Shaun Levin

What’s the Conflict?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 13, 2020 at 9:26 am

My conflict with the world is noise. The jettisoning of bottles into recycling bins, a lift cranking up and down, cleaning trucks at 4am, neighbours banging front doors shut, an entrance door to a building slams, dogs bark at pitches so high they can be heard from miles away, a person on their mobile phone, traffic lights go beep beep beep for 20 seconds every minute. Sounds in the distance, sounds nearby. A bomb whistles, a siren starts up, a warning.

What’s your character’s conflict? Their quarrel, struggle, collision, discord, battle, opposition in the world. What is it? What’s their mountain to climb? As in life, it’s easier to identify the conflicts of others (don’t we love to give advice?). The absence of conflict is easier to spot when the story is not your own. Where’s the conflict? is not a question I ask myself when it comes to my own stories. Just writing the story is achievement enough, having overcome the voices that want to silence, censor, shut us up, insist we behave. Behave yourself! Getting to the end of a story is to overcome a conflict.

Some days, just getting through them, is a triumph.

Is that enough for fiction, for a story, for the things we write? Sometimes it’s enough just to tell the tale of an event, an experience. But is it? Sometimes the conflict is the pull to be silent, to be distracted. Sometimes a story would rather you kept quiet. Every story is a win over the gagging order. But is it? At some point, ask yourself, where is the conflict, what is the conflict, because the more we know about the conflict in our character’s life, or at least at this particular point in their life, the more we can bring to the story, of the character’s past, the concrete, non-symbolic hurdle they must overcome, the secondary characters there to help and hinder.

To identify the conflict is to identify the core around which a story can be made. My Spanish teacher, E., suggests we read an article about Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book I read 30 years ago, and talk about some of the themes in the story, the main theme being what makes a story (or a life). Words like umbral and periplo and acudir a la llamada are now part of my vocabulary. Threshold, journey (not just the viaje type), and heed the call are good words in any language. E. says something that stays with me, something about our main conflict being death, that our primary conflict as human beings is with death and its inevitability, and it gets me thinking about those noises that are a distraction, the power of distraction to silence us, our battle against distraction, what often feels like a losing battle, and how that silencing is an echo of the greatest silencing of all.

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