Conflict vs. Connection

One of the big rules we always hear about writing is that there must be conflict! Without conflict you have no tension, no stakes, and the story doesn’t go anywhere. Some say “without conflict you have no story” at all!  Therefore we should always be on the look-out for the conflict in a scene and use it to make our stories more intense, emotional, and keep the boring-police away!

But, I have an admission. I’ve always had a problem with the idea that story revolves around conflict. I get nervous about how it limits what our stories can be about.

Don’t misread that comment. Conflict can be an important and useful storytelling tool, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. But… do we sometimes create conflict simply because we think we are supposed to? Are our lives defined by our conflicts? Is it all Man vs. Man, Man vs. Environment, Man vs. God, Good vs. Evil? Is it always about desire and obstacles and the conflicts that stand in our character’s way?

Is there not room for more?

This emphasis on conflict has always made me think of the fabulous quote in Diane Lefer’s essay, Breaking the Rules of Story Structure, where she says:

“The traditional story revolves around conflict – a requirement Ursula K. Le Guin disparages as the ‘gladatorial view of fiction.’ When we’re taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, we seem to choose by default to base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable” (63).

Gladiator

Janet Burroway adds to this discussion noting that “seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis, of enemies and warring factions, not only constricts the possibilities of literature… [it] also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (Writing Fiction, 255).

These quotes have always resonated with me. I find I’m not an action-and-conflict writer. But at the same time, I didn’t have any other guidepost to lead me. So, if it’s possible for stories to revolve around something other than conflict, what would that “something else” be?

Connection.

In Writing Fiction, Burroway goes on to discuss a narrative engine built on the human need for connection, rather than the clash of opposing forces. She says:

“A narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect. Over the course of a story, and within the smaller scale of a scene, characters make and break emotional bonds of trust, love, understanding, or compassion with one another. A connection may be as obvious as a kiss or as subtle as a glimpse; a connection may be broken with an action as obvious as a slap or as subtle as an arched eyebrow” (255).

This is an idea I can get behind!

A pattern of connection and disconnection is a narrative guideline that feels rooted in truth, human desire, and hope. It’s a guideline that – if you need it to – can lead to conflict, should that be where you want your story to go. For me, the need for connection, and the movement between connecting and disconnecting, exists in a deeper space than conflict alone. Good vs. Evil sits on the surface.  Connection and disconnection is the pulse beneath the skin that motivates our characters. Can good or evil exist without it? This question excites me!  The possibility of small actions energizing a story excites me!

Gladiator 2

I believe in the little moments.

I believe in the impact of an arched eyebrows and a subtle glimpse, may they have the power to grip our readers with as much intensity as a fight to the death.

Five Things to Make Your First Page Shine!

The first page is your chance to make a strong impression with your teen reader! Don’t blow it! New York Times bestselling young adult author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day event, and shared her list of the top five things you need on page one!

The Five Things To Look For In Your Opening Page:

1)     Voice

  • This is often said to be indescribable. “I’ll know it when I read it.” Is what we hear over and over.
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • Write as if you are talking to a friend.
  • Write honestly.
  • Don’t write logically. Follow the emotion.
  • Imagine a teen in your living room and you are telling them your story. How would you tell it to keep them engaged?
  • Read other books! Hear other author’s voices.
  • Some of Cohn’s favorite author voices are: Libba Bray, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

2)     Tone

  • This is similar to tone of voice.
  • It is not what is being said but how it is being said.
  • This is related to the adjectives you use.

3)     World

  • You need to show the world your characters find themselves in.
  • This doesn’t have to be epic world building like Lord of the Rings or high fantasy or dystopian.
  • Worlds are smaller. Think about the world created by author Sarah Dessen as an example.
  • Communicate how your world works to your reader.
  • Think about how your mundane and ordinary world can be seen as extraordinary to a teen.
  • Your world needs to feel like paradise before you make it feel like a prison.

4)     The Plot

  • Outlining is good! It’s really helpful.
  • Plot is what happens in the story and the order in which it happens.

5)     Conflict

  • What is in your character’s way?
  • What does your character want?
  • Do the situations your character gets into get in the way of what they want?

Rachel shared the first page of three young adult novels which (in her opinion) contain all five elements — Voice, Tone, World, Plot, and Conflict. Pick up these books at your library and see if you agree!

Example 1: The Hunger Games by Susan Collins

  • Mention of the Reaping = Tone and Plot
  • Story with the Cat = Illustrates (show not tell) the bleakness of the world.
  • Establishes the protagonist is a hunter who provides for the family and is loyal.
  • The line about love immediately shows tone and conflict.

Example 2: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

  • We get the voice from the first line.
  • We get the tone from the use of slang and the sense of darkness and mystery. Yet at the same time it’s funny.
  • The prosthetic belly tells us information about the world.
  • Immediate Conflict = She must get pregnant.

Example 3: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • Creates a teen voice that is direct and immediate, yet artful and smart at the same time. “The sunset was like yellow cat vomit.”
  • We get the voice immediately in the first few lines.
  • World is futuristic.
  • Plot and conflict is established in the bit about her friend getting a surgery that the protagonist herself has not had.

Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.