A couple years ago one of my students sent me a new story. It was about a young couple, Micha and Natalie, who were meeting up in Switzerland for the weekend. The tale started out slowly, giving the reader an almost dreamy comfort. The nuances of the couple’s actions and dialogue showed they were obviously in love. As the story progressed, both characters started to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Finally, they decided to investigate. They climbed a ladder through a crawlspace and found a man who looked exactly like Micha. After some debate they crawled back down the ladder and found a woman, who looked exactly like Natalie bursting through the front door.
When I’d finished reading the story I smiled. All the pieces of a good story seemed to be working together. The relationship between the characters was shown rather than told. Micha’s Swiss German accent used grammar and word choice more often than dialect. The plot was in place, but it didn’t override the heart of the story—the relationship between the young couple. Still, I felt as though something was missing. While there was a significant amount of foreshadowing for the ending to give that, ‘Oh why didn’t I see that before,’ feeling there still felt like there was a lack of tension.
It made me think. This is a perfectly good story. But since the main characters are not in a conflict I’m not satisfied. Have movies and television made me so jaded that I can’t read a perfectly good story without recommending violence or minor verbal abuse? I decided the answer was, “No, media hadn’t made me need violence in a story.” I needed tension because the nature of art is to be in conflict. When I read a story without conflict it is the same as hearing a lie. Without the conflict if feels like the writer is not reflecting the world around them.
The filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein wrote it is art’s task, “to form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.” He goes on to write that, “Art is always conflict.” Whether we are talking about art expressing the collisions in society, collisions in individual, or the collision in art we can say that art is conflict and the artist is only being genuine when he/she expresses that clash. Stories written purely for aesthetic value have no place among what we call art.
Of course I am using the word ‘aesthetics’ to mean something frivolous or without meaning, knowing full well that it also refers to the philosophical theory pertaining to: What is beautiful? And I am using it in this way to point out that it can be used both ways and has been used both ways by critics. When we think of ‘aesthetic value’ we are talking about how aesthetically pleasing an individual might find a painting or a beautiful landscape. When we talk about the philosophical theory of Aesthetics we are talking about how that piece of art reflects the world through the conduit of the artist. As Vincent Leitch points out when writing about Hegelian philosophy, “artwork is viewed as an expression of an era, zeitgeist, culture, or nation rather than of the artist’s self” Thus aesthetics do not deal with the material form of art but rather the, “Ideal as the true Idea of beauty.”
A good example is the author Paul Bowles. His stories are horrific and gruesome. The images his prose paint are not ones that most people would want hanging in their living room. On top of this his stories often don’t have a traditional plot. A Man vs Nature plot line usually consists of character going out into the wild, battling the elements, and either surviving or dying as in Moby Dick. A typical Bowles’s version is that the character goes out into the wild, is tortured, and then dies. However, Bowles is still thought of as a writer of literary fiction or fiction with literary merit because his stories reflect the world and follow the Hegelian Ideal of aesthetics.
In the same line of thinking we could also say that many ‘low brow’ novels, the type found next to the supermarket checkout, could be thought of as art. Take for example the author Stephen King. Often he is thought of as writing novels for entertainment purposes. His books are a way to past the time in airports and in jail cells. In a review of Different Seasons, New York Times critic Alan Cheuse called King “Vulgar,” and the type of writer who “bullies,” his way through a novella. However, the one thing that is obvious about King from his descriptions of characters and his use of dialogue is that he writes about the world around him. There is always a strong conflict between characters. Whether we call his books art, or not, we know that he is at least being as honest as he can with us and thus opening himself up to being a creative conduit. Or as another New York Times reviewer recently wrote about King, “If the term ‘literary fiction’ has any meaning, it surely refers to a writer’s attempt to reflect something of the complexity of our lives in the interaction of characters.”
That is what I want to encourage the writers I work with to do. I’m not saying that a novice writer should glamorize violence, place conflict in a story where it isn’t unnecessary, or add tension to a piece to push a reader’s buttons. What I’m saying is that writers have internal and external conflicts. We battle with our identity every day. We fight the people around us. We clash with the world on a micro and macro level. And writers should attempt to instill this war in their fiction.
The best way to do this is to develop the characters or to come to an understanding of who the characters are and what they mean to the writer.
In my student’s story Micha is a very easygoing character. He has dinner on the stove and a fire blazing when Natalie arrives. Throughout the story he never gets angry until his double arrives. So, how do we take this pleasant natured character and make him reflect reality. The simplest way is to find his fault. In this case his passiveness is most likely his biggest fault. He never gets angry when he has trouble communicating through English, and he never seems irritated when Natalie starts waking him up because she hears sounds in the night. But if we saw him slowly getting annoyed, and his dialogue started to have an edge to it then we would begin to see more clearly how his good-naturedness is also his downfall. Pointing out his fault would not only develop Micha as a character but it would also add the tension and conflict that is missing from the story.
Now, finding the characters fault is not always going to led to the answers in how to create conflict in a story or how to incorporate Hegelian aesthetics. It is just one way to try and develop a character more fully. In the end that is what we are trying to do. By developing the characters we can develop their relationship, and by developing their relationship we can develop their conflict. Through this process we can discover our own conflict and mirror that on the page.
Pick out a story that you have written that you are either unhappy with or has been rejected by editors at literary magazines countless times.
Read through the story taking notes about the protagonist and the main secondary character. What is their relationship on the page and off the page? What is the protagonist’s flaw: pride, envy, passiveness, etc? How does the relationship of the two main characters drive the story, and if it doesn’t how can their relationship drive the story? Does the protagonist’s flaw drive the story and if not how can it better do so?
Once you have outlined answers to these questions begin to look at the dialogue (if there is no dialogue you may want to think about adding some.) Get rid of any chit-chat dialogue like “Hi” “How are you?” “bye” “see you soon” etc. Get rid of any dialogue that directly answers a question like “Where did you put the salt?” “It’s on the counter.” Now that your dialogue has been pared down to the essentials look for ways to subtly up the tension. For example: “I went for a walk in the park, today.” “How was it?” could be written as “I went for a walk in the park, today.” “In the rain?” The answers place doubt on the first line of dialogue adding tension. “Can you pass the salt?” “Sure here you go” could be written as “Can you pass the salt?” “You screwed her, didn’t you?”
After you’ve gone through the dialogue have a look at the exposition. Look for places to accentuate the protagonist’s flaw both internally and externally. An internal struggle can add tension and mirroring this struggle through the setting can add tension as well.