Monday, July 07, 2008

Conflicting Sense of Conflict

A long time ago, I came across this post on agent Kristin Nelson’s website. It fabulously addresses the heart of conflict, which is that it’s always personal. It also introduces the idea of conflict vs. complication. I’ve been thinking about conflict a lot lately, and wanted to examine it further since it’s is one of the hardest things to identify in writing.

So, aside from being personal, what is it? Something that goes wrong? Something that gives the main character problems? Yes...and no.

Pronunciation Key [v. kuhn-FLIKT; n. KON-flikt]
–verb (used without object)
1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
2. to fight or contend; do battle.
3. a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
6. a striking together; collision.
7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.
8. Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.

A conflict has an opposing force, something that keeps the main character from doing what he must. And there has to be something that he must do, or there's nothing to oppose. Hence, no conflict.

Let's take a look at a couple examples: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson and JUST LISTEN by Sarah Dessen.


Both stories are very similar. Both revolve around the subject of rape. An actual rape in SPEAK, and an attempted rape in JUST LISTEN. Let's try to identify the conflict in each.

SPEAK: Melinda is at a party in the middle of nowhere, drunk, just before starting her first year of high school. One of the upper classmen makes a pass at her, leads her into the trees, and rapes her despite her struggles. She gets away from him afterward and calls the police - because that's what you do after you've been raped. Except she's still at this party, with lots of underage kids drinking, and they're not happy when they find out who she’s called. Chaos breaks out, and Melinda freaks out and runs away before the cops get there. Then she tells no one what happened, preferring everyone hate her for busting the party than say the words "I was raped" out loud.

JUST LISTEN: Annabel is also at a party, drunk, in the middle of her school year. Her best friend's boyfriend follows her into an empty bedroom and attempts to force himself on her. She resists, kicking and pushing and saying "no," but he is slowly overpowering her. Then her best friend walks into the room, and the boyfriend says that Annabel jumped on him. Annabel says nothing. She runs from the room, lets her best friend think the worst of her, and tells no one what really happened. Her best friend is no longer her friend, and most of the school assumes she’s a slut.

So, where's the conflict?

The conflict in SPEAK is that Melinda needs to tell someone that she was raped, but she can't get her mouth to form the words. She needs to speak, but the trama and pain of reliving the violence of her first sexual encounter are opposing her. From what I understand, this is common in rape victims.

What about JUST LISTEN? Annabel also doesn't speak. The source of her troubles is a misunderstanding that she didn't clear up the moment her best friend walked through that door. Is that conflict? Well, what must she do? She needs to tell her best friend what really happened. What's opposing her? …? Nothing. She just won't speak, and we don't know why. Is this real conflict? I don't think so. If Annabel had spoken up right away, clearing up that misunderstanding at the beginning, there would be no story.

A misunderstanding isn't conflict because it has no opposing force. It's merely a complication.

Pronunciation Key [kom-pli-KEY-shuhn]
1. the act of complicating.
2. a complicated or involved state or condition.
3. a complex combination of elements or things.
4. something that introduces, usually unexpectedly, some difficulty, problem, change, etc.: Because of the complications involved in traveling during the strike, we decided to postpone our trip.
5. Pathology. a concurrent disease, accident, or adverse reaction that aggravates the original disease.
6. the act of forming a unified idea or impression from a number of sense data, memories, etc.

Complications are frustrating, annoying, and can drive you insane. But they don’t set out to make your life miserable. Opposing forces set out to make your life miserable, because no matter what you do, something or someone will always be there to either prevent or undo everything you need to do. That’s conflict.

I hope I haven’t offended any Dessen fans out there...if so, please forgive. :)


Marcia said...

What a terrific post! I love these topics you can "chew" on.

