to write without much conflict. In literary fiction, there is something called a slice of life story, or vignette, and conflict or resolution is not a prerequisite for this form. But there's often more going on in this type of story than you might think, and it's actually an art form in itself.
Most of the time, however, just because you CAN write something without conflict, doesn’t mean that you should. Not if you want readers.
Conflict is what drives story. Conflict shapes plot.
People are drawn to conflict in fiction. We read on to find out what is going to happen. At its most basic, conflict happens when two people want two different things. But conflict is not limited to physical confrontations. In fact, some of the most successful conflicts can be found in dialogue, or are emotional conflicts, that are never spelled out, but are presented through subtext. Imagine the sorts of secrets and unspoken conflicts a couple married for 20 years might have. Simmering resentments over who doesn't do the dishes, and who leaves the seat up in the bathroom. Or more serious ones about a spouse's inability to save money, stop drinking, or refrain from sleeping with other people.
Conflict can also happen within one character, when that character is torn between two things. Maybe he loves two different women, or maybe his head is telling him to go to law school, but his heart says he should be running away to Paris to become an artist. Or, maybe it's darker than that. Maybe he's an assassin who's been hired to "take out" a woman. Trouble is, he falls for her before he gets around to taking care of business.
Does he run off with her to Paris, knowing that they will then both have targets on their backs? What if she doesn't realize that he isn't really an aspiring artist, and his business associate, who has followed them there with orders to get rid of both of them, decides he is going to blackmail the assassin instead? What if the business associate starts to fall for the woman, too?
Voilà. You have a story.
Here are two prompts for writing dialogue with conflict in the subtext:
1. Have 2 people meet in a tense situation. Each want different things, but only one can get his or her way. They never actually talk about what they really want. The clock is ticking on the resolution. What do they discuss instead?
2. A married couple discusses issues that have bothered them for 20 years, but the real problem, the subtext, lies beneath like an iceberg. Show us this iceberg without telling us what it is.
Ready for more conflict?
Here are some good resources:
Conflict, Action & Suspense, by William Noble
Conflict & Suspense, by James Scott Bell
Writers' Village offers a 2 week certificate track course on conflict, titled Conflict & Change (MFA256), as well as other short workshops that address plot, structure, dialogue and story: