I can’t remember where I heard it, or if I heard it anywhere at all, but there’s this thing that happens sometimes, where writers mistake a fight for conflict.1 By fight, I mean argument. And most of the time? Fights are not that interesting. I think this is because anger is a one-note emotion, and while it’s bound to reveal what’s ugly about a character, it’s not going to reveal what’s true about that character’s nature, in the way that finely crafted conflict is supposed to.
I think about conflict and tension a lot within the context of my novel, but nothing comes of these thoughts.
Everything I “know” about conflict has the stale, airless aspect of something I internalized after reading, I don’t know, that shitty Donald Maas book on writing the breakout novel. Somewhere I got the notion that a really great conflict pits two irreconcilable things against each other, for instance, two competing desires within a main character (by which I do not mean the competing desires for two equally hot manimals, the province of subpar YA material such as the Twilight books).
That line of thinking is tantalizing because it positions conflict as a formula of sorts, as if you could sit down in your little writing hut one day and brainstorm a situation that demands a collision of two diametrically opposed worldviews (conveniently contained within a single character). Obviously, that in no way resembles my experience as a writer. Brainstorming within the context of my fiction has produced so little useful material as to render it completely irrelevant.
Drafting is the only answer for me. Draft, draft, draft, and then try to intuit my way to a shape that suits the material. And there’s this, via an interview with George Saunders:
A writer knows the problems with a piece as she’s working on it, I think. That’s what she’s doing in that writing room for all of those hours: trying to figure out how to minimize the inborn defects of the fictional construct.
Sigh. And here, still more Saunders:
…I guess the main catharsis is just the satisfaction of inventing a situation, abiding with it, and then feeling like you’ve shepherded it into the best version of itself – that feeling of having unearthed some non-random surprises in the process.
Abiding2 with it. This is such an apt description for the process. It’s hard to believe that it was 2007 in which I wrote the short story that has grown into my novel. And I’m still abiding with it, hoping for more non-random surprises during this year of its life.
1This observation comes courtesy Girls, which I do enjoy, but come on. Sunday’s episode was a series of fight scenes. I forgive a certain amount of fight scenes when they are well-written or quippy or necessary, but I think in this case that it was the least interesting choice to make for a handful of key shifts in the story arc.
2This is one of those words (like “inconceivable”) that has been permanently altered by the culture. And I guess because of the Saunders context, it is impossible to not point out the Jeff Bridges book?