To take a stab at what's keeping Annabel from speaking: Could it be that she feels totally defeated just by the fact of what happened, that she can't possibly salvage the relationships among any of the three? And if she can't help, why talk and maybe make it worse? That is: she figures her relationship with her BFF is doomed no matter what the truth is, and that the friend is going to have to find out for herself that her boyfriend is scum because she sure won't appreciate Annabel telling her here? And her breath will be wasted because the friend and the boy will join forces and she will be the odd girl out? Secondarily, could she be driven by a sense of taking the high road, thinking that the innocent accused might not speak (Jesus didn't, for example) or might refrain from adding fuel to the fire?

So then the dramatic question becomes "Are there things that can happen to us, beyond our control, completely unexpected, that can change life in a moment and so thoroughly shut down our options that we can't speak because it's no use?" I can imagine being rendered mute by this.

Just as Melinda would rather be hated for busting the party than say "I was raped," would Annabel also rather be thought a slut than say "I was almost raped" and then also be thought a liar, a vengeful person, a save-your-own backside person, and receive a lot of hate from those who wouldn't want to believe it?

Almost being raped creates a lot of the same feelings in a person as if the deed were actually carried out. A good friend of mine got in the shower and scrubbed herself raw after a male family member merely propositioned her -- no force involved. I think there's more going on with Annabel than not correcting a misunderstanding.

Extremely thought provoking!

Mary Witzl said...

I would definitely want to know why Annabel did not speak up; I would want to know her reasoning. In her situation, my first thought would be that if this boy tried such a thing on me, my friend also might be in danger. And if I told her that he had attempted this AND lied about it and she chose to take his word over mine, at least I would have the satisfaction of knowing I had done what I could to warn her about him.

This sort of conflict is thought provoking. These authors really have to be able to deliver in terms of what the characters are thinking and why.

Tabitha said...

Thanks, Marcia! Glad you enjoyed it.

You raise some pretty good points about why Annabel doesn't tell people what happened to her. And I believe that's why she didn't say anything well after the fact. I think all girls would feel that way.

My question lies in those first few seconds where her best friend walks in. The boyfriend tells best friend that Annabel jumped him, but best friend looks to Annabel for confirmation. And Annabel *still* says nothing.

This kind of bleeds over into characterization, but let's look at what both girls did after their rape encounters.

The first thing Melinda did was look for help. Before her brain could kick in, before she could stop to think, she had run to a phone and dialed 911.

What did Annabel do? What action did she take? Nothing. I think any girl caught up in the emotions of being violated wouldn't stop to think if someone, anyone, had walked in right in the middle of the attack. She would welcome whoever it was, plead for help, and spill the whole story in the hopes of getting some protection. And she'd do it before her brain had time to think about what she was saying.

I can see all your points as valid for why Annabel doesn't tell anyone about the attempted rape after the fact. I think any girl would feel the same. But what was keeping her from saying anything in those first few seconds? She hadn't been violated or broken yet, and was still protesting and struggling. So what was opposing her? Maybe it's me, but I just don't see anything.


Tabitha said...

Mary - and that would make you a strong, likeable, confident female main character that most readers could relate to. :)

I'm sure Annabel's not a bad person. She might be lacking in self-confidence, but I never got the feeling that she was lacking in self-preservation. And I think any girl in her situation would be screaming for help, for protection from her attacker. No matter who it was. Especially if that person walked in *during* the attack.

Unknown said...

I love the distinction you've made between two similar novels! Brilliant!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it! :)

PJ Hoover said...

This part is SO perfect and true:
Complications are frustrating, annoying, and can drive you insane.

This is exactly what they do. I've read Speak but no Just Listen.

Bish Denham said...

Great post! And thanks for stopping by mine.

Tabitha said...

PJ - Just Listen is still an enjoyable book. I didn't love it because of my issue with its conflict, but it was a fun read.

Bish - thanks! I loved your post, and I hope you'll be doing part 2 soon. :)

Marcia said...

She would welcome whoever it was, plead for help, and spill the whole story in the hopes of getting some protection. And she'd do it before her brain had time to think about what she was saying.

