finding a conflict

As I alluded the other day, the first step in writing a short story is identifying a conflict-resolution pair.  In many ways, this is a relatively easy step.  In reality, this can be the whole trick.

I went through a period, when I was studying for the Virginia Bar exam, when I wrote a short story every day for sixty days.  Some were good, some were bad, but the end result was very educational.  I would rise every morning at five and write until about ten.  Emotionally drained, I would spend the rest of the day filling my head with technical details of applying rules to hypothetical situations.  I would also begin a frantic search for a conflict-resolution.

There were a few days, early on, when I thought I could wing it without completing the search.  Those stories were total shit and I stopped trying that approach very quickly.  Nothing is worse than a story about nothing that isn’t going anywhere.  Seinfeld was a sitcom about nothing, they say, but if you watch an episode you will discover that they always had a conflict and they always had a resolution.  A show about nothing, in my sense, would be incredibly dull.  If it had a good soundtrack, it could be a music video.

“All romance is based on a misunderstanding” Nathaniel Hawthorne

The formula is this – the basic layout of any story.  We thought this (conflict) and discovered that (resolution).  I thought she broke up with me but she didn’t.  I thought it was Sheila but it was Jane.  I thought it was day but it was night.  I thought everything was cool but the house was haunted.  I tried to be cool but I was a dork.  I thought she was lying but she was telling the truth.  I thought we were friends but we were lovers.  I thought I was seducing her but she was seducing me.  I thought I was Mr. Hyde but my friends were falling in a hole.

Most of my stories are erotic romances, so that’s the kind of conflict-resolution I typically look for.  If I wrote thrillers, they would be more of a bomb, assassination mix-up.

The amount of surprise in a resolution will dictate the story style.  A mystery, for example, depends on the surprise ending.  However, as any mystery reader will tell you, a resolution that derives from the narrator simply hiding details and springing the surprise is unacceptable.  The more surprise there is in the resolution, the more carefully the trap has to be set and sprung.

A gentle, not-unexpected surprise is often the best kind.  The narrator is a bit confused but the reader knows where things are going.  Because the plot is weaker, the stylistic elements of the story become more important.  If I, the reader, know what to expect, then the telling needs to be entertaining.  Often this is best accomplished with an entertaining narrative voice.  If we like the sound of the narrator’s voice, we almost don’t care what story they’re telling.

Another subject that was mentioned in a previous post, is that a story needs the resolution to be at the end of the story, like the punch-line of a joke.  This seems obvious, but there are certain kinds of stories that make this requirement difficult to fulfill.

Looking for a conflict-resolution to base a story on can be a simple task.  Every story ever told, every cartoon, every movie, every television show will contain at least one and typically three conflict-resolution pairs.  All you have to do is steal one and make it yours with new characters, new settings, new twists.  I have based stories on the title of a play, without any knowledge of the actual play.

Once a conflict-resolution is identified and given life in your mind, the rest of the process typically falls into place – fix the story-telling in time so that the resolution comes near the end and identify the narrator.  The rest is just words.

About David Cain

David Cain, literary author, bon vivant, rogue romantic poet - author of Witch, Song of Songs, Journals of Lord Malinov, Erotic Romances and others ...
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