The Conflict over Conflict

© 2023 Ron Rozelle

How a writer describes conflict between characters, ideas and sometimes whole nations is not only an important undertaking, it is an essential one. If what you’re writing – fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry or lyrics – doesn’t have any conflict you likely don’t have a story. The little diatribe that follows, from a book I’m writing about planning and writing memoirs, describes an epiphany I had and a vital lesson I learned in a Houston theater exactly thirty years ago on March 14th, 1993.

I used to teach that conflicts in the stories and books we studied in my English classes fell conveniently into one of several precise cubbyholes, including man versus man, man versus self, man versus fate, man versus society, man versus nature and man versus some other things that I have conveniently forgotten. I did it that way because that’s how the concept had been taught to me.

Most of the kids wrote it down, or wrote something down, and looked at the clock and wished the bell would ring to send them off to anything surely more interesting. But that little catalogue did sometimes elicit a question, like what about woman versus all those things? And one student broke the bonds of those specific enclosures and wrote in an essay that the turning point in The Miracle Worker, where young Helen Keller learns to speak while at the family’s water source, was an example of girl versus pump. 

But I soldiered on and taught the various versuses until our youngest daughter, who is now the mother of our granddaughters, was in the first grade and taught me that I was teaching it wrong.

The enlightenment came at the Alley Theater in Houston, where we had taken the kids to see a play (and have lunch at Birraporetti’s, one of our favorite eateries downtown, which was probably the more enticing of the two events for the girls).  We saw Our Town by Thornton Wilder.  While Karen and the older girls were in the rest room during the intermission after the first act, I looked down at Megan, her feet barely dipping over the edge of her seat.

I asked her how she liked the play.   “I like it, but …” she said, and paused.  I knew what was coming, surely “I don’t understand it.” Which would translate, for me, to “Please help me, O Wise One.” But before I could, she finished her sentence.  “… there’s nothing wrong.”

And she was spot on. Out of the mouths of babes. The first act of Our Town is almost completely expository, with only one little admonishment by a father to his son coming close to a conflict. The following acts deal with problems aplenty and resolutions, or the lack of them.

Megan taught me, that afternoon, that conflict is nothing more than something being wrong, from disagreeing with someone about what movie to go see to a world war. 

I never used the versus examples again. And I learned how to best convey conflict (problems) going on in my fiction and nonfiction by not being fenced in by those little ‘me versus’ cages. I suggest you purge them from your thinking; which will mean you win the battle of man (or woman) versus conflict and can just tell your story.

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