Scanning the morning media blast provides a kind of pointillist information impression. Reading a good, well-written story is like catching up with a long-time, trusted friend.Read More
Literature's Critical Element
Conflict, especially in literary writing, helps us decide whether to read on or not. Readers know this about their favorite books. Sometimes, writers may lose sight of it as they venture into the thickets of their stories and become temporarily distracted by character histories, setting details, and fascinating yet ultimately distracting arcana.
The ancient Greeks understood conflict and created the foundation for all drama and comedy upon this essential 'x' factor. Aesop put it in fables. Shakespeare, Woolf, and Hemingway put it in every paragraph. Tabloid newspapers put it in lurid headlines. Aaron Sorkin puts it in every line of dialogue.
Types of Human Conflict
Writing without conflict is bread without texture or flavor. Effective prose includes conflict: yin/yang, body/soul, Tracy/Hepburn, rock 'n roll, good/evil, want/need, sweet/sour, life/death, love/indifference, freedom/enslavement, east/west, hot/cold, liberal/conservative, sharp/blunt, light/dark . . . you get the idea.
There are lists of human conflict categories to aid writers, artists, actors, directors, producers, psychologists, researchers and others. The basics are Man vs. Man (universal including Woman), Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Self. Here is my expanded list:
Man vs. Man The Da Vinci Code | Dan Brown
Man vs. Society The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger; Charlotte's Web | E.B. White
Man vs. Self Hamlet | William Shakespeare
Man vs. Nature The Old Man and The Sea | Ernest Hemingway
Man vs. Technology Frankenstein | Mary Shelley
Man vs. Alien Alien | Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
Man vs. God It's A Wonderful Life (Film) | Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern
There are other kinds of non-human conflict, of course, such as gravity vs. inertia, star vs. black hole, dog vs. cat, wolf vs. lamb, dry hi pressure weather system vs. wet low pressure system, and heat vs. cold. For our purposes in this discussion as writers and readers, I’ll stay focused on human conflicts.
Besides promising an exciting discovery in return for your time, suggesting that there is a choice to be made creates tension. Will our hero achieve his seemingly impossible goal? Will society overcome violence to secure peace? Will our father find his kidnapped daughter? Will our heroine outsmart her stronger enemy? Will truth prevail? Will the injured find justice?
Examples of conflict in literary works
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN | Mark Twain
Individual vs. Society -- Huck’s evolving conscience and experience place him in direct conflict with the law and accepted cultural codes (slavery) as he seeks to free Jim.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT | Michael Ondaatje
Person vs. Society – Almásy, the title character, defies the state and its military apparatus to pursue his love affair with Katharine Clifton. Kip, the Sikh sapper, embedded with British soldiers, besides being in mortal conflict with the German bombs he must defuse, is in conflict with the Brits, who ostracize him because of his Indian otherness. Hana, the young nurse, is caught between childhood and adulthood, denial and coping, as she navigates the terrible romantic extremes of World War II.
BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey
Man vs. Nature – what appears at first to be a convincing case of Nature responding to humankind's abuse of forests evolves as epidemiologist Lotte Keene sets out to discover the cause of mysterious deaths occurring in the High Sierra Sequoia groves of 1,000-year-old trees.
Society vs. Nature – As Keene unravels the puzzle, she discovers that government has adapted biology for a dark purpose and lost control to even darker operators. Eventually, the government fights to defeat the killer with overwhelming force.
Woman vs. Society – Ultimately Keene embarks on her own one-person crusade against government and corporate overreach.
These conflicts are powerful, larger than life examples in literature. What about the average everyday conflicts that so many people experience in real life?
No one wants conflict in his or her life, of course. We all recognize it is present, however, and that its disruption of our peace of mind is inevitable. We know that our relationship with conflict influences how we navigate the hundreds if not thousands of small and large decisions we make throughout the average day.
Should we wait for the light and turn left past oncoming traffic because it is the more direct route, or should we turn right, go with traffic and circle the block?
Should we have that difficult conversation with a friend whose behavior is becoming toxic?
Should we tell our neighbor that their television is too loud?
Should we let a loudmouth ruin our movie-going experience that we paid too much to see?
Do we speak up when a bully harasses an innocent person or do we keep moving?
Do we speak up when we witness a theft?
Do we keep to our writing schedule or make exceptions to watch certain television shows (as research, of course!)?
Do we confront governmental overreach into our private lives to defend democracy, or do we avoid a fight and adapt as well as we can to avoid endangering our family's safety and well-being?
Any of these has enough conflict to fuel a novel.
What is it about conflict that makes it such a potent ingredient in our writing?
Literature succeeds when it explores the conflict that threatens the protagonist's ability to achieve his or her goal. Why is it that when we see someone achieve a goal, we lose interest? Whereas when we see someone persist toward their goal against all odds arrayed against them, we are fascinated?
