Wheres The Conflict?
You really think this is going to work, he asks, writing a book about the workshop?
Paul, I have been asking myself that question all day. Will our workshops be as interesting on paper as they are in real life?
I mean, these things get pretty exciting, he says. But then if you try to capture that in writing. . .
All I can do, I tell him, is take a shot and hope for the best.
And if it doesnt work?
Ill shoot myself.
I ask him about the cops I saw today staked outside a supermarket, guns drawn and rifles raised. What were they doing, waiting for a shoplifter?
Armed robbery maybe.
A retired detective, Paul says armed robbery as naturally as you or I would say Coca-Cola. He tells me about guns, his mistrust of people (based on experience), how his body at age fifty-three is now feeling the wear from twenty years of active duty, including, he adds, some crazy-assed stunts like betting to see who could drive their police car farthest from Los Angeles and still get back before the end of their shift. The winners, he tells me, reached Las Vegas, had their picture taken with a local sheriff as proof, then chased back to town at 140 miles an hour, sirens wailing. Still, when he hears that Chuck, another member of our group, is in Cannes working for a producer and hoping to be cast in his upcoming film, he says, unabashedly, I want his life.
Everyone is convinced their life is boring, thats why they have nothing to write about. If only they were leading someone elses lifethen thered be plenty to write about.
Kate calls with the opposite problem, too much going on: Looking for work, her runaway teenage daughter leaving her to care for her baby, finalizing her own divorce, paying the lawyer if theres anything left. Shell make it next week, she gives me her word.
All I can do is wish her luck, tell her I know she doesnt want to hear it but at least shell have plenty to write about. Youre right, she says, I dont want to hear it.
Now Tash calls from his car phone, Im getting off the freeway. Be there in ten. Can you tell them some story, kind of stall for a while? Oh, and do you need anything?
I need you to be here ten minutes ago.
I dont know where to get that.
Just get here.
And Mimi calls. She just left work, shell be twenty minutes late but shell be here.
A year ago, when Mimi was frustrated with her writing and thinking about quitting, I passed her a note that read: Mimi, you are a born storyteller. Dont give up. A bit of hokum, maybe, but it seems to have worked. Nicole, our newest member, shows up with homemade brownies. I wonder, though, is this a peace offering or a kind of bribe. Be gentle with me, I just brought you brownies.
Finally, tonights group (Paul, Nicole, Tash, and Mimi) settles around the dining room table and I lead off with my favorite workshop question: Whos the smartest person here? By now, our veteran members know this is my way of saying, The longer you wait to read, like the longer you wait to write, the more your anxiety grows. The smart ones, I remind them, always read first.
Nicole Volunteers to Read
She tells us shes been working on a novel, making our group (or so I imagine) feel diminished, ill at ease. Mostly, theyve been working on short stories, the occasional essay, struggling with the basics. Nicole, we can see, is light years ahead. We know this simply because she has so blithely announced, Im writing a novel.
Still, she assures us, this is how she beganwriting short stories at work while disguised as a paralegal.
Tonight, she says, shell read us the opening to her novel in progress. She reads:
The grandmother might be happy, but four more pages of nothing but peace and goodwill to all has made us quite miserable.
Wheres the conflict? I want to know. What does the grandmother want and whats getting in her way?
For now, explains Nicole, Im just setting the stage. The conflict comes later.
Later? How about immediately? The longer you wait to give readers a problem, the greater your risk of losing their interestwhich is why a lot of smart writers start with conflict.
Look at Flannery OConnors A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I tell them, knowing Im about to score a coup. I dig out an old book and turn to the first page of this famous short story, announcing Ill read it out loud until theres conflict. I read the first sentence and stop:
The grandmother didnt want to go to Florida.
Hows that for a grandmother with conflict?
But what about a novel? asks Tash. Cant you take your time?
Not if youre obeying the first rule of story-telling.
No parking in a handicapped zone?
No starting your story without some conflict.
Returning to the bookshelf, I spot Ernest Hemingways The Old Man and the Sea. It begins:
But thats such a short book, he objects. What about a really big novel?
Back to the bookshelf, returning with John Irvings The World According to Garp. Six hundred and nine dense paperback pages that begin:
Youre right, says Nicole. I need to go back and make sure theres a problem.
