False Conflict

Last weekend was Bubonicon…  It was a really busy couple of days.  Jim and I had a great time catching up with old friends and making a few new ones.  I’m still recovering!

In the previous Wednesday Wandering, I talked about how conflict is what makes a story work.  I also talked about the three basic forms conflict can take, and I promised an example of a story that does it all.  Will someone pass me the white envelope?  Thank you.

King and Valor in Chains

King and Valor in Chains

With a flourish, I pull out the card and read “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth,” by Roger Zelazny.

In Zelazny’s tale, Carl is a baitman, a sort of fishing guide, on a Venus where the prize of big game hunters is Ichthyform Leviosaurus Levianthus – a huge aquatic creature usually called “Ikky” for short.  When the story starts, Carl’s a not-quite out-of-control drunk for reasons initially left vague, though it’s hinted that whatever is wrong with him has something to do with a past encounter with Ikky.  So, within a few pages, Zelazny presents “man against nature” and “man against self.”  “Man against man” enters with Jean Luharich, who not only turns out to be Carl’s next client, but his ex-wife.

Something for everyone…  and Zelazny ties all three together at the end, which is the most satisfying of all.  There’s a good reason this story won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1966.

Finally, I promised a few words about the hidden flaw that undermines many a story.  This is what I call the False Conflict.

Let me give an example…  Your story features Valor, a knight – good and loyal and true.  Valor’s a little past his prime, although he’s still a good fighter.  He has risen to be a commander of armies. Throughout his long career, Valor has remained true to his code.  Unfortunately, for him, the monarch he serves has changed over time. King has become paranoid, worried about threats to his power, and generally unpleasant.

When our story begins, King is at war with the neighboring Foe.  Foe is known for treating his soldiers well.  He is powerful, but not abusive of his power.   In the course of battle, Valor is wounded and taken prisoner by Foe’s forces.  He comes around to find his wounds treated and that he is housed in a nice room.  Eventually, Foe summons Valor.  He offers Valor a place in his chain of command – not at the top, because that would be unfair to his own faithful retainers.  Will Valor accept?

In the story as defined, there is no real conflict – neither “man against man” nor “man against self.”  Why not?  Because Valor is presented as the good knight and true.  He has no other life.  In the course of the story, he doesn’t snap back at the rude and ungrateful King.  He never thinks about leaving or retiring.  He forges on.  In our guts, we know he will turn down Foe, so what should be a dramatic ending is hollow.

(And, yes, people do write stories like this.  A lot.)

However, introduce some “man against self” conflict into the story and everything changes.  The reader turns pages with a wildly thumping heart, eager to learn which way Valor will go.  The alternatives build.  Maybe Valor will agree to join Foe – but secretly plan to be a double agent.  Maybe Valor actually believes that Foe would be a better ruler, and realizes his loyalty is not to King, but to the kingdom.  Maybe Valor will refuse to join Foe and spend the rest of the war in prison, constantly doubting that he has made the right choice.

A great example of a novel that uses “man against self” conflict to add dimension to what otherwise could have become a standard adventure story is Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired.  When Hardwired begins, Sarah’s one goal is to earn enough money to get herself and her brother, Daud, off-planet, into one of the orbital habitats.  She has good reason.  Daud has a drug addiction that will kill him if she can’t get him away.  Sarah feels she must save Daud – no matter how tough or ugly the jobs she has to do to earn the money.  In the course of doing these jobs, Sarah learns of a group that’s trying to overthrow the system that has created this stratified (literally, as well as economically) society.  She’s pulled toward them and their cause, but joining them would mean giving up her efforts to save Daud.  The first time I read Hardwired, I wasn’t sure which way Sarah would go.

So, what about those mystery stories where you know, even before you start reading, that the detective will solve the murder?  Didn’t I say that a detective chasing a murderer is an example of “man against man” conflict?  So, shouldn’t I really have said that these were examples of False Conflict?

Not at all.  First of all, Mystery novels aren’t just about “whodunit.”  They’re often about “whydunit” and “can we prove it?”  The television show Columbo demonstrated very effectively that you can have a mystery story where the reader (in this case, viewer) knows the solution before the characters do.  The pleasure is in how the mystery is solved – and, oddly enough, the sense of tension is even higher.

As I mentioned when discussing point of view (WW 6-12-14, “How Many Points of View?), a great way to add tension to a story is to provide the reader with information the characters don’t have.  Rather than diminishing conflict, it drives up the sense of drama, as well as adding complexity to the plot.  David Weber does this very well in his sprawling space operas, with the added benefit of creating a sense of identification with both sides of the conflict.  This is particularly important to increasing reader involvement when – as Weber frequently does – you have a novel with a large cast of characters, too many of whom can become faceless, cardboard pawn.

“Man against nature” is one of the easiest ways to fall into False Conflict.   Journeys often occur in SF and Fantasy stories.  However, whether through the dark reaches of outer space or through forests and over mountains, they should serve a purpose.  Otherwise, they are simply filler – implying a “man against nature” challenge but not really delivering – especially since the reader knows deep down inside that what happens at the journey’s end, not the journey itself, is what’s important.

Especially if you write SF or Fantasy, here’s a helpful trick.  Take your journey and mentally translate it into another genre.  Mystery is a good one to use, because journeys for the sake of the journey rarely have a part.  (Even the Murder on the Orient Express is more characterized for the journey being unexpectedly halted, rather than the journey itself.)  If your journey doesn’t serve beyond getting your characters from point A to point B, then do as a Mystery writer would and truncate it down to a few lines.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are journeys that serve many purposes – introducing the setting, providing opportunities for characterization, inserting future complications – but if you’re just slogging the characters along, maybe with a little fight or two to liven up the trip, then it’s filler.  Cut it and get to the real conflict.  You’ll have more fun and your readers will thank you.

5 Responses to “False Conflict”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Helpful writing stuff here!

  2. Other Jane Says:

    Helpful for readers too! I’ll have to look for “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth”. The way you describe the story and ending makes me want to read it.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Finally, my net is working.

    Ahem, you might want to try the new show “Motive”. It starts by showing you the victim and the killer, then shows the investigation into the murder, with snippets of events that lead up to it being played out during the episode. As the name implies, the unknown that gets reveled is the motive. I find it rather fun to watch, though some of that is, like any cop/crime show I watch, I like to try to solve it with the characters.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I shall keep that in mind… Motive, Means, and Opportunity are the three watchwords of so much detective fiction. Neat that the “Columbo” trope is being used again.

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