Since I also believe in writing along with my students, I start messing around with the worksheets—only to find that I have nothing. The well is dry.
The truth is, without conflict, there is no story.
My students are buzzing along merrily, ideas somehow as plentiful and ripe as the autumn leaves outside on this October day, ready to fall into their place in the annals of literature.
Glancing again at the conflict handout, I realize what my problem is. I despise conflict.
Okay, let’s get one thing straight: I am not afraid of conflict. I wouldn’t even say I avoid it. Sometimes conflict must be faced, and I am becoming a person who can meet its steely gaze unflinchingly. I’ve stared over the brink of the abyss called “Divorce” and walked away. I’ve had three children. I’ve had two miscarriages. I’ve been married for sixteen years. Conflict and me, we’re like those odd animal pairings, the tortoise and the hippopotamus who do everything together. But I don’t like what Americans call drama, whether in the hallways of the high school where I teach, or on the page.
So you don’t have what you want. Does it follow that you have to wreck other people’s lives over it? Some people (we all know them) live continually in a drama cycle. They set their hearts on something, they get denied, and they pitch fits. Casualties ensue. People like this are unable to put themselves in others’ shoes, unable to empathize, unable to learn from their failures and disappointments. What a sad life.
We all want things we can’t have. Coming to grips with that fact is the essence of maturing, growing up, getting wise. The things I want, but don’t have become my lifelong companions, but they need not generate heated conflict. Life’s easier that way.
Maybe this philosophical bent is why I haven’t had much success writing short stories. “Why would I want to spend my time writing about conflicts?” I ask. “How unpleasant!” And yet the truth is, without conflict, there is no story.
In fact, drama, my arch-nemesis, makes tasty fodder for fiction. Just look at some of the most famous short stories by the masters:
- Feeling insulted, mad wine enthusiast walls frenemy up in a niche in the catacombs (“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe)
- Semi-barbaric king sends daughter’s lover to an arena to blindly choose his fate (“The Lady, Or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton)
- College-educated sister returns to family home to retrieve heirloom quilts her sister might be tempted to put to everyday use instead of displaying as valuable antiques; insults mother and sister in the process (“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker)
- Divorced sister returns to family home with unexplained child, causing drama that forces narrator to move out while community members choose sides (“Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty)
And we do love the drama makers, or their drama wouldn’t irk us so much. We all have that sister who can’t resist a snide comment on social media once a week, that cousin who takes credit for anything clever you’ve ever done, that friend who makes you feel fat by offering her castoff skinny jeans. My holiday plans are frequently shaped by the family drama forecast more than the weather. Watch out for hysteria from the east bringing a backstabbing front and lots of hot air!
Drama says, “It’s all about me.” It throws aside the needs of others and takes the biggest slice of cheesecake for itself. If someone’s making drama, there’s conflict, and if you’re willing to write it, there’s a story brewing.
So scroll through your Facebook feed, read your old diaries, invite that drama mama to New Year’s Eve dinner. Now, take notes. Who caused drama? What words were exchanged? What was the most interesting reaction from a bystander? Found your story’s conflict yet?
I want to hear your favorite drama moment, be it from real life or from fiction, TV, movies, or social media. If it’s from real life, change the names to protect yourself from further drama! And tell us how you approach the nasty-but-necessary business of writing about conflict.
Visit her also on Facebook.