You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.
Mrs. Roosevelt was not giving advice to writers when she wrote those words, but better advice would be hard to find. As a writer, you must do the thing which you think you cannot do; push yourself farther, stretch your writerly muscles, reach for impossible dreams. Also, you must push your characters to do what they think they cannot do; give them conflicts that they cannot possibly resolve. Then get them to resolve them.
Even a lighthearted story such as "Crisis of the Month" can have plenty of conflict in it. In fact, no matter what the mood of a story, if it does not crackle with conflict there is no interest, no point, no story.
Conflict was at the very core of my thoughts when I first began to write "Crisis of the Month." The story began when my wife complained one evening about the hysterical manner in which the news media report on the day's events. Veteran newscaster Linda Ellerbee calls the technique "anxiety news." Back in journalism school (so long ago that spelling was considered important) I was taught that "good news is no news." Today's media take this advice to extremes: No matter what the story, there is a down side to it that can be emphasized — and usually is.
So when my darling and very perceptive wife complained about the utterly negative way in which the media presented the day's news, I quipped, "I can see the day when science finally finds out how to make people immortal. The media will do stories about the sad plight of the funeral directors."
My wife is also one of the top literary agents in the business. She immediately suggested, "Why don't you write a story about that?"
Thus the origin of "Crisis of the Month."
Notice that the story has nothing to do with achieving immortality or with funeral directors. But that is where the idea originally sprang from. And the originating idea was rich in several forms of conflict: various characters in conflict with one another, the government in conflict with the media, the very idea of a Crisis Command Center that manages the news in conflict with our inherent concept of freedom of the press.
The background to the story is suggested, not shown. "Crisis of the Month" takes place in a lovely, peaceful, healthy world; so lovely and peaceful and healthy, in fact, that its very desirable attributes provide a level of conflict. How can a Crisis Command Center do its job if there are no crises? All of this is shown through the dialogue among the characters. The setting of the story is confined to the offices of the CCC.
Two forms of conflict hit the reader on the very first page. The protagonist, Thomas K. James, is worried about a note he has crumpled up and stuffed into his pocket, and the CCC board chairman, Jack Armstrong, is distinctly unhappy with his crew. To find out why, the reader must go deeper into the story.
Remember that the basis of conflict lies in the protagonist's inner struggle of one emotion battling against another. With Thomas K. James, that inner struggle is his desire to succeed and become a full-fledged member of the CCC board versus his fear that he does not have what it takes to succeed.
Enter Mary Richards, who brings that inner turmoil out into the open in two different ways: One, Tom James is powerfully attracted to Mary Richards; romance is in the air. Two, it turns out that Mary is a government agent who wants him to be a witness against the CCC. This creates another level of conflict:
If Tom goes along with Mary, he will sabotage the CCC and ruin his own career; if he refuses to work against the CCC, he will certainly lose Mary.
Through all this there is still another level of conflict confronting the reader: Is it right to have a Crisis Command Center? Should these people be allowed to manage the news, month after month? Should Tom sell out to the Feds? Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?
"Crisis of the Month" is also a variation of what I call the "jailbreak" plot. Chances are that you think what the CCC is doing is wrong, and therefore Tom is wrong to be with them. The protagonist is doing something that you feel is morally wrong, like a convict attempting to break out of jail. Yet because the protagonist is sympathetically drawn, the reader wants the protagonist to succeed, even though the protagonist may be doing "wrong" in the eyes of society.
In its original form, the jailbreak story put the reader on the horns of a moral dilemma. You want the protagonist to succeed, yet you know that the protagonist's success is socially wrong. The prisoner-of-war variation of the jailbreak story removes this moral ambiguity—as long as it is our POWs trying to break out of the enemy's camp.
In "Crisis of the Month" all of this is lighthearted, of course. Yet within the context of the story it is these various levels of conflict that keep the reader turning pages, anxious to find out what happens next.
At the story's climax, Tom opts to save the CCC despite the fact that it will cost him Mary's love (assuming that she truly loved him, which is doubtful). Once he makes that tough decision, he also comes up with the solution to the CCC's problem and receives the reward he wanted all along: recognition by the other board members and the right to chose his own "power name."
Despite the playful tone of the story, what Tom does seems somehow wrong in the reader's eyes. He has thrown away his chance for True Love in order to further the nefarious work of an organization that manages the news, which strikes a jarring chord among those of us who would like to believe the news media are scrupulously fair and independent. In the very end Tom makes a morally reprehensible choice and is rewarded with all the wealth and approval that the CCC can bestow. And, chances are, the reader wanted Tom to succeed! So the tale ends on a note of moral conflict within the reader's mind.
We have come a long way from the simple fistfight or shoot-out, in our examination of conflict. Certainly there is nothing wrong with physical action as a source of conflict in a story. Homer had plenty of battles in the Iliad, for example. But there are other, better choices available. In science fiction, as we have seen, the path is wide open to set the protagonist in struggle against the forces of nature or the bounds of a stifling society.
Yet, whatever kinds of conflict you put into your stories —whether it is a martial arts fight or a military rebellion against a dictatorship — the fundamental, underlying conflict must always be the struggle going on within the mind of the protagonist. Out of his interior conflict stem all the other conflicts of the story. If the protagonist has no inner turmoil, the story is quite literally gutless, and all the slam-bang action in the world will be nothing more than mindless, unnecessary and ultimately boring violence.
REVIEW OF THE CONFLICT CHECKLIST This time, let us use the checklist as the basis for a quiz.
1. A story is a narrative description of a character struggling to solve a problem. Nothing more; nothing less. Struggle means conflict. Who is the protagonist in "Crisis of the Month?" What is the protagonist's problem? As a mental exercise, think of rewriting the story from another character's point of view. Which character would you pick? What would be the protagonist's problem?
2. In fiction, conflict almost always involves a mental or moral struggle between characters caused by incompatible desires and aims. What are the desires and aims of the protagonist? Whose desires and aims conflict with them?
3. Physical action is not necessarily conflict. Is there any physical action in the story? If not, did you find the story static or dull?
4. The conflict in a story should be rooted in the mind of the protagonist; it is the protagonist's inner turmoil that drives the narrative. Earlier in the chapter I gave the protagonist's basic inner conflict in the form of an equation of emotion vs. emotion. What were the two emotions? Could you write a similar equation for Mary Richards or Jack Armstrong?
5. The protagonist's inner struggle should be mirrored and amplified by an exterior conflict with an antagonist. The antagonist may be a character, nature, or the society in which the protagonist exists. Who is the antagonist in this story? Jack Armstrong? Mary Richards? The government? The society as a whole?
6. Eschew villains! The antagonist should believe that he is the hero of the tale. Could you rewrite this story with Mary Richards as the protagonist? Make a one-page outline of that.
7. Be a troublemaker! Create excruciating problems for your protagonist. And never solve one problem until you have raised at least two more—until the story's conclusion. Go through the story and count the problems that the protagonist faces. Note when each problem is solved. And note that the resolution of the story solves the basic problem shown at the story's beginning—even though you may not like the morality of the solution!
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