This is a good point. Here I should admit I haven't read the book and I'd have to see the scene for myself before replying in more detail. I'd like to see the boyfriend's claim that Annabel jumped him. If he's overpowering her he's probably on top, so I wondered exactly how he would make that believable. Wouldn't the BFF have seen enough when she first walked in to make her suspect that wasn't true? Also,if the door opens and the guy is not expecting this any more than A is, and he immediately says, "She jumped me!" he could sound awfully guilty. I need to read the scene. And now I'm going to go over to my library's website and put this book on hold! Again, great discussion.

And thanks for stopping by my blog. :)

Tabitha said...

Ooo, I'd love to hear what you think after you've read it! Especially if you see conflict where I don't. :)

I hope more people jump into your discussion on Newbery picks!

Anonymous said...

The one issue left out of this discussion is that Annabel is caught between two abusers—her friend and her friend's boyfriend, who is trying to force unwanted sex on her. Why would she try to plea with her abuser about how she's innocent, someone predisposed to disbelieve her? Throughout the whole novel Dessen makes it clear that Sophie is abusive and manipulative and a terrible influence in how Annabel's ego and confidence develops. Sophie is as guilty as the boy. That's personal, so hence it's a conflict, not complication that Annabel doesn't tell Sophie when Sophie discovers them. Annabel wasn't the first or the last, but she was Sophie's best friend. At the end of the novel we see another girl help Annabel to speak, because outside the influence of Sophie's pressure and abuse, with Owen's help, she is finally free to do so and find her voice.

"I'm sure Annabel's not a bad person. She might be lacking in self-confidence, but I never got the feeling that she was lacking in self-preservation. And I think any girl in her situation would be screaming for help, for protection from her attacker. No matter who it was. Especially if that person walked in *during* the attack.

I'm nervous pointing this out, but...rape or attempted rape is different for everyone and to lay the blame on her character under the guise of authorial failing troubles me. That's the point of it; rape is about control, and the loss of that control for the victim. Annabel loss of control is doubled because Sophie has stated her side unequivocally. So the quoted section is problematic; it blames the rape victim for staying silent, rather than blaming the abusers. It takes the focus off the truly abusive acts and makes it the responsibility of the victim, which is really inappropriate.

I don't mean to be offensive, but I don't think Just Listen only contains complication since the reason Annabel locks the experience inside her is because of another person and that person's influence and emotional abuse, rather than a failing in Dessen's characterization. Abuse is not a complication.

Possibly the failure came in getting how much Sophie fitted into the attempted rape and actual rape of Annabel and other girls as an accomplice because of jealousy and greed and her predisposition to label any girl a slut without questioning the motives of a straying boyfriend; if the book wasn't good at communicating that to all readers, that might be an interesting problem to follow. I simply think it's inappropriate to blame Annabel for being almost raped and not saying anything; the vibe I get from the discussion is it was the "wrong thing". The only "right thing" is what is right for each individual victim in recovering; those who haven't experienced rape or attempted rape shouldn't judge what we think to be right or wrong. Annabel found her right thing at the end, her voice; this is the important part.

Thanks for a thoughtful post, and I'm sorry for butting in—
♥ Renay

Tabitha said...

There's no "butting in" on this blog. All opinions are welcome. :) Clearly, you're a fan, so it's interesting to hear from the other side of the fence. :)

"...rape or attempted rape is different for everyone and to lay the blame on her character under the guise of authorial failing troubles blames the rape victim for staying silent, rather than blaming the abusers. It takes the focus off the truly abusive acts and makes it the responsibility of the victim, which is really inappropriate...I simply think it's inappropriate to blame Annabel for being almost raped and not saying anything."

Actually, I'm not blaming Annabel for anything. I'm blaming Dessen for not giving her consistent characterization, which would also present a clear reason for her keeping silent.

Up to that point, Annabel's character seemed lacking in self-confidence, but she's not stupid. She may have made some questionable choices, but she always kept herself out of really bad trouble.

