Welcome to A Novel Approach, a weekly note about writing. Join us and follow us. I’ll post the tip on Twitter at JWLBooks and the full note on Facebook at Jack Woodville London, at the MWSA site, and right here at the blog. Here we go.
The art of writing conflict in literature (including journalism, essays, and histories) is the ability to dash a reader’s lack of expectations and enlighten his awareness of the world in the process. Of the six commonly-accepted themes of conflict, the oldest is man versus man (or woman, or men). Until Cain slew Abel, there was no murder, nor did anyone even conceive of murder. Then the world changed.
First, the pace of writing conflict controls whether that dash of expectations is delivered suddenly or gradually. Cain’s murder was sudden. The Caine Mutiny was gradual – a junior officer’s destruction of his captain’s career was not revealed as such until after a court martial acquitted his executive officer of mutiny.
Second, there are at least two core conflicts in man versus man fiction — the apparent conflict and the real one. The apparent conflict should emerge early in the work. Elizabeth Bennett finds Mr. Darcy to be proud, vain, and selfish as soon as she meets him, and detests him. The crew of the Caine decided that Queeg should not have been given command before they even met him.
Third, the early conflict should continue to sustain the core theme despite the development of secondary characters and sub-plots. Mr. Darcy continues to be proud, vain, and selfish as he is gruff with Miss Bennett’s mother, snobbish at the dance, and turns his friend Bingley away from Elizabeth’s older sister. The back story conflicts – will Jane get Mr. Bingley in the end, will Elizabeth’s mother find husbands for all the other sisters, and what did Mr. Darcy do to the dashing captain Wickham?– appear to become the main story. In The Caine Mutiny the captain’s illogical training orders, obsession with counting scoops of ice cream, and apparent flight from battle confirm the first conflict – that the executive officer was cheated at the beginning when Queeg was given what should have been his command. These all appear to become the main story but in fact are elements that build the evidence of the second conflict.
Fourth, the author must spend great time in building flaws into the protagonist and hinting at redemption for his enemy, or there will be no second conflict. Abel died; Cain lived; story ends, at least for them. But the pride and the prejudice that Elizabeth Bennett detested turned out not to be Darcy’s but her own, a conflict revealed when the evidence unfolds that Darcy tenderly loved his young sister, was betrayed by Wickham, and actually drove Bingley to propose to Jane. The second conflict was that Elizabeth, finally realizing that it was her pride and prejudice that wrongly led her to detest Darcy, had to decide how to eat the plate of crow she had set herself.
Fifth, and last for now: Since the presence of the second conflict tends to resolve the first, or apparent, conflict, it is the second one that needs resolution at the denouement. It is hard to find a better example than The Count of Monte Cristo. After a life of pursuing one by one the men who put him in the Chateau d’If for fourteen years, without explanation, trial, or hope, took his fortune and prospects and turned them all to their own benefit, Dantes has killed or ruined them all and in the process become as bad as they. “I who, like a wicked angel, was laughing at the evil men committed, protected by secrecy, I am in my turn bitten by the serpent whose tortuous course I was watching, and bitten to the heart.” If Dantes had not recognized what he had become his life of revenge would have been meaningless, he just another wealthy prison escapee living on the edge.
It is difficult for writers to sustain the man versus man conflict. If done well, it may result in Elizabeth Bennett marrying the person she has opposed for five hundred pages or in Edmond Dantes recognizing that vengeance makes one no better than the enemies he has destroyed. But, if done poorly, the outcome will be like a horror movie, predictable from the beginning. Remember – ‘driver restarts bus, gets off rail road crossing before train comes through’ may be a relief but it is not a story. For the reader, something has to change because, once dashed, an absence of expectations is no longer satisfying.
See you next week.
Jack Woodville London is the Military Writers Society of America Author of the Year for his novel French Letters: Engaged in War. Visit him and browse book reviews, blogs, tips, and The Letters Project at http://jwlbookscom.wpenginepowered.com