One reason is because we are compelled by conflict as an extreme of human behavior. It brings out the best in heroes and the worst in villains. We all have aspects of both extremes in our personality. Reading a story about how another person responded when pushed to their extreme helps us gauge how we might measure up in similar circumstances.
The Anatomy of Empathy
Another important reason is that we are hard-wired for empathy*. We are compelled by how others deal with conflict. This compulsion is due in part to the functional anatomy of empathy in our nervous system. Certain underlying neural responses are mirrored in us whether we engage in conflict or observe it in others. We experience the same intensity of agitation, discomfort and momentousness whether we fight or observe another engage in combat. This compelling intellectual, physical, emotional, moral identification is one of the compelling appeals of literature. As a reader, we experience the emotional and physiological effects of a high-stakes conflict situation without injury or loss of blood. And we identify with characters as they must decide: will they or won't they? Will Abraham sacrifice his son? Will Emma Bovary swallow the arsenic? Will Jason Bourne eliminate his tormentor, or is there enough of a connection to his former humanity within him to give his enemy the benefit of the doubt that he, too, is human and at the mercy of his handlers?
Primal, decision-making processes in our brain cannot discern the difference between engaging conflict in reality and vicariously experiencing it as we read. Matters of discernment, distinguishing reality from the imagined, or recognizing the difference between dreaming and doing are assessed by a combination of other neural processes. These processes of assessing danger, risk and reward; moral drift; ethical dissonance and its ramifications, truth vs. falsity, good vs. bad are complex functions of consciousness. This insight gives the author an opportunity to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief and invest themselves in the protagonist's story, conflict, choices, risks, and rewards.
In a very real sense, we authors hold the reader’s vicarious life and death in our hands. Should we do everything we can to craft the most extreme scenario we can imagine to thrill the reader? Or should we exercise intellectual and artistic integrity to engage and support our reader’s literary experience of values and ideas in conflict?
* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)
Long sections of background threads that eventually intersect and pay off, but the reader must be engaged by the research and layers of detail to be rewarded.
Highly visual story. I read it in one sitting, closed the back cover satisfied and better for having read it.Read More
As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario. In the splendid autumn sunshine the bounty of the land is almost overwhelming, as if it is the manifestation of a poem by Keats.
MacLeod’s opening lines had me straight away. I trust him. Like his fellow Canadian, Farley Mowat, he tells it simply. This is a deeply felt, passionately imagined and beautifully written novel.
MacLeod's truth isn’t simple; it is complex, nuanced, seasoned over time to a depth and richness that calls to us in our unguarded moments. And his voice is authentic, like the family myths that knit our experience to the lives of our parents, their parents and those who preceeded them.
He continues in a responsive son-sibling-nephew voice that dutifully cares for imperfect elders without judgement. He cares for his family members and his past, yet never drifts into sentimentality. He doesn’t question his role. He accepts his responsibility to his inherited DNA, his red hair and innate talent for epic songs. He embraces his obligation to his living relations. And he contentedly shoulders his obligations to the future of his clan Chalum Ruaidh.
This novel celebrates writing and one of North America’s and Scotland’s hardy family histories. It will endure.
Fabian Vas is a young man with talent and a passion for sketching and painting birds in turn-of-the-century coastal Newfoundland.
His powers of observation are so finely tuned that he rarely needs to describe events. He simply lives them and, in so doing, brings every scene alive. A complex achievement skillfully executed by Howard Norman.
It is written in a stripped-down style that inspires colorful notions and emotions. The characters are vivid, flawed and fun to know.
National Book Award Finalist
The restorer raised his magnifying visor and switched off the bank of flourescent lights. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the murkiness of evening in the cathedral; then he inspected a tiny portion of the painting just below an arrow wound on the leg of Saint Stephen.
The KILL ARTIST by Daniel Silva
So begins The KILL ARTIST (2000), Daniel Silva's fourth novel, the first in the Gabriel Allon series. GABRIEL ALLON is back to the solitary life he requires, the life of the artist tending to great works of art injured in never-ending wars of commerce, transcultural migrations, and time. He bandages the detritus of clumsy repairs, incompetent preservations and restorations, even overpaintings of classic works by the original artists in response to client patrons who could not bear others seeing his portraits of them. Allon finds meaning in peeling back layers of time, varnish, and the dust of timeless centuries. It is more rational and productive than his professional past of dark operations for the state of Israel, the up-close assassinations of ruthless terrorists, the cycle of personal vengeance that resulted in the death of his daughter, the damaging of his wife, the self-imposed exile from life, professional work, and any meaningful connections with another woman, let alone love.
He is alive in technical terms only. His heart beats. His mind turns. He eats, drinks, sleeps, sails, and restores great paintings. This is the life of Gabriel Allon.
