One of the most important things I’ve learned in the past year about fiction is conflict.
Without conflict there’s no story. Instead it is an essay or a description.
Plot = Character + Conflict
Conflict = Goal 1 vs. Goal 2
If there’s no conflict the reader will lose interest. As humans we like to avoid conflict – at least the majority do – and I’m not talking about adrenaline. There’s not conflict in a bongie jump.
When we read and the conflict engages us we keep reading because we want the conflict to be resolved.
This is how soap operas get so addicting – they never resolve all problems. Halfway through one problem a new one is introduced and so on. This is also why some people really dislike open endings.
We want a definitive answer – not a “what if”.
What about daydreams?
When pondering my own daydreams I realized that they are stressfully devoid of conflict (stressful if you’re a writer trying to understand the minds of readers).
I may daydream about getting an A effortlessly.
Or being published and never having to worry about money. Being able to travel anywhere and see anything.
Imagine if we won the lottery! What would we do with the money? Certainly my daydreams wouldn’t hold an engaging plot of siblings raging over which way to spend the money and worn out parents trying to keep the family together.
In my daydreams we get a pool and a speedboat and a unicorn and fly into space where we can magically breathe and –
You get my drift.
In daydreams, things come easy.
How come we can drift off into daydreams like that when we’d never actually read another person’s daydream and find it intriguing? (Pardon me, there are exceptions, but don’t fool yourself, they’re exceptions.)
I mulled it over for a while and then I realized it.
In writing theory we sometimes speak of scene and sequel.
A scene has a goal and action: John wants to go to the bank and withdraw money before his wife comes home because he has a mistress whom he is going to leave the country with, but John’s neighbor, Kristian, needs his help with cutting up a tree, and since Kristian and his wife are always so helpful John feels compelled to help. Finally, after much suspense, he gets to the car and drives, just as his wife arrives. Oh, no, she’s spotted him! What to do? They stop, chatter, and she buys his swift lie.
A sequel is this: Once on the road, John thinks about how close his wife was to ratting out the truth. He feels really bad about what he’s done and remembers their good times. Should he go get the money and meet his mistress or go home and forget it? He makes his choice.
Next scene: him acting out whichever choice.
Actions require room to contemplate and breathe. The greater the battle the more we need the characters to recompose.
We need love scenes in between life and death moments to lift the stress for a while, or it becomes too much.
Likewise, life is filled with actions and choices that woe us, and, unlike books, it never seems to have any end. The only conceivable end we know of is death, and it’s not a happy thought.
We need intermissions to breathe.
When we invest in characters we want them to have their happy ending, and sometimes when things seem really bad even the smallest moment of joy will keep us going. Otherwise we’ll become too overwhelmed by the conflict and hopelessness and eventually have to develop an apathetic relationship with the book to stick it out.
(This happened for me with A Song of Ice and Fire and is why I’ve not read beyond book 3 part 2.)
These small breather scenes are important, but it’s important to remember to keep them small. The plot won’t move anywhere if they take over, just like we don’t move anywhere in the world if we daydream too much.
Likewise, novice writers could learn much from studying their daydreams and perhaps even asking other people about theirs.
Some people lead seemingly mundane lives. Do they still have pleasant daydreams or do they add thrills to them in order to keep themselves from getting too bored?
Or can we never get too complacent in our thoughts?
The discussion between wants and needs is ancient. We need grooming and failing and fighting to become good and efficient at whatever we do, but we want to sit back and have it all handed.
To you non writers take this lesson with you:
Daydreams are important. Without them, you go insane. But hover too long in a daydream and it ends up swallowing you, just like slumps in suspension will swallow and destroy the plot of a book like a crumbling stone in a bridge.
What do you daydream about? Can you think of any daydream-like stories that you found interesting? Do you have conflict in your daydreams and do you always overcome them?