Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Are you lookin' for a fight?

If you're a writer, you'd better be looking for a fight.


Because every good story needs conflict.

If you want your reader to care about what happens in your story, the reader needs a reason to care. Conflict forces your character to choose sides. Conflict makes your reader think about what side she would choose if she were that character. It gets her involved in the story and makes her want to turn the page to find out how the character is going to handle the problem.

Life is all about conflict. If your story doesn't have meaningful conflict, it's not going to be relevant.

Don't shy away from conflict. There are conflicts in friendships, conflicts in families, conflicts in communities. It may be hard for us to write about conflict when we have been taught all our lives to be peacemakers. But if we don't allow conflict to occur in our stories, we're essentially removing our character's agency, allowing them to exist in a world where we save them from unpleasant outcomes. (Does this sound familiar?)

I've had many opportunities as a newspaper staff writer to observe conflicts from different points of view. It might be helpful to you to attend city or county government meetings or court sessions just to listen, observe, and take notes. When parties disagree or there is a problem to resolve, how do the parties involved handle it? How visible are their emotions? Did the outcomes meet their expectations?

Some conflicts have a polarizing effect. Take the meeting I attended today, for example -- a discussion about whether or not a board of health has the authority to enact a community smoking ban.

County government leaders say the board of health should not enact the ban, believing it's a job for elected officials. However, the elected officials don't talk as if they want a ban; squeaky wheels in the community say it's just another example of government trying to strip away the rights of the people.

On the other hand, you have the board of health. The members are convinced second-hand smoke is bad for the community, and can back that up with scientific evidence. They've been reluctant to act, or maybe just taking their time, exploring all avenues before making a decision.

This brings us to the critical point. At today's meeting, a state health official told the board that according to a legal opinion, health boards do have legal authority to enact a smoking ban.

Naturally, county government wants the board of health to back off, to say they're not going to enact a ban but allow the magistrates to decide.

The board of health can be pretty certain if the ball is put back in the fiscal court, the court won't pass the ban, considering there are some very vocal magistrates listening to a few very vocal constituents.

But, really now, why should the board do this? They're convinced of the dangers of second-hand smoke; 14 counties in the state have already gone smoke-free; and, in one of the most recent situations, the ban was enacted by that county's board of health, has not been contested in court -- and that county's ban, according to the legal opinion, is lawful and valid.

In that room today, there was no middle ground. People spoke either for or against the ban. But I'll be honest -- I'm eager to find out what happens next. Will the board decide to enact a ban or not? Will they cave in to the elected officials or will they do what they know is best for the community?

Someday -- I hope sooner than later -- our newspaper readers will be turning the page to find out.

Put your characters in a meaningful, relevant conflict, and readers will be turning the pages of your book -- not so they can skim to the end, but so they can savor your story, eager to learn the outcome.


Anne Bradshaw said...

I agree, Patricia. Especially in YA books. No conflict is way too boring. In fact, Nephi's "Opposition in all things" applies to everything we do. I'm thinking our lives aren't supposed to get boring and that's why so much opposition abounds.

Whether we're writing full length novels, or short stories, both need an overload of opposition to make them work for readers.

Rebecca Talley said...

I also agree.

I live in Colorado, but spend time in New Mexico as well. Both states have enacted a state-wide smoking ban. It's so much nicer now to go out to eat in a restaurant with no cigarette smoke.