Friday, July 15, 2011

The Essential Thing

The essential thing is conflict.  Any story is at its heart the recounting of some struggle.  Someone struggles against someone or something else in order to achieve some objective.

A story without conflict is not worth reading.

A scene without conflict is, at the very least, a wasted opportunity.


  1. In the past, I think you could get away without a lot of conflict in a book, particularly in the opening chapters. I think this stems from literary traditions where the focus was on prose over story: make a story sound good and it doesn't matter what it's about. But modern readers demand more from their stories. They want conflict. Not necessarily arguing, action, and fighting, but opposing forces. And the sooner you can marshal these forces against your protagonist, particularly in a way that elicits empathy, the more you'll engage your readers.

  2. That's an interesting change in literary culture, don't you think? My inner pessimist wants to attribute the difference to falling literacy, but I guess there are less sinister explanations. I'd venture two.

    1) When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit (as an example, as I happen to be reading it to my kids now), there was no Middle Reader section in the bookstore. He really wrote a book to be read aloud to children. Since then, YA and Middle Reader have come into their own as genres, resulting in an Elvisification of literature -- now there's stuff written specifically for kids, and that body of work has moved away from elegant prose and towards conflict.

    2) Movies, TV and video games have profoundly shaped the way we all see the world. MTV has taught us that the songwriter's mantra "don't bore us, get to the chorus" can apply to everything, and we expect it to.

    I know that now when I'm reading a book, if something hasn't happened by the end of chapter one, I'm done with it.