We’ve all struggled, at one point or another, to explain in conversation what, exactly, our stories are about.
We hem and haw. “Well, you see…”
And one of the reasons that we get in such a muddle is because sometimes what we think we’re writing about is drama, when what our stories are truly concerned with is conflict.
It’s easy to understand why we conflate the two in our minds. Getting the story down on paper is hard enough, whether we generate prose in a white heat or a slow burn. But when everything has cooled down, it’s vital to identify how both operate in fiction. And the distinction between the two is important.
Think of drama as the story’s backdrop.
We often say things like, “I’m writing a story about the financial collapse in 2008,” or “I’m writing a story about a hurricane” because that, in our minds, is the thrilling stuff. It might be what captured your imagination in the first place. Or it might be what you spent months researching. Or it might be the trick that you needed to play on yourself in order to finish writing.
But fiction is not concerned with drama.
Fiction cares about conflict.
It cares about agency… because your readers care about agency. Here’s a big hint that ought to simplify the difference: if your characters can’t do anything about it—the weather, adolescence, industrialized revolution—then it’s drama. Drama, drama, drama. But if your characters need to make a choice, that, my friend, is conflict.
Example: poor Lizzie Bennet. She can’t do anything about 19th-century property and marriage laws in England. But she can do something about Darcy. She can do things to make Darcy act one way or the other, but that’s still not conflict.
Conflict is what Lizzie can do about the way she feels about Darcy. Because conflict has less to do with external actions than internal crisis, regardless of whether your character is a stream-of-conscious blabbermouth or a tight-lipped enigma.
Once you understand that difference, you can tackle revision with real gusto.
Signposting a character’s motivations, obstacles, and hang ups becomes a whole lot easier if you understand the beating heart of the story’s conflict.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re not convinced. You’re like, No, damnit, my story is about the environmental consequences from global warming. It’s a warning! It’s parable! It’s political! And yes, fiction can be all those things… but fiction is nothing if, first and foremost, it’s not personal.
If you want to tell a story about income inequality, don’t beat us over the head about injustice, just follow a mother struggling to make rent. Or better yet, follow a mother who spends the day thinking about walking out because she can’t make rent. Or better yet, follow a mother walking out because she can’t pay rent but who uses that as an excuse… because she never really loved her kids in the first place.
When you do that, you turn a story that could be about anything into a story that’s really specific. Great stories, read closely, contain such specificity.
Let’s get specific together. Come by Hugo House on Mondays at 7 pm, starting May 6, 2019, for my workshop, The Story is Smarter: Facing the Hard Work of Revision. There’ll be drama. There’ll be conflict. But I guarantee your stories will be better for it.
Eric McMillan’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Iowa Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, and Witness. An Iraq War veteran, he’s the winner of this year’s Jeff Sharlet Memorial Prize and a former Fellow at Hugo House.