Conflict: Anticipation Mingled with Uncertainty

Conflict Big and Small. My 2¢.

What anyone can know is limited by one’s ability to speak about it (think about it). I know the same vocabulary everyone knows surrounding stories. This is mainly the vocabulary we learn in literature classes, supplemented by with we’ve picked up in blogs, books and sites like this.

My concern is that when the terminology becomes jargon or formula, then it can turn into misdirection rather than helpful guidelines.

Should a writer simply be encouraged to put “conflict” (whatever that means) into her wip? That might be (note the careful modifier) misdirection.

The goal of fiction is almost always to cause the reader to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty, or perhaps curiosity, suspense and apprehension. The way to do this is to put the MC into a conflicted situation. I think it’s important to keep in mind the goal is not “put in conflict” but rather make the reader feel the way you want her to feel.

The technique is generally and almost always to put the MC into a situation where the outcome is in doubt, often a predicament.

Opening of a current Amazon bestseller, The Last Man, Vince Flynn:

The four dead men were lined up on the living room floor of the safe house. Mitch Rapp started with the one on the left . . . (etc. description of the four, and then at the end of the first para): There was nothing about this mess to give Rapp any assurance that things would be fine, but this last little twist cracked open the door on something he did not want to consider.

The novel is typical genre, of course, distracting froth for those who like this sort of thing. But the writer has technique. Something he did not want to consider. The MC is in a conflicted situation. The MC is conflicted and the reader is invited to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

How much has the technique of a. mingled with u. has changed over the years?

The man in the powder-blue suit—which wasn’t powder-blue under the lights of the Club Bolivar—was tall, with wide-set gray eyes, a thin nose, a jaw of stone. He had a rather sensitive mouth. His hair was crisp and black, ever so faintly touched with gray, as by an almost diffident hand. His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past. His name happened to be Mallory.

He held a cigarette between the strong, precise fingers of one hand. He put the other hand flat on the white tablecloth, and said:

“The letters will cost you ten grand, Miss Farr. That’s not too much.”

That’s a Raymond Chandler in a story Blackmailers Don’t Shoot copyright 1933, originally in Black Mask magazine.

What’s the conflict, i.e., what causes the reader to feel a. mingled with u.? The a. is we are in for a fun ride: jaw of stone, sensitive mouth; clothes as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past; the letters ten grand, then the twist—that’s not too much. The u. is in the disparate elements, how they will weave together to provide us with a satisfying result. We’re confident we’re going to get a satisfying result because of the terrific originality of that first para, the author letting it all hang out, not holding back, saying yeah, it’s a formula yarn with a formula detective, but it’s going to have stuff in it like an almost diffident hand and if you don’t like it, screw off, I’m not explaining anything. The writing has an absolute feeling of commitment and confidence. It speaks directly to something we are subliminally looking for, letting us know we’re in the hands of an author we can trust. Mallory has inner conflicts: jaw vs. mouth, and conflict is also projected onto Miss Farr, ten grand for the letters, or else.

Raymond Chandler understood perfectly what he was doing, creating a. mingled with u. There’s a quote I think is by him (Ross probably knows it) saying that a reader will read a good detective story even if the last chapter is missing. The point being that everything along the way keeps the reader feeling a. mingled with u. and that’s what the reader wants to feel, that’s what the reader is reading for.


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