Monday, December 6, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Two: the Conflict

I suppose this first week in December ought to bring stories of wintertime or Christmas, forgiveness or even tales of the solstice. I regret that I have not read such stories at this time of the year, because I have never read them. Rather, I've taken the turn for the macabre. Before we get too involved in examples, let's just make a few points about conflict as we continue our short story for the magazine editor series. We must examine conflict, and I think it's especially pertinent after our discussion of character.

In last week's discussion, we supposed our characters needed something more than just description, vernacular and actions. We decided to give our characters desire, dimension and a task to complete. Hopefully, we were all thinking of our characters and in relation to a (or many) short story (ies). Today, we're going to add conflict.

Listed here are a few generic types conflict and a brief example:

1)Man vs God: Old Greek stuff, remember Odysseus vs Circe, and Odysseus vs cyclops. The old books of the bible have this conflict pretty often too: the ancient Hebrews vs God. Seems like a pretty fool hearty endeavor, doesn't it?
2)Man vs Nature: Most adventure stories start here. Jack London's “To Build a fire.” Farley Mowat's “Walk Well, My Brother.” The whole man vs nature theme is prevalent, yes, but each of these writers include more conflict, or at least different types.
3)Man vs Establishment: Franz Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.”
4)Man vs Supernatural: Bierce's “A Vine on a House”
5)Man vs Man: may the best man win. War stories are like this although they become ideology vs ideology.
6)Man vs Himself: Lovecraft's “The outsider,” this is a fun one.

I think you get the point.

When we think about this business of the short story, we have limited space and in that limited space we cannot hesitate to make it happen. Conflict cannot be confused with plot. Conflict certainly enhances the plot, but it is not plot itself.

Earlier when I said I'd taken a turn for the macabre, I have picked a few conflicts to illustrate our point.
For example, I've been meaning to read H.P. Lovecraft for years. His work had never come to me before. In reading “The Outsider” I have a few general impressions. For being written, or published in 1925, it had very archaic language. And second, this story of a walking corpse has some great conflict. Narrator vs nature: the trials of climbing out of the castle. Narrator vs himself: the struggle with memory. Narrator vs man: the sight of him and everyone leaves the party. Narrator vs the establishment: life and death, or the dead existing among the living. Fun stuff.

Now for Lovecraft's conflict highlights “...and at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish than to live without ever beholding day,” (317) Here we've met the physical conflict: he will scale the wall in order to see daylight, man vs nature. Even at the end of the story the conflict is not so much resolved as the narrator simply accepts his fate. “...yet in my new wildness and freedom, I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage,” (321). Man vs himself. I'm grateful, in a way, that H.P. Lovecraft came to me during the research of conflict over any other time. Gothic stories, although fun, have never really been my thing.

Anne Rice's introduction to Schocken's 1995 edition of Franz Kafka's collection is striking. She claims Kafka showed her the way. She was not able to think of her work and her writing as being part of the Realism movement. Conversely, I love to think in terms of Realism, it makes the characters, their conflicts, more sorrowful, or great or pathetic when they're closer to life. I suppose I like the mundane, and even when I read a fantastic story, or a piece of horror or sci fi, I still see the human in it, or the what is at stake for the characters. Yet, I just put at least 99 praises to Lovecraft and his walking corpse. Why? Because climbing a tower to see daylight is a real conflict. A character who doesn't know who he is, or in the case of “The Outsider,” what he is—wow, that's conflict at work.

In this same volume, I came across an Ambrose Bierce story. He was a great writer of the short story: “Occurrence at Owl Creak Bridge,” or “Devil's Dictionary,” come to mind instantly. But Chris Baldick, Professor at Goldsmith's University and editor of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales included “A Vine on a House.” When we talk about conflict, how often do we think of the supernatural as a formidable opponent? Furthermore, in Bierce's story, the townspeople take this conflict with the supernatural in a very real way, disbelief. The abandoned Harding house of Norton, Missouri had been “haunted” since the family with the one footed wife left years before. When the townspeople get to the house, the vines wave despite no wind. Conflict: they all want to believe it's a ghost, but they don't. Final verdict: dig up the vine. Almost a Druid thing? Well, you see what happens. Man vs supernatural. What are the outcomes of such a conflict? The ghost or devil or whatever being wins = supernatural over man. If man triumphs? Well it's science or faith or reason or whatever makes us feel better in the dark which dispels the unknown. Unlike the Lovecraft piece, “A Vine on a House” is just one conflict.

Now to speak of a masterful combination of conflicts rounding out our discussion let's meet the Officer, the Commandant, the Explorer, the Soldier and the condemned man of Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.” Anyway, the Penal Colony is ripe for conflict. Man vs man is the Officer who holds on to the capital punishment machine (the past) vs the new Commandant who does not (the future). The explorer does not believe in the method of justice or the method of punishment: man vs the establishment. The Explorer and the Officer who have a sort of chance meeting can also be a man vs man story. Their conflict becomes ideology vs ideology. The conflict is on every page, it's part of every conversation. As a reader I felt conflicted too. My cultural lens of course, tells me there should not be torture as part of punishment, unless at military prisons, right? And I am against capital punishment, except in Florida or Texas. The point is, I felt much like the Explorer, I was horrified at the very description of the apparatus. Now, if a reader feels so inclined to choose a side, that's potent. If a reader can see both sides of the conflict, well that's great.

So? Where does that lead us as writers? I said it last week, and the week before that, to write short stories, one must read short stories. At this stage of the game, we've talked about characters and we've talked about conflict, this ought to be enough to think about as we read short stories. We should be able to do that much, at least. Let's consider ourselves trained.

In the week to come, think about the conflict in two ways. First as a way to enhance your characters. Second as a way to progress the plot. Next, to keep up with the theme of writing with your magazine editor in mind, try to add in more than two conflicts in your story.

As always, happy writing, and good luck.

Baldick, Chris, Editor. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford University Press:New York, 2009.

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