Monday, February 4, 2013

I Spit In Your Eye . . . Or Not

Conflict. It's an inevitable part of life. As a result, it's a necessary part of a story. Amazing characters only take you so far. It's when those amazing characters interact and oppose each other that a story is born.

Keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to conflict. I picked the picture I did for this post because it shows three different responses to an argument. The woman in the foreground is trying to avoid and ignore. The woman in the back is defensive. The man is aggressive. Just like my friends don't respond to martial conflict like my husband and I do, everyone responds to conflict, both the anticipation of the fight and the disagreement itself differently.

In my day job, conflict and its resolution is what I do. You would think this would make me  ready for a fight once I punch that proverbial (and invisible, in my case) clock to switch from work to home. It doesn't. My husband's also an attorney. But our at-home conflict style is very different than what you might expect. We've had an agreement since we married not to use litigation tactics on each other to "win" fights at home. One of our friends has the right to tell her lawyer husband that he's harassing her and he needs to leave the room. He goes when she tells him. Both marriages have lasted more than 15 years. The conflict and resolution mechanisms work, or don't, for the particular couple based on who we are.

We've all dealt with the passive-aggressive fighter, or the persuasive bully. Most of us have been micromanaged or been asked to take an approach to an problem we don't agree with by a superior. Have you ever argued with a psychopath? It's an interesting experience. First, a psychopath generally isn't going to get obviously angry. If you catch a psychopath in a lie, she'll pause and then glibly switch topics. The best way to fight with a psychopath is not to engage.

Does your MC wait all day to confront her ad executive boss who's stolen her idea? What happens when the boss blows off that meeting for a hair cut? The movie Working Girl (1988) has two great conflict scenes. First, when Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) bursts into a meeting to expose Tess (Melanie Griffith) as an idea stealing secretary. Tess, our heroine, doesn't stand up for herself. Instead, Tess, mutters and apology and leaves the meeting in disgrace. Cut to the next day. Now, when Katherine confronts Tess about her "theft" in front of only one witness (the love interest, Harrison Ford), Tess fights back. She tells Katherine that while she may fool the NY types, not to BS her about what really happened. The two scenes illustrate nicely how the same person reacts differently to the same conflict in two different settings.

Every interaction has some level of conflict. Many conflicts arise from misunderstandings. Let's take Mary and John again. They are moving from their cramped one bedroom apartment to their dream house. This should be one of the happiest days in their lives. But even here, there's conflict. John's doing all the heavy lifting and telling Mary to get out of his way. He knows she has a bad back from a car accident and doesn't want her to get hurt. He also wants her free to tell him where the furniture goes so he only has to move it once. Not understanding that John is only trying to protect and help her, Mary feels diminished, slighted, cut out and hurt.

It's not enough to say: "Mary was angry. Did John think she was an invalid?" This is telling. The word "angry" in the sentence conveys nothing to the reader about how Mary is actually feeling.

Is her gut clenching? Is she on the verge of tears? Is a headache brewing? Does she feel alternately hot and cold? Was the build up to the fight worse than the actual fight? Does the conflict roll off Mary's shoulders or does she feed the ember of hurt to make the next blow up bigger? Will she avoid confronting John because her own parents had fought constantly, and she vowed not to fight in front of her kids?

When it's time to put a conflict on the page, we need to think about all these factors. A character's response to conflict has to be consistent with who he is and the situation he finds himself in. Remember to show your reader the internal and physical responses to the coming confrontation, and the actual conflict - whether big or small.  Remember how you felt and use those experiences to enrich your writing.


Heather Holden said...

Wow, such a great, great post about conflict! I agree, the way someone will react to that will vary from person-to-person, and even from situation-to-situation. It's just another layer of world-building that us storytellers have to pay attention to!

And wow, I had no idea that psychopaths reacted to conflict like that. Fascinating...

Nancy DiMauro said...

Thanks Heather. One of the hallmarks of a psychopath is the ability to jump seamlessly from one lie to another.
I tend to fall into the trap of having my characters react to big conflicts the same way so I'm trying to take my own advice and alter the responses based on the who, what, when and what's at stake issues.

Traci said...

Great post! Writers always need to remember that conflict is an important part of storytelling. No one wants a flat story where nothing happens to the protagonist. You have illustrated this point amazingly.

Nancy DiMauro said...

Thanks Traci. I've always been fascinated by the dicotomy we all display when it comes to conflict. Most of us react differently based on who we're in conflict with and about what. Conflict can be as simple and low stakes as where to go for lunch or life and death. Just like we do, characters need to react to the specific conflict and not just have a generallized conflict response.