Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Conflict of Interests

conflict--the clash of agendas between two or more forces within a story; thus the internal argument of conscience versus desires raging within one character as well as the differing views of appropriate behavior among opposing sides. Conflict is opposition writ large, the duel between dream and reality, between age and youth, between conservative and liberal. Conflict emerges from two wellsprings, the desire of an individual to survive, and the sense in story that every character believes he is right. Conditions that stand in the way of survival represent conflict. Conditions that emerge when opposing forces insist on the aptness and correctness of their positions are representations of conflict. Since its appearance and subsequent evolution, the human species has struggled against the conflicts of weather, starvation, illness. Since its reemergence in the middle of the twentieth century, Israel has been in one form or another of conflict with its neighbors, each side convinced of the validity of its position.

Story often begins with a character being propelled by a goal. The character collides with one or more obstacles, reversals that cause frustration and possible humiliation. These obstacles are often other characters with contrary agendas, but the obstacles may be emotional or philosophical forces within the principal character. In either case, the principle character must seek a way through or around the labyrinth of obstacle to some degree of settling the claims of the original goal.

Real life characters who identify their goals, then set methodically forth to achieve them are admirable, often becoming role models for emulation. They represent progression, but they do not represent story. A woman setting methodically forth to accomplish something rarely achieved by a woman is story because of the presence of obstacle, which in story becomes personified, even objectified.

Conflict begins in story with an individual who wants something to come to pass or who wants something not to come to pass. The conflict is engaged when the individual acts on his goal. The conflict becomes tangible and irreversible when a person or persons reacts to the individual acting on his goal.

Conflict always has consequences (if it does not, the narrative effect becomes reminiscent of the boy hollering wolf).

tension--a sense of potential menace, vulnerability, humiliation, conflict, or reversal hovering over characters as they pursue their agendas; a radiant quality of apprehension affecting readers who have come to have concerns about characters; a dramatic shading valued by some writers to a greater degree than actual conflict, tension is the flashing warning light, the buzzing smoke detector that warns of the consequences of conflict.

One instructive way to look at tension is as an atmosphere of dramatic tentativeness, of characters attempting to behave as though nothing is wrong, trying not to recognize the elephant in the living room. Thus by the indirection of subtext the reader will become apprehensive for the appropriate characters.

Another way of instruction: Tension is the tightening of hopes, anticipation, of thinking nothing more could go wrong, just before one more thing goes wrong. Tension is being in bed in a cheap hotel, awaiting the comforting presence of sleep, then hearing a shoe drop onto the floor in the room above, then waiting for the other shoe to drop. At length, the shoe does drop. But a moment later, one more shoe drops...

style--the appearance and expression of written personality; often enhanced by an adjective to connote spareness, flourish, orotundity, even baroque complexity. Style is the physical fingerprint of the writer, demonstrated by such traits as length of sentence, cadence, length of paragraph, use of adjectives and adverbs, punctuation; style may emerge as formal or informal, depending on such idiosyncrasies as "one" instead of "you."

Most writers have a pronounced style, making it possible to identify their work without signposts (Hemingway comes to mind as a prime example.) while other writers are said to write in a particular style, say journalistic or scholarly or discursive. Some styles, such as material appearing in The National Geographic, are so focused on clarity and accuracy that authorial presence tends to retreat into the background.

Style is what remains of a manuscript after it has been revised by the writer, winnowed to achieve for the author a sense of comfort, which is to say that all self-consciousness has been edited out. If the writer is not comfortable or happy with his style, happier results may be found by examining writers with agreeable styles, looking for things to include or remove from one's own work.

The difference between style and voice has its origins in the author's intent in writing the work; voice comes from an emotional and/or philosophical atmosphere. Style relates to the way the writer dots i's and crosses t's; voice is a direct reflection of the author's attitude.


Anonymous said...

Most of my conflict seems to be in my head.

Querulous Squirrel said...

1. For me, I think voice is a direct reflection of my personality rather than just attitude. I like your distinction between style and voice.

2. I think inner conflict comes easier to me in writing than interpersonal conflict or both together. I should think about that.

3. I don't think I have a clue about how to create tension. My stories just putter along and then, all of a sudden there's the end, swerving around the corner.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Shelly: a wonderful and highly useful discussion of conflict and tension... and what if... the main character desires two conflicting things... what if the achievement of one goal would negate or damage the other?
All the Best - Karen D