Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can you have too much conflict?

According to Donald Maass, literary agent, author, and speaker, you can't have too much conflict. But I'm not so certain. Let's use an example to test this theory.

I have an idea about a protagonist in her 40's. She's a widow with five kids at home, ranging in ages from college to preschool. The first few chapters will span two weeks. Let's create conflict. Remember, in a story world (and according to Mr. Maass), the more conflict, the better.

Let's say her teenage daughter discovers she has lice. The protagonist studies her already-full agenda. Nope. Lice does not appear on the To-Do List. Yet, she'll have to spend a large chunk of time dealing with the vermin. What's her reaction? Lice treatment for daughter, and she'll check everyone else in the family and get someone to check her head. But what if she's freaked out and calls for everyone to bring their bed linens to the laundry room? Now, she's climbing mountains of sheets, pillow cases, comforters, blankets and mattress covers. Wow. That's a lot of linens. She's never washed them all at once before. Not even during spring cleaning. We'll cut her a little slack and confine the lice to the first daughter. Now, the protagonist feels foolish for stripping all the beds and overwhelmed with laundry. Plus, she's still got to apply lice treatment and comb out her daughter's thick hair, which takes an hour each time.

She found a good home for the high-strung terrier puppy who was chewing on all the toddler toys and everyone's shoes, but she still feels guilty because the 11-year-old boy really bonded with the dog, even though her son was the one to suggest giving the dog away. Now that the puppy is gone, they've found fleas in the house. She's so overwhelmed that she makes another rash decision and sets off bug bombs to get rid of the fleas. Since she's got the preschooler--who still puts objects in his mouth--she'll need to secure his toys from the toxic gas. She and her daughter spend all morning preparing the house, then they'll have to spend several hours away, then one of them will need to return to open the widows and let the house air before everyone can be allowed home.

Lice. Fleas. She feels like the plagues of Egypt are descending. Over the top conflict? Probably. By now the reader might be tired of insects.

Let's add a house repair gone wrong. Everyone can relate to that. What if she had an air conditioning problem? Let's set the story in the Texas where there was a record-breaking heatwave this summer. Say the A.C. unit, located upstairs, leaked water onto the ceiling over the downstairs laundry room. Of course it's after hours when she discovers the water damage, so she has to stew about the leak all night. By morning, mold has started growing. It will take several days, many phone calls (more conflict!), and several on-site visits to the house to get the A.C. manager, the insurance company, the mold specialist, and the repairman to agree on a plan of action. Meanwhile, she'll watch the mold travel from the ceiling to the baseboards along two walls. She can't imagine what's inside those walls or under the upstairs carpet or inside the A.C. unit itself.

Just for fun, her friends will tell her horror stories of houses with mold damage. House repairs this extensive can continue throughout the length of the novel.

While she's waiting for one of the repairman, she'll discover water inside the garage. Is that related to the A.C., or something else, or has the deep-freeze started defrosting? If she decides the food is safe to eat but closes the garage door, ignoring the water, will readers think she's a wimp? Or will they have sympathy?

We'll let her experience the kindness of strangers. The repairman will help mop up water and call a plumber he knows.

What about the secondary characters--how can they add more conflict? One of the children has allergies and asks to stay home from school. The school is concerned with an outbreak of swine flu and won't take kindly to an ill child sent to school. She allows her son to stay home but he's clearly well. The next day offers the same scenario. He feels ill only it isn't the flu, or is it?

The youngest child doesn't have many lines of dialogue. Let's use that as conflict too. He'll have developmentally delayed speech. Our protagonist will deal with the school system and early childhood intervention. That should add lots of conflict.

She's also weighed by other responsibilities the readers can relate to. Car pool duty. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Cleaning. Driving to all the children's activities. Since she's widowed, remember, she has to do it all, no "dividing and conquering" with a spouse.

In addition to her family, what if she has obligations outside the home? Perhaps, she co-teaches a Bible study. What if she handles her life with a certain amount of grace or dignity. Perhaps, she's funny and transparent, so people might think she has something of value to say. What if she also has a speaking engagement to a women's group?

We haven't focused on her internal conflict. Much more could be developed from her emotional problems, but what if she has a blog due? Can she benefit, at least, by writing about conflict for the blog?

So, what's our conclusion? Is this too much conflict? I'm not certain what Donald Maass would say, but the protagonist thinks it's more than enough.

~Roxanne Sherwood


November is designated as the National Novel Writing Month.
Your goal is to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch from November 1st-30th. You can sign up at anytime but actual writing begins November 1st. Go to http://www.nanowrimo.org/whatisnano for more information.


Beth K. Vogt said...

You know what "they" say: Truth is stranger--and often more full of conflict--than fiction.

Scoti Springfield Domeij said...

Yea! Just look at balloon boy and the conflict that family now faces!