Sunday, March 29, 2009

What is conflict, anyway?

Yeah, what is it, really? Is it this?
Or rather something like this?

Perhaps this is more like it...

It seems simple. Lots of things do, when they're done well.

Good writers do it all the time, putting their characters at odds to create an inescapable conflict of motivation. The characters' goals may be the same or different, but in pursuing those goals, each will negate the other's chances of succeeding.

A few nights ago, I watched the old classic, 'Irma La Douce', with my family. What a great partnering of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. We thoroughly enjoyed it. As we watched, I was explaining to my husband how inescapable the conflict was.

Irma, a prostitute, falls in love with Nestor, an ex-policeman. Nestor replaces Irma's abusive pimp, and to show her gratitude, she sets about earning as much money as she can to dress him in the finest clothes and look after him in a way that will make her proud among the other prostitutes in the district.

Nestor is flattered, but his love for Irma makes him insanely jealous of her clients. He can't stand the thought of her with other men, so he invents an alter-ego, Lord X, who will engage Irma's services twice a week to do nothing more than play double-handed solitaire, paying her so much money she doesn't need to see other customers.

Problem is, to make a thousand Francs a week, Nestor works himself to the bone at the local produce markets and arrives home early each morning to fall into bed exhausted. Irma thinks he's losing interest in her. One day, after a quick change from Lord X to his real-life self, Nestor meets Irma in the local bar for a drink. She sees a lipstick mark on his cheek - the one she had placed on the Lord only a few minutes earlier - and accuses him of having another girl. She then announces that she has fallen in love with Lord X and plans to elope with him.

There seems nothing left for Nestor to do than to dispose of Lord X. But when Nestor throws Lord X's clothes and belongings in the Seine, noisily proclaiming his joy at being finally rid of the Lord, he is spotted by Irma's old pimp. The police are called and Nestor is arrested and subsequently convicted for the murder of Lord X.

I won't spoil the ending, as there are a few more complications before Irma and Nestor are happily reunited, but I thought this was a splendid example of inescapable emotional conflict. Irma's and Nestor's motivations for getting what they wanted were diametrically opposed. In the status quo, no resolution was possible. Thankfully, unfolding events provided the stimulus for character change, and that in turn enabled the protagonists to change events so that they could be - happily - together at the end.

There. Now wasn't that confusing?

Last night I drew Jennifer Crusie's conflict grid on a page and tried to nut out the conflict of my current characters. I haven't yet given up on them, as I think they've got potential. It was harder than I thought to get the conflict grid working so that each of their motivations prevented the other's goal from succeeding. I must have drawn that grid at least fifteen times before I hit on a workable conflict. But for this to happen, I had to change the story I'd originally planned to write. It was a difficult process that kept me up past midnight. It was worth it, however, as I feel more satisfied with the new plot than I have for a long time. What this means, though, is that I have to wipe everything I've written so far and start again. And I thought this writing caper was going to be easy...!!!


Tracey said...

Who told you it was easy? lol.

If you're happy with where you've arrived, then it's been worth the hard work. I was 100,000 words into the sequel of my first novel, when I got some reader feedback that made me make some massive changes to my first novel. That novel was far better, but then when I got back to the sequel one of my main characters was dead. I had to chuck away an awful lot, but it was worth it. Every project teaches us something. Good luck with your rewrite!

Riley Quinn said...

I'd love to hear more about this conflict grid. I looked on her site but didn't see anything. Can you give me more info? Thanks.

SCRIBBLY said...

Hi Riley,

Nice to meet you here. The conflict grid is a simple idea, as Crusie describes it, 'A cheat sheet for checking conflict.'

The idea is to draw a square and dissect it into quarters by drawing a cross through it. The top row belongs to the protagonist and the bottom row belong to the antagonist. Write their names on the left side of their row.

The left column will have the heading: GOAL.

The right column will have the heading: CONFLICT.

In creating the grid, the protagonist and antagonist will each be given a goal and a conflict. Their goals may be the same, eg: they may both be competing for the same job.

However - and this is where the conflict comes alive - their motivations for achieving that goal must be conflicting.

That is, the protagonist is prevented from getting what he/she wants by the antagonist's desire to get what she/he wants.

To check that your conflict is inescapable, draw an arrow from the protagonist's GOAL box to the antagonist's CONFLICT box.

If the protagonist's motivation for achieving his/her goal makes it impossible for the antagonist to achieve her/his goal, you are halfway there.

Now do the same for the antagonist to check if his/her goal is being blocked by the protagonist's motivation.

If this is so, you have a perfect conflict lock. Inescapable conflict that will only be broken by a change in character and as a result, a change in events.

Hope that wasn't too confusing. Good luck with it.

SCRIBBLY said...

Thanks for the good wishes, Tracey.

What would be good now, would be to stop theorising and actually GET ON WITH IT! That way, I could see if I've really hit on something, or whether this is just a more convoluted form of procrastination.

As always, the proof will be in the writing.


Riley Quinn said...

Cool! Thanks for sharing. That sounds great.