Thoughts on (lack of) conflict

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After reading The Fault in Our Stars and The Book Thief, one of my biggest complaints with both was the lack of conflict. Things were peachy and good for the protagonists throughout 80% of the book. A lot of the arguments against my complaint was that life isn't always dramatic and full of plot twists and conflict. These books told the story of the regular people who don't have hugely exciting things happening to them, and that made it realistic.

Here's my rebuttle:

We, as human beings, are defined by our accomplishments. What actions and decisions we make. We could have the most interesting personality, but if we don't have a tangible product or effect on another being, we may as well not have existed (this is taking a non-religious standpoint, of course! Bring religion into this, and my point becomes moot, but bear with me for a minute. I'm going to talk about this in relation to fictional characters and stronger storytelling). 

If your characters don't do anything, if they don't struggle to achieve something, they're boring. Worthless as characters. They need to be the cause and create an effect. The bigger the effect, the bigger their worth as a character usually is.

So those regular people who don't make big impacts, who don't create any ripples in the pond--they're not interesting. I want to read about the people who create waves. TSUNAMIS.

You might talk to someone about the weather for a few minutes. It's realistic, but you fall on the weather when you're really digging for scraps at coversation. That's why you don't usually see pages of idle chitchat and small talk in novels. It's boring.

Life is full of unmotivated bums who don't do anything or get anywhere. The world is full of annoying superficial people, but do we necessarily want to read from their point of view?

There's a lot in life that isn't worth writing about. Mundane, day-to-day events are one of them. Sometimes a book needs a bit of a breather from the action, and that's when quieter scenes are encouraged. But having 80% of a story be good and happy without any tension or conflict isn't interesting. I want to see the characters who want something and will work their asses off, overcoming obstacles and making sacrifices, to get it.

A story needs plot. It needs conflict to carry that plot. If there's no conflict, there's no plot, and it's not a story.

I don't want to read about the normal, every-day Joe Schmoe. I want to read about the extraordinary. The impressive. The broken and battered. The mentally unstable. The flawed, the wacky, the disturbing, the heartwrenching, the terrifying, the beautiful and ugly and strong and weak and genius and stupid.

You want to be realistic in the sense that the story is believable (I can believe a wizard uses magic. I can't believe the Fast and Furious drivers repeatedly defy the laws of physics), not in the sense that you emulate everyday life to a tee.

Pooping is realistic. Are you going to describe your character's trip to the bathroom in detail? No! Certain events are worth reading about. Write those stories. Write the stories that are bold and dramatic and life changing. Not the passing of feces through your character's rectum.

I'm not saying you should hate TFioS or TBT. You can love those books to pieces for the very reason I didn't like them. I have the minority opinion, in fact, because the majority of the world does love them for that reason. That's not the point of this how-to. The point also isn't me telling you what you can and can't write (despite my syntax. I promise you can write whatever the hell you want. Write about going to your grandma's and eating milk and cookies and loving every gooey morsal.) The point is that don't settle on writing mundane events just for the sake of making the story "realistic." I want you to make your characters struggle. The more they struggle, the more interesting the story typically becomes (there are always exceptions, of course).

Writers are adventurers. The happy, the normal--that's all been mapped out. Explore the uncharted territory.

Normal and happy is boring. Conflict, tension, struggle, sacrifice, on the other hand, is interesting.



“People who have only good experiences aren’t very interesting. They may be content, and happy after a fashion, but they aren’t very deep. It may seem a misfortune now, and it makes things difficult, but well—it’s easy to feel all the happy, simple stuff. Not that happiness is necessarily simple. But I don’t think you’re going to have a life like that, and I think you’ll be the better for it. The difficult thing is to not be overwhelmed by the bad patches. You must not let them defeat you. You must see them as a gift—a cruel gift, but a gift nonetheless.”
—    Peter Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

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