The Word for Writers
The Art of Conflict in Writing Conflict
by Lorilyn Roberts
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I should be an expert in writing conflict. After all, I was on the debate team in high school, and a seventh grade boy wrote in my yearbook, “You would argue with a sign post if you could.” I’ve had my share of personal conflict—family problems, ex-husband, relationship disappointments, and yes, my own report card of failures.
As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve had a first-class seat to some of the most spectacular conflicts on the planet. I worked for twenty years as a court reporter. The adversarial nature of the job left me exhausted. I would sit at my stenograph machine for long hours each day, between attorneys and hostile witnesses, recording the barrage of questions about lost reputations, cheating husbands, financial ruin, and hearts broken—high-powered lawyers bent on winning at all cost.
Conflict raged within me as I hated being at the center of it all. The louder they argued, the more nervous I became. Please don’t ask me to read this back. It’s hard to write well when everyone is yelling at each other. If I could count the number of strokes hit on my stenograph machine, the amount would not be measurable. Conflict abounds and sometimes borders on murder in a courtroom, where truth isn’t always the ultimate goal. Because experience and memories shape our worldview, to this day I cringe at the thought of going back to that life—please God, never again. I don’t want that conflict.
Today I work as a broadcast captioner for television and write as little news as possible. Very few upbeat stories get reported and I have grown weary of captioning sensational beats about kidnapped children, victims of abuse, Washington bureaucracy, and a world at war—at the gas pump, in the Middle East, and a host of ideologies that scare me. I cherish my freedom and don’t want it taken from me. (Yes, I do feel much of what I love about my country is eroding). But most of all, I hate captioning tragedies that could have been avoided. Life can be very depressing—and steeped in conflict.
As much as I hate conflict, as an author, how do I use it in fiction? Or do I even want to create painful conflict for my protagonist? Do I shy away from building a story that needs high-stakes conflict to create a fabulous, climatic ending? Or can I use conflict to remind me of a nobler purpose in God’s eternal plan?
Put into the context of life, is there a reason behind the conflict which we encounter every single waking moment of our lives? Is it not the result of the stinking sin in myself and others? How do I resolve this paradox in my writing?
Fortunately, as writers, we have the freedom to go where our heart and art takes us. Unless I write poetry, however, I won’t have a story without conflict. Acknowledging that the dénouement is what makes a story remarkable, I can set the scene for redemption before I begin the first page.
In the 1990’s, Hollywood released a lot of box-office films that had downer endings; the bad guy won, the problem wasn’t resolved the way I wanted, or the main character died. I quit going to the movies.
My mantra now is I refuse to write, read, or see movies where there is no redemption. If I feel stuck without a good moral choice in life, I will search for it. God can bring redemption out of the worst possible circumstance. There is good in the world if we look for it.
In writing a great book, there should be something in the dénouement that causes the reader to grapple with the story’s action-idea. The unraveling of the conflict must result in a satisfying conclusion. I don’t want the reader to feel as though he has been cheated by mediocre creativity or immorality that wins.
While our stories imitate life, the climax needs to reach a higher level of “being.” When I read a story, give me more. Give me excitement worth remembering, knowledge extraordinaire, and thought-provoking ideas. I want to relate to a protagonist that overcomes incredible odds and wins. Beauty, love, peace—we are not sufficiently redeemed to appreciate this trilogy of goodness in all its meaning, but because writing imitates life, we can catch glimpses of it in a redemptive ending.
As an author, my passion is to bring a "taste of heaven" to this earthly kingdom inhabited by kings and peasants, and all of us in between. That means what I write must linger. I must create meaningful connections in the reader’s mind after his eyes have read the last page. I wield incredible power—to bless or curse. As a Christian, I want to captivate the reader with words that are uplifting, powerful, thought-provoking, and life-changing. That might seem impossible, but the greatest stories ever written have those qualities—unique characters engaged in mortal conflict, either internal, physical, or both.
I write where my heart takes me, digging into my past, and seeing what God stirs up from within. I write for myself first and then for others. It's up to each of us to decide how we use the "rules of writing,” acknowledging that those words will live on long after we are gone—for good or evil. History is replete with both.
I can’t dilute the plot to avoid conflict. I want redemption to reign supreme in the last chapter. I must weave the nature of fallen man into the story through conflict, knowing that I have the answers that a sinful world craves. I can do it subtly or not so subtly, but if I compromise on either, I will weaken the story that God has given me. Great conflict deserves great redemption.
How does conflict work in writing? The conflict must propel the story forward and relate in some way to the protagonist's nearly unreachable goal. There must be clear turning points (three-act structure works well), and there should be a main goal and at least one minor goal. Often the minor goal relates to character development (so the protagonist can reach his main goal).
With "up" endings, the protagonist wildly succeeds and goes through a metamorphosis in the process. He is not the same at the end as he was in the beginning. Despite his character flaws and numerous obstacles, he overcomes the odds and achieves his dream or even something better. Surprise endings are always the best
I have wondered if there is a higher standard for writing novels than the Aristotle tradition of dealing with conflict, but for a different reason. I want to write great stories in heaven, and in heaven, there is no conflict. What shall I write? Maybe I will become a poet. If you are one of those saints, pursue your calling with passion; keep writing those beautiful sonnets and songs. When my world becomes steeped in shadows, I turn to the Psalms and relish those soothing words of comfort and security.
In the Bible, Jesus knew the evil tentacles of life would strangle his listeners if they succumbed to their base nature, so he told amazing, redemptive stories, steeped in conflict, to reveal profound truths. If I follow that example, perhaps I can conquer my inner conflict of wanting to avoid conflict and write a great redemptive story—which must abound in conflict to end in perfect redemption.
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