July 25, 2017

Constant Conflict

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

One of the Oscar Best Picture contenders earlier this year was Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson and based on the 1967 book The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Desmond T. Doss.  HBO just had another of their free weekends, so I watched the film again, and doing so reminded me of something:

I love boot camp.

Mind you, I'm a peace-loving guy with pacifist leanings, but I've always been riveted by scenes involving new recruits meeting their drill sergeant and being taken through the rigors of basic training.  

Hollywood loves war movies. Conflict is perhaps never portrayed bigger and bolder than in a battle scene.  But the face-to-face tension of an underdog trying to keep it together under dire conditions is human drama we can all relate to.

A workplace with a tyrant boss, a classroom with an unreasonable teacher, in-laws who can't be pleased, even domestic quarrels, are ready sources of inherent tension that can escalate our protagonist's real problems. Such challenges come in infinite varieties, but if they are resolved as part of a happy ending, these subplots are typically addressed in one of two ways:

1. The troublemaker gets their comeuppance. The conniving co-worker is exposed, the miserly uncle gets arrested for embezzlement, the contentious neighbor breaks a leg falling off a ladder, and the hero is right there to enjoy it.

2. The troublemaker turns out to be ally. The overzealous drill sergeant eventually reveals his human side. When the hero rises to the challenge and their strained relationship takes on a hint of mutual respect, it becomes clear that everything the sergeant put him through was for his own good. That moment feels like a satisfying character arc in its own right.

As we talked about in my recent Suite T post ("Who Is Your Contagonist?"), anyone or anything that stands in the way of our hero's success makes for good conflict along the way. Those everyday scenarios that we inflict on our hero can cause hardship right along with the actual antagonist.

Page-turning prose relies on the story's ability to keep the problems coming.  Providing that steady supply of friction in your fiction can ensure that your reader doesn't go AWOL.


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