Contrived Conflict

March 26, 2018

Conflict is the life blood of drama. YA authors gleefully thrive on the tears and broken hearts of their readers. Readers wail and cry and tweet and then come back, hungry for more. But contrived conflict is another matter altogether. It destroys your reader’s trust and dare I even say it has the potential to ruin your story.

Contrived conflict, in essence, is when the conflict is more important than the other pieces of your story.

I also like the term chasing conflict, because that’s what it feels like the writer is doing – chasing some conflict they want to happen in their story. Because they think they need it. Or because they think it will shock readers. Or simply because they really like it.

You see it in tv the most – because they need conflict for each episode and so the need for that episode’s conflict becomes more important than the integrity of the characters or the overall story (sometimes whether they know it or not).

When characters are sacrificed for conflict

You know what I mean, don’t you! Because you’ve read that book where the character does something totally stupid just to create conflict for 50 pages and get the book to the needed word count. Or the character believes some ridiculous lie so that they’re at odds with other characters. You’ve watched the tv show where they force the couple apart season after season. At first, maybe, it makes sense. They have well grounded, logical reasons not to be together. But then, eventually, you start rolling your eyes at all the ways they’ve contrived to prolong the courtship.

Characters aren’t always sacrificed to keep people apart, however. They’re used as pawns, acting out of their nature to contrive some new conflict. They make choices that make absolutely no sense. And more times than not their way back from some ludicrous choice involves the 4 worst words in any story.

This doesn’t mean abandon the conflict you really like. It means, if you’re going to have a character act out of their nature, make sure you give them a very good reason.

Think through how your character would react and set all the pieces in place to justify their choice (either based on mental logic or emotional logic). Your story will be stronger and your conflict more poignant if it doesn’t betray your characters.

Story example with spoilers from Reign s2 »

In the season 2 finale of Reign Lola, in the court of Elizabeth, receives a letter with all the veracity of being from her friend Mary. It comes with Vatican gold that Mary would have, written in their secret code. And it asks Lola to kill Elizabeth.

Let’s pause right there and examine our character. Lola has spent significant time at French court. Whether as friend and lady to Queen Mary or as the mother of King Francis’ son, she has been near the heart of a lot of intrigue. She has watched Catherine de’ Midici at work. She’s even gone up against her. She’s won and she’s lost and she’s learned all sorts of things. She is far too clever and experienced not to suspect intrigue and deceit in such a letter.

Not when she knows the character of her friend Mary so well. Not when Elizabeth has invaded time and again and yet Mary has never suggested assassinating Elizabeth. Not when Lola knows her friend would never ask for something so drastic without explanation and apology.

It is a betrayal of Lola’s character that she doesn’t even suspect treachery.
The problem isn’t the idea to use Lola as an assassin. It’s that they undermined her intelligence and experience (which they had spent two seasons building). They attempted to give Lola a good reason to believe the letter but it wasn’t enough. There were dozens of ways they could have strengthened the mental and emotional logic behind her decision which would have made the conflict all that more impactful. Or, better yet, found a more logical way to get rid of Lola and still create animosity between Mary and Elizabeth.

When rules are broken for conflict

Characters aren’t the only thing sacrificed for conflict. The rules of the world are broken all the time in stories for nothing more than contrived conflict.

There are two great things about rules, however. The first is that the writer created them. They can, therefore, change them. Depending on where you are in the publishing cycle, if you really like the conflict then go back and change the rules to accommodate it.

I did this for Enchanted Storms when I came up with the idea for the fairie storm. It didn’t quite make sense with the rules I’d established in the relationship between our world and fairie, so I changed the rules. Because I really liked that storm.

If the rules are already canon then the second great thing is that writers can break them, perhaps better than anyone else. It’s like that quote about playing the piano, “Love is like playing the piano. First you must learn to play by the rules. Then you must forget the rules and play from your heart.”
When it’s contrived, the audience can tell when you’ve broken a rule or rewritten it just for the sake of some conflict.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Change the rules. Create fissures in the fabric of your world that change all the rules. The key, again, is to do it in a way that makes sense.

Story example with spoilers from Once Upon a Time s5 »

Once Upon a Time chases conflict in the first 6 six seasons like crazy – everyone is losing their memory and character backstory “reveals” a wholly contrived idea to push each of the later seasons forward with little regard to seasons past.

The one that sticks out to me the most however, is in s5 when the Evil Queen recruits Hook to kill her mother. And the reason it bothered me is that there was never a moment of recognition when Hook came into the story. Or in the intervening years we’ve watched these characters. Not a, “Hey, Evil Queen, good to see you again.” Or, “Hook, it’s been a long time. Remember when I made you do that one awful thing.” “You mean the two awful things.” “Yeah, right. That’s what I mean.”

Clearly, the writers didn’t know 4 years prior that they were going to create that backstory. But that’s the problem. They created encounters and interactions that we knew were contrived because the characters hadn’t had any of that history as a part of their relationships. If you’re going to play with time like that, you really had better know what you’re doing. Or convincingly fold new revelations in a way that’s consistent with what we’ve seen and already know of the characters.

When conflict breaks promises to the reader

I think few writers intentionally make promises to the audience. One might think promises are limited to flash forwards or prophecies that the writer then needs to deliver on. But they’re not.

Writers make promises to the audience with their theme. Theme is one of those tricky things – with different interpretations and no hard and fast way to define the theme in a given story. I think of the theme as the story’s world view. What are they saying about how the world works? About how people interact with one another. About how to live life. Consciously or not, the reader will expect certain things from your characters and your world based on the world view the story offers them.

Writers make promises with their characters. ‘This is what this person believes in, what they stand for, how they will make their choices.’ Naturally, the audience then expects them to act in accordance with those choices.

You can use those expectations, logically defy them to surprise readers. Or you can undermine your theme entirely with a conflict that turns everything you’ve been saying thus far into a lie.

So, honor the relationship with the audience and what you’re asking them to believe. Be consistent with the world view you’re portraying or be smart in subverting it.

Story example with spoilers from Reign s2 »

Back to Lola’s assassination of Elizabeth.

Reign in many ways is about the rule of queens; about the strength of women. In a patriarchal society. In a realm dominated by men. In an era when women could not possess land or money without a man. When they were denied the right to their lives and their bodies and their children. And yet these women ruled nations.

Conflict with men in power is a given.

Not triumphing in every intrigue is expected.

But to use the subterfuge of John Knox to set these queens against each other is the betrayal.

They would always be enemies, if there is any historical accuracy. But that he could successfully manipulate them to create this conflict undermines the entire theme of their strength and their power and their rule.

They become figureheads maneuvered on a global stage by men in the background who have the power to destabilize them. And that is a betrayal to the audience of everything the writers have been telling them to believe.
Reign notoriously broke both sorts of promises. They made all sorts of beautiful promises again and again in the first two seasons. Then broke them viciously in seasons 3 and 4.

Authentic Conflict

So the lesson is this: create conflict, do not chase it. Maintain the integrity of your characters in each conflict. People have divergent goals and differing perspectives enough, you don’t need to contrive conflict for them. And be aware of what you’re asking your audience to believe – about your characters and about the world. Then don’t undercut your own message, especially not for the sake of conflict.

Storytellers create conflict. People want different things. People like different things. People see the world differently. Illness, fire, earthquake, famine. There is conflict enough for any story.

Chasing conflict feels inauthentic and your audience can tell when you’re doing it.

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