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On writing: conflict and goals in fiction

7 October 2019

For the last few weeks we’ve been going to a writer’s support group that discusses writing fiction, We read each other’s writing and comment on it. The most recent discussion was on writing about conflict.

In most fiction, there is some kind of conflict, and this is what keeps the plot moving.

I’m not writing this as a report on our discussions, but rather some thoughts prompted by the discussion, and to ask others, whether writers or readers, what they think about these things.

One person said that conflict ensued when a character, usually the protagonist, was frustrated in their goals.

But I think that in a lot of fiction the protagonist doesn’t have a goal to start with. Things happen to the character, and those events create a conflict which gives the character a goal — to somehow resolve the conflict.

Someone else disagreed, and said that if the protagonist does not have a goal at the start of the story, that is a weak character and of no interest to the reader.

I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps that’s because I’m trying to write a sequel to my children’s story Of Wheels and Witches. You could say that it’s in the “children go on holiday and have an adventure” genre. There are hundreds of examples of that genre, from Enid Blyton to Alan Garner, from Arthur Ransome to E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis.

In almost all examples of that genre there is no clear protagonist, because a group of children are involved, who are usually friends or siblings or a mixture of both,. And at the beginning of the story they usually have no clear goal other than to enjoy a holiday. Conflict and goals emerge later when something happens to them.

I kept thinking about what G.K. Chesterton had said:

… oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

There are, of course, novels and comics about superheroes, who have extraordinary powers. They are obviously strong characters and probably have all kinds of goals right from the start. But not all books have to be about such characters. And even Superman has to have kryptonite to make the conflict believable.

Do you need conflict on the first page to make the reader interested?

I once tried to analyse a couple of books (of the “children’s holiday adventure” genre) that I loved as a child, The Secret of Kilimooin (the first Enid Blyton book I read) and The Mountain of Adventure (the first one I owned). One thing I can add to what I wrote there is that in both those cases the actual adventure only started about halfway through the book. There was none of the currently fashionable in medias res “action (or conflict) on the first page”. Yet children still enjoyed them.

Though Enid Blyton’s dialogue was atrocious, children still read her books and liked them. And that brings to mind a couple of other things. I seem to recall that as a child my thought about the dialogue was that the children in the books spoke like that because they were English children, and perhaps that one ought to talk like that if one wanted to have adventures. My mother did once come down on me like a ton of bricks when I used the phrase “ever so”. And the food porn in Enid Blyton’s books was perhaps there because they were written when Britain was still subject to wartime food rationing.

Another book I mentioned at the meeting was Gulliver’s Travels. If Gulliver had any goals at the beginning of the story, they were swept away by the events that took place. It’s a classic example of what Chesterton was talking about — extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Someone at the meeting said that that was satire, and people didn’t read it for the story, but rather read it for the satire. But no, I read it several times as a teenager, and the satire, like that in Northanger Abbey, went right over my head. I read and re-read Gulliver’s Travels because the more I saw of some people the more I liked my horse.

The software I (sometimes) use in my attempts to write fiction is called yWriter, and I find it quite useful because it breaks up writing into chapters and scenes which can then be moved around easily. But it also makes provision for attributing goals to each character, and in every chapter and scene in which that character appears. And I’m never sure of what to do with that.

I had to resort to Wikipedia to find examples of novels that began in medias res with action on the first page.

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.”

But I don’t think I’ve read any of those.

Firestarter by Stephen King starts in medias res and has a character with extraordinary powers, though the protagonist is really her father, who is not a strong character, but does have a goal — to protect his daughter.

One of my favourite novels by Charles Williams begins in dramatic fashion, with what is perhaps one of the most attention-grabbing first lines in fiction, “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” But the corpse has no goals, and in the end turns out to be only a minor character. The true goals and conflict only become apparent later in the story.

Another of Charles Williams’s novels, The Place of the Lion, begins in medias res with a lioness roaring in the Hertfordshire countryside, but her goals only become apparent later. The scene shifts to two friends waiting for a bus that doesn’t arrive. One suggests that they give up waiting and walk in the direction they want to go and let the bus catch them up, to which the other replies, “The chief use of the material world is that one can just occasionally say that in truth. Yes, let’s.” One is the protgonist, and a strong character, and the other is weak, but nothing of that is revealed until several pages further on, and the goal is vague — walk in the direction the bus is travelling, or walk to meet it. It is the events they encounter in their casually chosen direction that produce the conflict, give rise to the goals, and drive the plot.

C.S. Lewis’s Out of the silent planet does, admittedly begin with the frustration of one of the protagonist’s goals. As with many of the children’s nove’s he is on holiday, a walking tour to be precise, and his goal is to reach a village to stay the night before it gets dark. His goal is frustrated by his being whisked off in a spaceship to an unknown planet instead. But his main goal in the story arises out of that, and is not apparent in the first chapter.

So I’m still not convinced that it is essential in writing fiction to have a strong protagonist with goals on the first page, and that conflict is generated by those goals being frustrated. I think that Chesterton’s scenario is equally valid — that conflict is generated when extraordinary and unexpected things happen to ordinary people, and that goals can just as easily be generated by conflict as the other way round.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 7 October 2019 9:51 am


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