I spent this past Halloween weekend sating myself on saccharine and chocolate, my wife and I trudging around in the perfect October weather behind our children – who were dressed as Hermione Granger and Hannah Montana, respectively. On Sunday we had some friends over and ate chocolate chip pancakes, drank too much coffee, then grilled bratwurst on the back porch while the kids all played soccer in the yard. It was a completely relaxing couple of days filled with family, fun, friends, and food … and not a drop of conflict.
One of our guests this weekend mentioned that she is becoming disillusioned with reading short stories, because so many of them are depressing, dark, and brooding; the characters either do damage to their loved ones or themselves; the endings usually leave everything up in the air. What’s going to happen? Will things get worse, or better? Is this a happy ending or a depressing one?
I was trying to explain that conflict is so essential to drive narrative forward, and that a short story has so little time to establish the world in which the protagonist must act that conflict is often relied upon as the engine driving the reader forward. Nobody wants to read a short story about a weekend filled with chocolate chip pancakes and shiny, happy, well-adjusted people looking after their kids. But zombie Rottweiler dogs chasing a teenage vampire killer through a post-apocalyptic cityscape? Now that’s a page-turner.
In grade school most of us learned about the typical forms conflict can take: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Himself. When I hear the term, I think of men and women striving against dark, external forces … the kind of thing you see in action movies. Whether it’s psychological or physical, set against a historical backdrop or all in the protagonist’s head, the tension created when a character is up against forces seemingly greater than their own pulls the reader in and propels the story into the next sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter. Or sequel if you’re lucky.
One of my challenges as an author is trying to find the psychological or emotional tension in normal, everyday situations – like watching a basketball game, or sitting in church listening to a sermon – and extrapolating that tension into a kind of conflict that’s real, and yet interesting at the same time. I don’t write about zombie Rottweiler dogs, or vampires – and yet my fiction must have the same sense of urgency and importance if it’s going to work (for me … and for my readers).
Today was my birthday, and I ended up having to stay home from work to look after my oldest daughter, who was running a low-grade fever. At the pediatrician’s office, when we learned that she would need to be tested for both strep throat and the flu, my daughter burst into tears and came over to sit in my lap during the tests. As the nurse worked to shove several extra-long Q-tips into my daughter’s nose and throat, I had to restrain her hands to keep them away from her face. She was blubbering and crying, absolutely miserable.
I don’t know how most parents react to hearing their children cry, but to me it’s like listening to fingernails scrape down a chalk board: an almost unbearable sound that lets me know something in the universe is not as it should be, and that it’s likely all my fault, and why can’t I just fix it so that the crying stops? My stomach was churning … I would have given anything at that moment to be outside of that pediatrician’s office, with a healthy little girl, eating ice cream or watching TV. What the hell was this woman doing, manhandling my daughter? Did she even go to school for this … where were her credentials? Was it a one year certificate class or a four year degree? At that moment, the distinction seemed important. I thought of asking her to be more gentle, then held my tongue.
Almost before the nurse had started swabbing my daughter’s nose and throat she was done, exiting the room quickly and leaving the two of us huddled on the tiny plastic chair beside the examination table, two sobbing and miserable human beings. We were up against the common cold, maybe strep throat, possibly a global H1N1 pandemic. It was an important moment: filled with drama, emotion, fear … and conflict. We’d ventured together into the cold, not-so-sterile badlands of the healthcare industry in the hopes of finding a cure, and had now passed the first test successfully.
On to the next one.