Conflict is Essential
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Superbusinessman shifted position to avoid one of the more persistent drips. His body heat was enough to cause the stalactites on the ceiling of the Office of Solitude to melt. This new position was not quite as comfortable as the old one. The ice of his huge throne would need to melt a bit to better fit the form of his buttocks before that happened. With an irritated sigh, the Man of Staples used his heat vision to cauterize the source of the drip smoothly against the ceiling and blew the falling mass of ice into the open pool of water that was the entrance to the Office.
Things were quiet at Metroplex Inc. Things were quiet in the world. Things were even quiet throughout the universe. No one was being conned. No one was being robbed. No supervillains were concocting and implementing elaborate plans for world corporate domination. No natural or man-made disasters were threatening corporate life. For whatever reason, things were quiet. They had been quiet for the past month.
No one needed Superbusinessman to jump over a big merger. No one needed Superbusinessman to fly faster than a speeding e-mail. No needed Superbusinessman to save a falling ex-millionaire seeking certain death on the concrete sidewalk of the city below. No one needed Superbusinessman to deflect a huge meteorite into the sun or even lift heavy files with a single hand. No one needed Superbusinessman -- and he was bored.
He was so bored that he had even exhausted all the different ways he could imagine to make paperclip chains. He had used his heat vision to weld the paperclips together, he had used his steel-strong nails to cut paperclips into smaller pieces, he had created a huge pair of pliers out of ice to bend and twist the paperclips and he had even used his cold breath to freeze metal clips so that they would shatter from their own weight.
Superbusinessman yawned and stretched mightily, flexing his rock-hard muscles. He yawned again and put his head back against his throne. Moments later he was asleep.
Imagine two or three pages of the above. You could read about him turning restlessly in his sleep. He could dream of flying endlessly through fluffy white clouds. For a touch of real excitement, he could snore; maybe even loud enough to knock down another stalactite. Any humor would have long worn off. Any interest in what Superbusinessman was doing would also be long gone. In fact, I congratulate those of you still reading.
Of course, this begs the question: "Why is this sketch so boring?"
To give credit where it is due, the opening paragraph was actually fairly entertaining. No, let's be fair; considering the subject matter, it was a darn good opening paragraph. We'll talk more about that in a later article.
There was certainly enough background to make it believable. Don't you think the stalactite dripping was a nice touch? Consider the detail in the discussion of paperclip chain making. Was there enough detail to make it believable?
There were no incongruities that would make the sketch less believable and destroy the reader's suspension of disbelief. For example, Superbusinessman did not suddenly turn evil. Better still, he didn't suddenly start singing show tunes.
Even the grammar and spelling were sufficiently adequate that they should not have interfered with the reader's concentration on the subject matter. What was really wrong was the subject matter. Not that it was a poor topic to write about; look how many stories have been written about Superbusinessman's fellow superhero from DC Comics. What was wrong was that nothing was happening. There was no conflict. By the end of the sketch there wasn't even any action -- unless you count snoring.
Well, it took a while, but we're finally at the point of this article:
Every story must have some conflict.
Of course, this doesn't mean you need to create a war in every story. There are different types of conflict and different sources of conflict.
Conflict can be internal or external. An internal conflict might be Superbusinessman berating himself for not being able to prevent Enron. An external conflict might be the growing efforts of a secret cabal of postal inspectors to tie Superbusinessman up in legal actions over the mail that was lost when Oilman missed Superbusinessman during their last battle and blew up a tractor trailer truck full of mail.
Conflict can also come from different sources. It can come from conflicting goals (e.g., Louise "Loose" Leaf wants to go to lunch, but Superbusinessman wants to finish his analysis of the viability of the Baby Bells), conflicting needs (e.g., Louise is hypoglycemic and needs to eat before she faints but Superbusinessman's boss, Purdy Wine II, needs the Baby Bell report for a meeting later that afternoon), conflicting demands (e.g., Louise insists on leaving right then and there but Purdy demands they both stay until the report is done), and conflicting beliefs (e.g., Louise believes she could die without some food while Purdy believes she and her whole department, including Louise and Superbusinessman, will be fired if the report isn't presented as scheduled).
Additionally, a story cannot have conflict to the exclusion of all else. Even those paeans to the old action two-reelers of yesteryear like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Perils of Pauline, et. al., don't have constant conflict. They do take time -- maybe not a lot of time, but at least some -- to build a plot.
So how much conflict is enough?
The answer is, enough to keep the reader interested. Granted, this answer is a cop-out, but that doesn't make it any less true. The types and amounts of conflict will vary based upon the characters, the plot and the situation, and cannot be quantified like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc., did with the answer to the question of the meaning of life -- in case you're wondering, his answer was 42.
What I can do is offer some suggestions that will help. Before you ask, there can be reasons for ignoring each one of these, but most times they will apply.
Which means it's time to once again say, get out there and write!