Until he is called back to the service of his mentor, uncle, grandfather, boss, confessor, protector and tormentor, Ali Shamron, director of the Office. Gabriel is drawn back from his anonymous life as a recluse art restorer for one important mission, a secret sanction, the elimination of the terrorist Tariq before he can hurt Israel on the eve of its historic signing of a treaty with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
Silva’s storytelling makes a contract with his reader in the first sentence and honors that contract through nearly 500 pages with hardly a false note, a rash edit, or ill-considered choice of color and texture.
When a book interests you, what compels you – its genre, theme, cover art, protagonist?
If you read more than the first 50 pages, why? What pulls you forward?
What is the optimal length of a novel in the e-book format?
When you finish a book, do you know what it was in the story that drew you on, turning hundreds of pages to the last scene, the concluding paragraph, the cathartic final sentence?
If you are a woman reader, are your answers to these questions different from those answers a man might give?
HipType created this infographic based upon some of the data it gathers from e-readers for authors. It analyses a wide range of book types and genres.
Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.
Dreams give us lift … The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.
HEART EARTH (p. 133)
On a recent flight across the country, at least one in every 12 passengers were either reading or watching entertainment on tablets or smartphones. About 40% of these were reading books. About 1 in every 25 passengers were reading traditional books. This personal observation is anecdotal, of course, but it made an impression. That e-readers are becoming the new norm as personal digital devices become more intuitive, adaptive to personal needs, reliable and affordable is no longer news.
Then, a report from Pew Research and the American Life Project was released yesterday. The take-away from the NYTimes article: tablet and e-reader sales doubled over the last year. Adult users increased from 10% of adults in Dec 2011 to 19% of adults in December 2012. Increased ownership of tablets is especially pronounced among highly educated users with household incomes exceeding $75,000. In fact, nearly one third of people with college degrees own tablets.
As a writer, I’m pleased to see that many people are choosing to read when they have the opportunity. How they choose to read helps inform my thinking about how my stories should read on the page vs. screen, and how to focus my efforts to improve the reader experience.
Table and E-Reader Sales Soar | NYTimes
Novelists are an adventurous breed. So are their readers.
For readers, all that is left after the decline, fall, and selling-off of Borders bookstores down to the fixtures, is grief. And memories of what a bookstore can mean to our quality of life. So many of my favorite weekend moments were spent in the stacks at my local Borders. Knowledgeable sales staff, friendly fellow explorers on the path to enlightenment picking through towering shelves of books, looking for one book, discovering dozens of others that informed new directions in their journey.
Sales of e-books surpassed sales of physical books earlier this year. This isn’t a trend. We all know that our relationship to the written word is evolving. Schoolchildren totally get it; why carry a heavy backpack of textbooks when they can carry all the texts they will ever need in a featherlight tablet? So what is the value of ink on paper? Sentimentalism? For some, perhaps. For many, it is something deeper, much like the preference for live theater over cinema, or cinema over television, or television over netcast. For some, it is a physical connection, a tactile interaction with the process of reading. Like peeling back the layers of clues in a good mystery.
So what is to become of the book loyalist? Where is s/he to go? There is Amazon, of course. And Abe’s, Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Book Barn, B&N and others. Those are distant purveyors. The wandering weekend explorer has fewer options.
Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett open Parnassus Books. Photo: Josh Anderson, New York Times
Now, in an interesting new reaction to digital media and the vanishing bookstore experience, we have the novelist opening a book store, a bricks and mortar emporium of the printed word. Whether Ann Patchett’s new Parnassus Books in Nashville is the start of a new stage of publishing and distribution, or a quaint exhibit on the timeline of literature’s evolution is to be seen. I hope it is the opening sentence in a powerful and engaging new story.
Julie Bosman | NYT: Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore
Nothing Civil About This War
This novel was published after the phenomenon that was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It is more grounded in human tragedy than PATIENT, and hews more closely to the female protagonist’s (Anil’s) story than PATIENT’s Hana.
Ondaatje’s achievement here is capturing horrible truths in asides. It is in the actions of supporting characters that he makes his case for the best and worst aspects of the human experience.
In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kip the sapper lives and works at the edges of the novel’s principal plot. Yet it is in his seemingly incongruent actions that he is so effective a presence. For example, he hoists Hana on a line into the high shadows of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo so that she can glimpse the centuries-old frescoes. In doing so, he lifts her above the nightmare of Nazi occupation in WW-II Italy and transports her across time to the heights of mankind’s artistic triumph.
In ANIL’S GHOST, we are dropped into the terror of Sri Lanka’s civil war. There she is caught between three intractable forces: leftist and separatist insurrections and the government’s ruthless repression. Here she collaborates with two brothers – one an archealogist and the other a doctor. In their world, abduction is to be expected, torture is a fact of life, and the aspirations of their professions – discovery, knowledge, compassion – are dark and threatening ideas. They are ultimately loyal to these values, these abstractions of light, shadow, and hope.
It is especially relevant reading now, when what appears to be nascient civil war threatens the Middle East from Tripoli to Tehran.
GHOST is deeply researched and written. It is a good addition to the literature of our time.
Related: Michael Ondaatje: Auteur, Author