From the Forge: Conflict in Fiction

Forge:  n.

  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. tr.
  4. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  5. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.

The iconic writer of spy thrillers John le Carre once said, “’The cat sat on the mat’ . . . . is not the beginning of a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” Why so? Because a story is not made up simply of action (The cat sat on the mat) but of action that springs from, or leads to, conflict (The cat sat on the dog’s mat).

In her fine book on craft, titled Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway says “Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting.” Consider this. Gossip may be a sin, but if so, it is one of the most widely appealing and practiced sins. Why? Because human beings want to hear stories, especially stories about trouble.

Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, offers this observation: “Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned. . . . Paradise is not a story. It’s about what happens when the stories are over.” Not all stories end in Paradise, of course. Many great stories leave the protagonist in Hell, or at least in Purgatory.

Baxter’s Hell is simply human conflict, and his damned simply humans in conflict. Conflict stems from thwarted desire, heartbreaking obstacles, love, joy, betrayal, sex, laughter. A character yearns and struggles to fulfill her yearnings. And in the end, she overcomes, or is overcome.

No conflict, no story.