I called it “alternative conflict” in Monday’s post, but a better monicker might be “problem-free conflict,” because it pops up over and over again in literature, TV, and film. Usually, it’s used alongside the more traditional character problems.
“But character problems cause conflict,” I hear you objecting. “How can you have conflict without character problems?”
Well, actually, this introduction itself is an example of problem-free conflict. But first, let’s look at a more obvious example.
Our story begins as the rising sun beams in on sleeping Dag. He rolls over just long enough to get in one more snore, before his alarm jolts him awake.
“Time to annoy my brother,” Dag says, an evil gleam in his eye.
He reaches for his “365 Ways and Days to Completely, Totally, and Fully Annoy Your Brother” calendar and flips to January 7, today: “Bop your brother till he bleeds.”
“Kooky!” Dag says to himself. “It’s a good thing I got this ‘365 Ways and Days to Completely, Totally, and Fully Annoy Your Brother’ calendar. I could never think of this many ways to completely, totally, and fully annoy my brother on my own.” And he sets off to find his brother, and a boxing glove.
You have to get the humor of the Angry Beavers in order to fully appreciate that scene from the episode “Same Time Last Week.” (Yes, Dag and his brother Norb are animated beavers.) My brother and I used to watch them all the time before stupid Spongebob pushed them off the air. But now most of those episodes are available on NetFlix Watch Instantly, and I’ve been having loads of fun getting reacquainted with them.
What struck me most about that scene was that there’s no character problem. Not-a one. This is supposedly one of the no-no’s of storytelling. But the scene works, because Dag’s mischievous plan produces conflict. At least, it does by the definition of conflict I used in Monday’s post:
Conflict is a perception by the reader that compelling change has occurred and will occur.
In this case, Dag has begun going through his “annoy your brother” calendar, something new for this episode, something beyond his normal Daggaliciousness. And we expect both fallout and humor from this mischief. Indeed, we get both. He eventually ends up with a real character problem, but only after the plot has thickened a couple of times.
What’d’ya Mean, You’re Dead?
“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.”
That’s the first line of Laura Whicomb’s debut novel A Certain Slant of Light. This is what we call “a hook.” But whence comes its power?
We have several things happening, all at once, in this tiny sentence:
- Someone is staring at the main character.
- It puts her ill at ease.
- She’s dead.
The second of these is clearly a traditional conflict. The character has a problem: she is comfortable with the way things are (a need), and this someone is interfering with her status quo (an obstacle). That’s a problem. We expect her to address that conflict, and indeed she does. But first, we have to deal with the other two conflicts posed by this introductory sentence.
I think of them as “What the hell is happening here?!” conflicts. You get one of these for free whenever someone first begins reading your story, because he doesn’t know anything about your story or its world or characters. But this freebie only lasts for a paragraph or two. In that space, you have to give him something more. And one path is to explore related “What the hell is happening here?!” conflicts.
In A Certain Slant of Light, the story has implicitly promised us that we’ll find out who the someone is who is staring at the main character (and why he’s staring).
We also want to know how she can be aware that someone’s staring at her if she’s dead. She’s obviously a ghost. But so what? Why shouldn’t someone see her? (That is, if she’s standing right in front of him?) Don’t people see ghosts?
Note that this sort of conflict drives non-fiction essays— like this very piece you’re reading right now. We usually don’t think of non-fiction as a story, with conflict, thickening, and resolution. But that’s because we usually think in terms of character-problem conflict, and non-fiction usually doesn’t focus on character-problem conflict. Well-written non-fiction, however, does follow the general structure of a story, including using conflict to push the story along.
It Don’t Matter Much to Me
One last quick example. Remember Forrest Gump? Winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture— Yeah, that Forrest Gump.
(BTW, at the time of this writing, you can also stream the film via NetFlix Watch Instantly.)
A profound story, but the main character, Forrest, nothing bothers him. Well, almost nothing. He certainly doesn’t get uptight about most of the life-pressures that constantly stress us out. That was, in fact, how the film was marketed back in 1994. Yes, I saw it when it first came out— and some of you may not be old enough to remember the movie trailers: “The world will never seem the same, once you’ve seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump.”
I don’t want to make it sound like this character doesn’t have needs, because he does, and sometimes he has to strive to meet those needs. But a great number of the problems he faces are not his own.
For example, Forrest runs into his old platoon leader, Lieutenant Dan Taylor, who had lost his legs in Vietnam. Dan immediately tears into Forrest, because stupid Forrest got a medal of honor, while Dan lost both his legs and is now poor and destitute. Forrest—much more of a man than I would be—doesn’t even seem to notice the slight. Instead, he opens up his life to his old friend, and they eventually become partners in a lucrative business.
A number of forces drive this scene. One of them is the promise that the situation will change, either for the worse (if Dan’s raging anger eventually sinks through Forrest’s skull) or for the better (if Forrest’s unconditional affection eventually sinks through Dan’s skull). Neither one of these addresses any problem, but either would have been significant.
As I recall, Forrest Gump is full of story threads like this, where a non-problem drives the story via the promise of a change-to-come.
When this movie first came out, I wanted to write a long, detailed essay exploring its many layers and the many angles from which one could interpret the story. I never did. But if you haven’t seen this classic film, it’s definitely worth renting on DVD. In the meantime…