Easy Road to Conflict

I try very hard not to be the guy telling anyone they’re doing it wrong.  Who am I to determine what works and what doesn’t?  I’m just one writer, and not a very successful one at that.  I get by, and I’ve written enough that I feel comfortable sharing my opinions on writing.  But it’s all just so much random chatter in the end.  Nobody knows what works, and if they tell you they do, they’re lying to you and probably themselves as well.  Nevertheless, I’ve grown sick by the number of people, artists and audience, who simply lack the imagination to write interesting stories that defy expectations.

Lack of imagination is exactly the problem.

Storytelling is an art, and all too often, it’s easy to stick with what works.  Sometimes, it’s because a writer doesn’t care enough to try anything differently.  More often, it’s a byproduct of an accepted “truth” about the nature of storytelling.  In any case, it’s always comes down to the idea that certain characters and situations are “boring” and the only way they work is by having artificial melodrama thrust upon them.  Yes, I get it.  Most stories thrive on conflict, and a lot of situations make conflict more difficult.  I’m not expecting every writer to have the ability to tell a story that breaks the rules, but I do expect some writers to try every so often.

Perhaps the most common pet peeve I have at this point is that having a couple in any kind of stable relationship is a drama killer.  It doesn’t seem to matter if the couple is married or dating, if characters are in a relationship of any sort in a story, you can expect it will be in trouble.  And if it isn’t in trouble, then you can expect one of them to be kidnapped or endangered to motivate the other.  But a pair of adults in any kind of ongoing relationship is always going to demand too much of most writers, who have been trained to see it as an opportunity for conflict.

When I wrote Divine Misfortune (my seventh book.  Yes, I write books, and you should read them because they’re good), I deliberately featured a married couple among the protagonists.  Their marriage isn’t in trouble, and I very much wanted them to be in a solid relationship.  Even as their world is getting screwed up by the gods they’ve become entwined with, they never turn on each other.  They always rely on each other.  At the end, one attempts to make a sacrifice for the other, but in the end, it’s shown to be a silly, needless gesture.  Their marriage isn’t a source of drama.  It’s important to the plot, but it isn’t there to create problems.  Far from it.  Yes, it’s harder to write that kind of relationship.  That was kind of the point.

Yet over and over again, we’re reminded that people in stable relationships are boring, but I say a good couple isn’t boring.  A bad writer is bad at making happy people interesting.

It doesn’t stop there.  We live in a world where unambiguous heroes are considered dull and unrealistic.  Even Superman, an empowerment fantasy about being able to save the world, has devolved into a mopey guy who lets his father die and watches half of Metropolis crumble.  Sure, he saves the day, but he makes sure to remind you he feels bad about it too.  And he can’t do so without killing a guy because if there’s anything that would make Superman more interesting, it’s a disregard for life.

(Don’t tell me he feels bad about killing a guy either.  He’s perfectly content to kiss Lois Lane atop a thousand buried corpses a few minutes later.)

I’m not against ambiguity, and a lot of great stories are built on crumbling relationships.  I enjoy many a conflicted hero, and I know that not every character can be happily married (nor should they be).  But I can’t help but feel that so there is a genuine lack of imagination when we so often resort to artificial conflict.  Life is complicated, and if one part of it is working out all right, that doesn’t mean the whole thing is without drama.

I liked Spider-Man as a married man, even when I wasn’t married, because I didn’t give a damn about watching Spider-Man in the singles scene.  There was something unique about a working class superhero with working class problems, who still had a caring wife to go home to.  Yes, she was a supermodel, and it was a bit weird as a story conceit, but these are stories about a guy who was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained super strength.  So I was on board.

The same is often said of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Woman.  Writers can’t wait to put their marriage through the ringer on the assumption that being superhero adventurers isn’t enough drama.  John McClaine’s marriage in the Die Hard series depends entirely on what is easiest for the story at the moment, i.e. whatever brings the most conflict to the table.  The list goes on and on, and each entry on it says characters are not allowed to have any stability and be interesting.

I don’t expect that will change anytime soon.  I blame the audience and the creators, both of whom are too often guilty of taking the easy road to conflict.  It’s only when the audience starts demanding more and the creators dare challenge their own expectations of where drama is found that we’ll ever break out of it.  We can do better, and there is nothing wrong with expecting more.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. Bill Mallory
    Posted December 11, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Wow, it’s like you’re reading my mind with these comments on the state of marriage in popular fiction. I think part of the problem here is the belief that comics and most action/adventure movies are intended for adolescent audiences who, for the most part, don’t know what it is like to be in a stable, happy relationship.

    I remember watching “Six Feet Under” on DVD and during one of the interviews, Alan Ball would talk about getting together with the writers and deciding what they wanted for their plots for that season and every year, he said, they came up with the same idea: Michael C. Hall and his boyfriend break up. That comment is what made me look at the way writers treat stable relationships.

    I agree with you that most of these ideas seem to come from creative laziness and an agreed upon standard of how to write certain plot points. However… I don’t think you can include Die Hard movies in the list of movies that try and fail to deliver unique commentary on relationships. None of them were meant to be anything other than what they are: popcorn movies with lots of sassy one-liners and explosions. As a counter, let’s look at Mr. & Mrs. Smith where the characters take each other for granted, have lots of conflict and then end up being a better, happier couple.

    Superman and Lois Lane would never work in the “real” world because it was never a relationship of equals. It never could be. Besides, with all of the time he spends saving the world and she spends chasing down leads, they would never see each other. You can’t maintain a real realationship like that. Read “Tokyo Vice” by Jake Adelstein for a good view on the time and effort it takes to chase a story. Superman and Wonder Woman however, that I can see.

    Peter Parker and Mary Jane were forced together and used to create an unnatural level of melodrama, especially when Tom DeFalco was writing. The main problem I have with that relationship was that Peter only has one true love: Gwen Stacy. Since she’s dead everyone else will be second best. Mary Jane was often used as the poor, put-upon, fretting spouse waiting for her love to return to her or hear about his possible death on the evening news. If she were really a supermodel she would be spending her time flying all over the world doing shoots, fending off grabby photographers and hobnobbing with celebrities who wouldn’t be seen with an underpaid freelance news photographer.

    I must confess that in my head I have a Reed and Sue separation story but that’s only because they have been together for so long that I would love to see what they would do on their own. And then at the end they get back together because you should always put your toys back where you found them when you’re done playing.

    I agree with you that a good writer should be able to write interesting stories with a committed couple. With a single character there is their share of drama and with a couple, one would assume there would be twice as much drama coming from outside, and only a little from within. Two against the world instead of only one. It doesn’t seem like that great a leap. I think in real couples each has their own specialty. There are things I do that my wife cannot and vice versa and plots should emphasize the particular skill set of each partner.

    That’s it. Read “A Nameless Witch” and liked it and only now just found your site.

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