When I tell people that I’m a writer, there is often a very common response. The person tells me that they are a) a writer too or b) they have a story they want to write or see written. I can be too polite, and sometimes I’ll sit there and let them ramble at me for over an hour about their story or often their vague concept with tons of background research for a story.
Or other times, I’ll see posts from writers giving little snippets about where they are in their writing. I have this race character or this gender character or so many types of things of this sexual orientation.
I smile. I nod.
And I think, “That’s great you have these things and yes, there may be a market for those things, but do you have a story?”
A book is like a pile of ingredients that mix together to create a yummy cake. Characters, Settings, Message, Theme, Background Research. These are like dry ingredients and that when you mix them together you get a bunch of powder, but not a yummy cake. All books need binding agents to bring them together. Binding agents are things like milk, water, eggs and oil. And the binding agent in a book, the glue, (has two metaphors going now) is conflict.
Conflict is what is at stake in the story. In a murder mystery, we need to find the murderer. In a thriller, there is usually some sort of escape from being chased. In a romance, will the hero ever find true love. There are plot driven conflicts were outside forces act upon the hero, they’re accused of something they didn’t do. They’re in the middle of a war. They’re cursed. They have a destiny to save the universe. There are character driven conflicts that come from within and from personality clashes with other characters. These are the characters wants, needs, faults and flaws bringing them to a crisis within themselves or with those around them. The desire to belong, the want to escape a bad situation, the feeling of being wronged or betrayed by someone else, the desire for revenge.
Without conflict, there is nowhere for the story to go. There is no action. There is no beginning, middle and end of what is going on in the book. Showing the conflict, accepting the conflict, the tipping point where something has to give in your climax, the resolution of your conflict, the fall out of said conflict and thus, the end of the book. Conflict is what a book’s structure relies on. Conflict is the reason readers root for your characters. Readers want to see the people in their books and media overcome difficult obstacles either against other forces or in themselves.
Many, many amateur writers are adverse to conflict because they don’t want bad things to happen to their characters. While at the same time, many professional authors use the same types of conflicts over and over, having the same bad things happen to their characters in every book or series.
But bad things or difficult things are how people and characters grow. Without conflict and adversity, there would be no point in reading the story. It’d in fact, no matter how cool, diverse or well constructed your characters, settings, backgrounds are, the story would be pretty boring if there was no conflict.
It’s difficult. I’m a pretty conflict adverse person myself. In my books sometimes the conflicts are pretty low stakes. Or at least, to me they feel low stakes because I wrote the dang things and I know the ending. I also try not to write conflicts where the fate of the entire universe is on the line. (I’m over that in media. I really am.) So, I understand that it can be difficult to put adversity into a story when you want good things to happen.
And I’ve sat there and tried to kindly explain to people who haven’t even started their story yet outside of research and characters that while their idea is interesting, their story has no conflict and have they thought of what opposition that their characters are going to face. Often, I feel this is why the story has never been written. They bluster and try to explain the story they want to write and I have to explain again that their story has to have some sort of stakes, some conflict, someone, somewhere has to be against what the main characters are doing and try to stop them or capture them or fight them. And it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that your characters in your books exist in this sort of vacuum where the rules of reality don’t apply.
It’s difficult to say to people, yes, I get that you want to see yourself in media, that you want representation. It’s more important that you have a story first and representation second. There is a world of difference between focusing completely on the representation such as “my story is about a gay lawyer,” and having a story that is “My story is about a criminal prosecutor and he’s been charged with evidence tampering in a major court case and when he investigates he discovers a conspiracy that will change the world and who happens to be gay.” Insert representation race or sexual identity of your choice.
The first says to me that the author (if they also happen to be gay) is so bound up in their sexual identity that it will come first in the writing. That the conflict in the story is the fact that the lawyer is gay. The second says to me that the story comes first and that the author is at peace with their sexual identity (if they happen to be gay) that while it’s important it’s not the be all and end all of their existence. The conflict to the story is the conspiracy cover up they find themselves embroiled in. The second doesn’t detract from the character’s sexuality at all. The character is still gay. It’s not the total of the story.
Representation is important. In the movie Hidden Figures, there was a story about race. There was a story about gender. The inequality and injustice of both, and those stories were driven by the conflict of trying to get an astronaut into space. It is important that the story of these black female mathematicians and engineers and the first computer programmers were told. It added weight and gravitas to the major conflict of getting the math correct to launch a man into an environment that men really aren’t supposed to go into and be able to survive. Their race, their gender were part of the conflict of what was going on at NASA at the time. We need stories like that. The story was more powerful because of those adversities and knowing their contributions made the success of the main conflict, getting a man into space and back successfully, that much more powerful. Without it, there wouldn’t have been a story at all.
Let bad or hard things happen to your characters and in your settings. Let there be conflict first!