Week One
Where’s 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 doesn’t work?”

“I’ll 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, that’s why they have nothing to write about. If only they were leading someone else’s life—then there’d 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 there’s anything left. She’ll make it next week, she gives me her word.

All I can do is wish her luck, tell her I know she doesn’t want to hear it but at least she’ll have plenty to write about. “You’re right,” she says, “I don’t want to hear it.”

Now Tash calls from his car phone, “I’m 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 don’t know where to get that.”

“Just get here.”

And Mimi calls. She just left work, she’ll be twenty minutes late but she’ll 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. Don’t 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, tonight’s group (Paul, Nicole, Tash, and Mimi) settles around the dining room table and I lead off with my favorite workshop question: “Who’s 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 she’s been working on a novel, making our group (or so I imagine) feel diminished, ill at ease. Mostly, they’ve 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, “I’m writing a novel.”

Still, she assures us, this is how she began—“writing short stories at work while disguised as a paralegal.”

Tonight, she says, she’ll read us the opening to her novel in progress. She reads:

I’m the grandmother, Mary. The isolation and loneliness of the previous century is over. People have realized their interdependence and thrive with the knowledge that what affects one affects them all.

Today was the holiday that marked the celebration of the affiliation of us with each other. Fellowship Day. Trucks of food and entertainment spilled into the community. The theme this year is “Another Decade of Peace and Goodwill Toward All.” Where competition once fostered aggression, cooperation fosters growth and nurturing. I have never been happier.

The grandmother might be happy, but four more pages of nothing but “peace and goodwill to all” has made us quite miserable.

“Where’s the conflict?” I want to know. “What does the grandmother want and what’s getting in her way?”

“For now,” explains Nicole, “I’m 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 interest—which is why a lot of smart writers start with conflict.

“Look at Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I tell them, knowing I’m about to score a coup. I dig out an old book and turn to the first page of this famous short story, announcing I’ll read it out loud until there’s conflict. I read the first sentence and stop:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.

“How’s that for a grandmother with conflict?”

“But what about a novel?” asks Tash. “Can’t you take your time?”

“Not if you’re 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 Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It begins:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

“But that’s such a short book,” he objects. “What about a really big novel?”

Back to the bookshelf, returning with John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Six hundred and nine dense paperback pages that begin:

Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.

“You’re right,” says Nicole. “I need to go back and make sure there’s a problem.”

“Do you really believe that?” I ask. “Or are you just saying that to make me happy?”

“I’m saying that so you’ll leave me alone and go to the next person.”

Novels. Short stories. Even nonfiction. If you want to hold the reader’s interest, make sure there’s conflict—some kind of problem that gets in the way.

Tash Fails to Tell the Truth

Before he reads, Tash wants us to know what we’re 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:

My swan glides past me, over to three bulls in suits and ties, and a filly, fully filled out. I approach focusing my camera on them. Right away the bulls seem annoyed. But before they can turn away I manage to get off a shot, I think with them all in it.

“Hey!” one of the bulls shouts, surprised.

I look up from behind my camera, pleased with myself, though the extra-large bull doesn’t seem so appreciative. His hand on my elbow, he leads me away.

“All right, kid, you got the shot. This is my card, you give me a call and I’ll buy the film from you.”

“I don’t sell film. I sell prints. You can order any size you like. Five by seven. Eight by ten.”

“Kid, in this case maybe you’ll make an exception.”

“That’s 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 he’s going to wait until the photographer calls him to ‘maybe’ get what he wants? No. He’s going to get that film tonight—the 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, don’t sell yourself short. If ten percent of you thinks it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

“So you think I should stick with it or move to something else?”

A pointed stare from the writing guru.

“Okay, I’ll stick with it.”

Paul Finds His Conflict

Paul says he’s lopped three pages from last week’s ten-page first draft—a story about a teenage boy who joins his buddies in planting a bomb in their high school. “I’m 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 character’s central conflict. Then it hits me—a line where his hero wonders if “being called a coward was worse than committing a stupid stunt and getting caught.”

“That’s your conflict,” I tell him. “That’s 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 home—a point in your writing that seems to say: This is the conflict, this is what it’s all about.

“One more thing: Your ten-page story that’s now running seven? Let’s get rid of another two pages.”

“Still some fat?”

“Plenty.”

Mimi Finds Her Story

For weeks, Mimi has been bringing us new drafts of “The Funeral,” a story that starts:

The funeral was at 11:30 in the morning at the Good Shepherd Church and nobody knew where Daddy was. We had run away from him the night before. It was one of those typical nights when he had gotten drunk and was trying to strangle me. Thank God Shine was there to pull him off of me; he might’ve killed me. I hated him that night.

From here, Mimi has led us on various expeditions—to incidents that happened years before, back to the funeral, the wake, and anything else she could think of—each filled with exacting details. At the wake, for example:

After we finished our lemon cake Daddy asked me to go get him a vodka-soda and lime. While I was at it I got me one too. Pam and Dorothy and their husbands were in the kitchen discussing mine and Debbie’s futures, where we were going to live. Whoever we were going home with we had to know by tomorrow; plans had to be made, we had to close up Mother’s apartment. Daddy and I sat in there by ourselves mostly and drank and talked. He told me about the oil business and how he got started from nothing as a young boy, how he had run away from home when he was fourteen to get away from the peach tree switches his mother made him go get and bring back to her whenever he had done something she felt deserved a whipping. It seemed to me he might’ve been trying to explain why he was such a mean drunk. I was just glad he didn’t get back on the subject of my drug problem, as everyone liked to call it.

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 wasn’t a story.

Finally, after weeks of “This is stupid, I don’t know what I’m doing,” weeks of everything Mimi’s yakkety, let-me-tell-you Southern mind could come up with, she has, in tonight’s pages, discovered what her story is about: It’s about a girl who desperately does not want her father to show up at the funeral, a girl who realizes:

All he ever did was screw us up, hurt me, embarrass me, showing up drunk at all the most important occasions of my life. He better not show up for Mother’s funeral drunk. He better not show up at all, because this time if he does I’m going to tell him to get the hell out and leave us alone. We don’t need you. We do just fine, better, without you.

When Mimi is finished reading, Tash yells, “Yes!” and the room is filled with admiration.

Tell us a story, that’s all we want. Sit us down by the campfire and tell us a story.

That Week

Chuck calls, saying he’s back from Cannes but can’t 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 Europe—where Chuck goes when he has no money and needs a break—someone 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 it’s going to cost him three hundred dollars to get it repaired. Then there’s the five hundred or so to replace the Nikon, the thousand “at least” he spent on the ferrets, plus the nine hundred in rent he’s never going to see unless his roommate gets out of his pajamas and finds a job, all of which leads him to cry—just two days back from the French Riviera—“I’ve got to get out of town. Go up the coast, chill out for a while.”

His life is such a mess, he says, “I’m thinking of taking out a life insurance policy, naming myself the beneficiary, and hanging myself.”

“Write it down,” I insist. “That’s the first line of your new short story.”

After much protesting, Chuck gives in. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll 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?

“I’ll try,” he says. “I’ll try hard as I can.”

And Carrie, a former student, calls to tell me the news: She’s got an assignment from a national magazine, an article called “Naked With Strangers.”

“It’s 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.”

What’s the difference between being alive and being dead? Doing things. That’s why it’s important to do as many things as you can. — Eric Bogosian

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