The most comprehensive book on writing that I own is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. I started thumbing through it the other day, looking for what Burroway had to say about how to begin a book. I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. Rather, I found a discussion on conflict that approached it from an intriguing aspect.
The traditional narrative arc of a story begins with the protagonist being thrust out of his or her routine life by an event or person that has an unexpected impact on him. (Think C3PO and R2D2 landing in Luke Skywalker’s backyard. Or Frodo Baggins being given the Ring.) The protagonist then sets off on a quest to get something he must have. (Boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy finally gets girl.) Between the want and the get, there are conflicts. One writer, Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked describes conflicts as: “Get the character up a tree (in trouble) and throw rocks (obstacles) at him.”
This is a standard road map for a work of fiction, and Burroway acknowledges it. But she also sees another way, the connections over conflicts way. That is, the dramatic tension in the story comes not necessarily—or at least, not solely—from conflicts, from all those rocks being thrown. It develops also in connections and disconnections between characters.
Consider The Great Gatsby. The book is not so much a series of ever-worsening conflicts, but a protean sea of connections and disconnections. There are the connections—uneasy as they are—that Nick initially makes with Daisy and Tom, with Jordan, with Gatsby. Then we get the revelation of a former connection and disconnection between Gatsby and Daisy, and then their new connection. The worsening disconnection between Daisy and Tom is set off against Tom’s connection with Myrtle. Daisy drives a wedge—or rather, a car—through that connection, which leads to Gatsby’s death, the ultimate disconnection. The only connection that remains at the end of the book is between Daisy and Tom.
Even Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, action and conflict driven as they are, occasionally favor connections over conflicts. Luke’s connection with Obi-Wan drives some of the action in the first movie (I’m referring to the original trilogy here); and the connection/disconnection between Luke and Darth Vader drives the entire trilogy. Likewise, for all the dangerous journeys and implacable foes and bloody battles that comprise all of The Lord of the Ring, at the core is the Company (or Fellowship) of the Ring—which is shaken with Gandalf’s disappearance and then sundered by one character’s betrayal (disconnection) of the others.
So as you write and plot your short story or novel, or even memoir, consider not only the conflicts that will keep your protagonist from her goal. Consider the impact of the connections and disconnections she makes with other characters. Consider that conflicts can cause disconnections or create connections. Disconnections can lead to conflicts.
You don’t have to choose connections over conflicts as you create your story, but don’t ignore their importance.