30 Nov

Conflict on Every Page

This week, I traveled to the western edge of Arkansas to do a school visit, my last one of the year. While driving, I listened to a book-on-tape of Firegirl
Firegirl by Tony Abbott. The first person male narrator is in seventh grade at a parochial school and doing just fine, when his world is turned upside down by a new student, a girl who has been horribly burned. She’s in town, hoping that the local doctors can help with her treatment. She’s only there three weeks and much of that time, she’s absent because she’s at the hospital for something or other.

After listening to this, I’ve been thinking again about “conflict on every page.”

Really–not much happens in Firegirl. Even the narrator says that. A girl comes to school for three weeks. He takes her homework by her house and sits uncomfortably in her room for a few minutes and makes small talk; he talks to her dad. Because of that one small kindness, the girl nominates him for the class president and she’s the only vote he gets. The girl’s doctors decide they aren’t helping and send her back to her previous hospital. That’s it. The actions are small. But the conflict within our narrator is huge. Seventh grade is a time of change and growth and this character novel has great conflict.

It’s interesting to contrast this one withLizzie Bright Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, the other novel that I’ve been studying for conflict. Lizzie Bright has more external actions; Firegirl has smaller actions on the outside, but just as large conflicts on the inside.

One scene in Firegirl is just about the narrator telling himself that he should have done more for the burned girl, been a better friend. One of the small actions he takes in that scene is to get a drink of water. The drink isn’t the conflict, nor is it symbolic. It’s just a delay tactic, a moment longer that he doesn’t have to face himself.

I’ve seen others take the “conflict on every page” to mean that, literally, they have to bring in the threat of an anaconda that could swallow a child. It felt fake to me because it was just there for conflict’s sake and didn’t really mean anything. Well, the drink of water didn’t feel fake, because it was something a boy in school would do, but I felt far more conflict than with the anaconda.

What I’m saying is that conflict has to be integral to the story. I’m paying more attention on my current revision to the structure of my scenes to make sure that each scene has a goal that I’m thwarting. Listening to Firegirl has encourage me that I’m on the right track.

4 thoughts on “Conflict on Every Page

  1. Darcy: I suspect that one new piece of guilty business people can do these days is to Google themselves and their creations. I happened to find your thoughtful comments on Firegirl, and I wanted to, first, thank you for them, but also to say that I’ve never come across the notion of conflict on every page. It’s intriguing. As writers, we can’t, of course, keep that sort of thing in our heads as we write, since the bigger story should somehow dictate the flow of action that can’t be so methodically portioned out. And yet there is something behind it, and you’re right to think that it’s in revision that it can come a little more up toward consciousness. Anyway, just rambling. Thanks for mentioning the book. And good luck with your own writing.
    Best wishes,
    Tony Abbott

  2. Conflict on every page is exactly right. These are the beats of the story, the very lifeblood of our characters. But I will say we need the anaconda in our stories, punctuated with the ‘internal’ anaconda throughout (balance between the two depends on the genre/style we take on).

  3. Oh, I’m all for anacondas! Internal and external.

    But in the story I was reading, it seemed to me that the anaconda served no purpose except to artificially raise the conflict; when it was resolved, I felt like I’d been cheated, because the child was never in any real danger.

    The conflict has to be appropriate for the story.

    Darcy

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