A lot is said about the importance of conflict in fiction. (Sometimes it’s stressed even in the non-fiction work I write, but that’s another post.) Without conflict, so goes the admonition, there is no story. Or at least no story that anybody will read.
Therefore, (the conventional advice continues), an author must put their characters through hell and back, and hell again and back and back again and hell again and so on until…the end.
I see the point, in a way. But as with much advice it is taken too far in the popular venues of writing conversation. Not just by beginners either.
First, a conflict doesn’t have to require one fighting bears or saving the planet from the evil league of whatevers. Conflict can happen 100% within one’s mind. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” or “Which is the lesser of two evils?” are conflicts too. Well written fiction can intrigue the reader with exploration of a character’s thought process and personal decisions. Yet when we pound conflict, conflict, conflict into the brains of would-be writers, we spread the misguided notion that the conflict must be loud and external. In other words I believe the line between conflict and action is becoming blurred, and they are by no means the same thing.
Yet whether internal or external, conflict within a story can be overdone. You wouldn’t think it’s possible based on the counsel provided by writing “experts” the world over, but anything that can be underdone can be overdone as well. We just don’t hear as many cautionary tales about over doing it with conflict.
As one of my favorite proverbs states, it is the silence between the notes that makes the song. In context that means without moments of repose, contemplation and rest for your characters, the conflicts they face become overwhelming to the reader. Possibly even tedious, and I think we all agree that is just about the last thing we want our fiction to be. (Sloppy we can handle, but tedious? Writers will take a kick in the teeth first, please. So, I imagine, would most readers.)
Problem after problem after tragedy after disaster. This is not a formula for intriguing conflict in fiction. In fact when I read a story like this I am turned off after about the fourth consecutive plague from heaven thrown down upon the protagonist. That’s because it’ss clear the author took, “torture your characters” too much to heart, and mistook giving the people in their story a really shitty couple of days for great story telling.
In short, conflict isn’t fuel. Your story doesn’t burn brighter the more of it you add. It’s an ingredient. Like all ingredients, the right amount must be applied. I love sugar, but dumping four pounds of it into my cake batter doesn’t a better cake make. It makes an inedible mess. I have to find the right recipe and follow it.
Unlike cakes, we can’t just look up a recipe for a good story. (Though many people try to sell them…) But if we remember moderation of each component, trial and error will lead us where we need to go with our fiction.