It's *because* of Sophie's abusiveness that Annabel would be fighting that much harder. She would be beyond panic, knowing that after *this* abuse is over, more would be waiting for her. There's no way she wouldn't be thinking "If Sophie knew what was going on, she'd KILL me! This has to stop!" Annabel's sense of self-preservation would compel her to seek help, even before she recognized who had walked through that door. It's the way her character was set up from page one.

But she didn't do that, and we're not told why. That's what makes the situation a complication, not conflict. Yes, it's personal, but that in and of itself doesn't create conflict. There has to be an opposing force.

Now, if Sophie had walked in yelling, blaming Annabel for trying to steal her boyfriend before Annabel could get a word in edgewise, THAT would be conflict. Then Sophie is the opposing force, and Annabel's actions would be completely believable, without question. And reinforced because the situation would fit Sophie's character.

But Sophie walks in quietly, questioning. And Annabel recognizes her right away? In the dark, and in the middle of the horrible emotions evoked from attempted rape? To me, that feels contrived and out of character.

Just to clear something up. The conversations on this blog have to do with characterization, consistency, and real conflict. Not "right" or "wrong" actions when it comes to rape - that's just what the stories were about. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Marina said...

I had one of those "aha!" moments reading your post. It seems so simple when you point it out but often the obvious is not so obvious (at least to me!) until it is stated. Conflict requires an opposing force -- aha! So that's why things seem dull when my protagonist's "internal conflict" is all about which option to take. I thought it was just that it was too "internal" and I needed more action, but now I see the missing ingredient. There's no opposition in a choice between two options.

Thanks for such an enlightening post!

Tabitha said...

Glad it was helpful! :)

This whole blog is really a place to make me sit down and figure out this writing thing. Because if I can explain things in a coherent manner to others, that means I might just understand it myself. :)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I read this book after reading your post, and while I could see your point, this is what I concluded from my own reading:

Sophie and Annabel weren't really friends. They labeled the relationship as such, but the dynamic between them was always pretty nasty, and Sophie had a history of hunting down girls who had been reportedly linked with Will, even when it looked suspicious that Will was the aggressor. From what I knew of Sophie by the time we reached Annabel's assault, I knew Sophie would blame Annabel no matter what Annabel said. Annabel knew it too.

Therefore, I found the scene believable as written, and more than a complication. Had Sophie been a trustworthy person, Annabel's silence would have been less comprehensible. In addition, Annabel has a history of not trusting people in general, of not saying what she really thinks, of trying to protect others with her silence. She also realizes later that it's a flaw of hers not to recognize that others grow and change, that others are strong enough to handle the truth from her. But at the time of the assault, she hasn't seen that yet.

Emily is a key character here--because it's clear that Annabel expects Emily to react the same way Annabel herself has: to stay quiet, to accept the role of wrongdoer and outcast. Annabel is obviously shocked when that doesn't happen; Emily models strength and self-confidence and honesty and reaching out for support. When Annabel sees Emily living out the words, "I did nothing wrong; in fact, others were wrong here," she sees a way out she's never seen before, an avenue that Owen and her family help her take.

I actually had a harder time understanding why Annabel hung out with Sophie in the first place. Whatever popularity there was didn't seem worth the abuse.

Thanks for starting this discussion!


Tabitha said...

Ooo, excellent points.

I totally agree about Annabel and Sophie not really being friends. And I, too, could not understand why Annabel continued to hang around Sophie. And about Emily, too. I found myself loving Emily, and hating Annabel.

I see your point about Annabel remaining quiet once she recognizes Sophie. Hmm, I guess my confusion surrounding this scene is about contrivance as well as conflict. If I had been in Annabel's shoes, I don't think there's any way I'd have recognized Sophie until much, much later. If Sophie had done more to announce her presence than simply walking into a dark room, then I think I'd have no issues with this scene.

I know I requested it, but thanks for offering your perspective! I love seeing different opinions. It makes the whole reading experience richer. :)