Do you really believe that? I ask. Or are you just saying that to make me happy?
Im saying that so youll leave me alone and go to the next person.
Novels. Short stories. Even nonfiction. If you want to hold the readers interest, make sure theres conflictsome kind of problem that gets in the way.
Tash Fails to Tell the Truth
Before he reads, Tash wants us to know what were going to hear is very rough, only the germ of an idea.
Disclaimer in place, he reads us the start of his latest effort, about a photographer (our narrator) who meets the perfect woman at an art gallery opening. But he also meets a solid conflict:
Thats it so far, says Tash. I ran out of ink.
And some logic. If this bull wants the film, I explain, do you really think hes going to wait until the photographer calls him to maybe get what he wants? No. Hes going to get that film tonightthe sooner the better. The moment you have him say give me a call, it stops ringing true.
I knew it. I knew it was wrong the second I wrote it.
And the reader knows it the second he reads it.
Trust your instincts, dont sell yourself short. If ten percent of you thinks its wrong, its wrong.
So you think I should stick with it or move to something else?
A pointed stare from the writing guru.
Okay, Ill stick with it.
Paul Finds His Conflict
Paul says hes lopped three pages from last weeks ten-page first drafta story about a teenage boy who joins his buddies in planting a bomb in their high school. Im trying to understand more about how this kid is conflicted.
As Paul reads us this pared-down draft, I feel how close he is to discovering his characters central conflict. Then it hits mea line where his hero wonders if being called a coward was worse than committing a stupid stunt and getting caught.
Thats your conflict, I tell him. Thats what your story is about.
That line, he howls, has been there since my first draft!
All you had to do was go back and find it.
Going through your pages, see if you can spot a line or phrase that brings it all homea point in your writing that seems to say: This is the conflict, this is what its all about.
One more thing: Your ten-page story thats now running seven? Lets get rid of another two pages.
Still some fat?
Mimi Finds Her Story
For weeks, Mimi has been bringing us new drafts of The Funeral, a story that starts:
From here, Mimi has led us on various expeditionsto incidents that happened years before, back to the funeral, the wake, and anything else she could think ofeach filled with exacting details. At the wake, for example:
While each new paragraph would hold our interest, where, we wondered, was all this headed? There was plenty of interesting stuff, all right, but it still wasnt a story.
Finally, after weeks of This is stupid, I dont know what Im doing, weeks of everything Mimis yakkety, let-me-tell-you Southern mind could come up with, she has, in tonights pages, discovered what her story is about: Its about a girl who desperately does not want her father to show up at the funeral, a girl who realizes:
When Mimi is finished reading, Tash yells, Yes! and the room is filled with admiration.
Tell us a story, thats all we want. Sit us down by the campfire and tell us a story.
Chuck calls, saying hes back from Cannes but cant make it to the workshop next week because his life is in shambles. His two pet ferrets just escaped through an open window, his roommate is two months behind on the rent, and in Europewhere Chuck goes when he has no money and needs a breaksomeone bumped into him and next thing he knew his Nikon was gone. Oh, and last week, unloading a pair of shower doors, he backed his pickup truck into a pole and now its going to cost him three hundred dollars to get it repaired. Then theres the five hundred or so to replace the Nikon, the thousand at least he spent on the ferrets, plus the nine hundred in rent hes never going to see unless his roommate gets out of his pajamas and finds a job, all of which leads him to cryjust two days back from the French RivieraIve got to get out of town. Go up the coast, chill out for a while.
His life is such a mess, he says, Im thinking of taking out a life insurance policy, naming myself the beneficiary, and hanging myself.
Write it down, I insist. Thats the first line of your new short story.
After much protesting, Chuck gives in. Okay, he says. Ill write it down. But will he do anything with it? Will he take this conflict from his life and turn it into something he can write for next week?
Ill try, he says. Ill try hard as I can.
And Carrie, a former student, calls to tell me the news: Shes got an assignment from a national magazine, an article called Naked With Strangers.
Its about my going off to this human growth camp for adults. Lots of mineral tubs, massages, communal showers. What they call letting go and getting free.
And the conflict?
Now I have to write the damn thing.
Whats the difference between being alive and being dead? Doing things. Thats why its important to do as many things as you can. Eric Bogosian