Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 49–50)

Conflict—the struggle between people over clear, stated goals—is the engine force of fiction. It's what makes "story" work.

Notice, please, the implied definition above. Conflict is a struggle, and in story it's between people with opposing goals. In a story, it plays onstage in the story now.

It is not enough—I hasten to add, since some of you may have already unconsciously come up with a rationalization to let yourself off the hoook of facing something as ugly as a fight—it is not enough to have the character internally at war with himself. We've already suggested that the external fight should exacerbate an internal struggle. But conflict in my definition means a fight that plays onstage now.

How dramatic will it be if you put your conflict all inside the character and sit her onstage? There she is, your heroine, poor Matilda, sitting on the bench in the spotlight stage center. The audience of thousands is hushed. You, the author, know Matilda is experiencing inner conflict. What does the audience get? Nothing. Matilda just sits there, possibly occasionally twitching or shedding a tear.

The theater audience goes home. "Crummy story," they all agree.

"Wait a minute!" you scream after the empty seats. "There was a lot of neat conflict here! It was just all inside her!"

A critic comes back for his forgotten hat. "Sorry," he tells you. "We couldn't see it."

Get the message? Conflict is a fight at some level, and it takes two onstage now to have it. It doesn't matter how much you dearly love your long, interior monologues or masterufully disguised personal essays about the state of God and the Universe. Readers want conflict! You have to face that, and provide it.

Notice too, please, that conflict is not the same as adversity.

Adversity is bad luck. It's fate. It's blind.

Joe leaves his apartment in the morning. He's late because his clock stopped. He trips going to his car and skins his knee. The battery in his car has died overnight and he has to take the bus. On the bus he gets mugged. He staggers into his office just as the building catches fire.

Poor Joe.

Right. But a reader needs to feel more than sympathy for a character.

Adversity may build sympathy; it will never build admiration or concern.

And adversity is blind. When Joe heads home tonight, a tree in the park is going to fall on him and break his back, and then by more bad luck his ambulance is going to ram into a bread truck.

Joe can't fight adversity. He has no chance. Adveristy will come or go by luck, no matter what Joe does or doesn't do. In a universe of adversity, nothing makes sense, nothing Joe does will make any difference.

But give Joe a goal, and have someone else oppose him. When Joe gets to work he marches into Bigly's office to demand a raise, saying a raise is vital to his happiness. Bigly argues, opposing him, and they struggle.

Now we're getting somewhere! Whatever happens will happen in part as a result of Joe's own actions. The story world will begin to make more sense than life often does—be better than life—because here, at least, people get what they get as a result of how they act.

This, in a nutshell, is why fiction is better than life. It makes more sense. It's also why we have fiction. If fiction were really as random as life, we wouldn't like it, wouldn't have it.

That's why conflict beats adversity, six ways from Sunday. And why you must recognize the difference, and use conflict.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.