"Conflict is the beginning of consciousness." - M. Esther Harding
Six published authors, a couple of them quite well-known, all in one place, and all agreeing with one another.
No, that's not fiction. Yes, I'm a fiction writer, but I didn't make that last bit up. It really happened, once upon a midnight dreary--er, rather, at SheVaCon Saturday afternoon. The session was called Crafting Conflict, and the momentous event occurred at 2:00 pm in the Wilson room of the hotel.
The authors were David Bartell, Jim Bernheimer, Elaine Corvidae, Katherine Kurtz, Janine Spendlove, and Allen Wold. The topic, as the title suggests, was writing conflict into fiction. I thought it might get a little wild at first because as the authors on the panel were introducing themselves they had a short-lived but strong disagreement. Specifically, one of them said that it's difficult to have a story without conflict, and the next one put his foot right down and said that no, it's impossible to have a story without conflict! Soon a third voice was added to the fray as another panelist ventured that you can have a story without conflict, you just can't have a good story without it.
Woo hoo! Talk about excitement.
Hey, we were all writers. A writer's normal idea of an exciting event is getting the Shift key stuck on the keyboard.
In any event, once that disagreement played through, it turned out that pretty much everybody agreed with pretty much everything else. Conflict is a MUST in fiction, and it has to feel real, and it has to be resolved. At least, there has to be a resolution somewhere. Usually it's in the story arc, though several people pointed out that not all conflict is resolved in each book--take, for example, the Lord of the Rings series, where the overarching conflict (think Sauron) wasn't resolved till the end of the series. But in each one of the books, there was a self-contained arc that lays inside of the series story arc, and each of the individual story arcs brought conflict and resolution.
The panel also discussed what happens when conflict isn't resolved--sometimes it can make the reader angry. The resolution of conflict is, psychologically, one of the main reasons people read fiction in the first place. Of course, there are several types of conflict, and some are better resolved explicitly while sometimes it's best to let the reader use some imagination in the process. Just--don't leave the reader hanging, one way or another. Eragon's fourth book was brought up--Paolini resolved every conflict but one, and since it was the chief romantic conflict that got left open the book ending caused a great deal of gnashing of teeth. I've written a blog post about that, in fact; I'm just still waiting to cool off enough to edit it well before I post it.
Mr. Wold brought up an author he considered a master (and I wasn't taking thorough notes; I apologize for losing the name) at the non-ending ending. As he described it, this author's stories go right up to the resolution of the conflict, right to where the reader knows resolution is going to happen, and then stop a few pages before the resolution is actually spelled out. This usually leaves the reader knowing that the story was resolved in one of a couple possible ways, and it's up to the reader to decide which happened. It's a very effective technique of storytelling, but one that is difficult to pull off well.
One of the most interesting discussions of the panel was how to create conflict. Some members of the panel were the outlining type, and they specifically write conflicts into their book plans. Others, including Mr. Wold, describe conflict creation as more of an organic process. Put interesting and realistic characters into tough situations, he explained, and you're going to get conflict. Also important, he pointed out, is that conflict created organically like this is likely to be something the reader will care about--it'll seem "real."
People, then, differ on whether to plan the characters and situations and let the conflict come out of that, or to plan the conflict(s) of the book along with the rest of the outlining, but all agree that having interesting, believable conflict that the reader can be emotionally invested in is a vital part of crafting a story.