Tuesday, August 26, 2008


What is it about the conflict in some books that keeps me turning pages far past my bedtime? Other books strike me as endless hand-wringing, and I return them to the library before I get past 100 pages.

Perhaps the difference between conflict and hand wringing is in the eye of the beholder. Every published book has a slew of backers who thought the concept and its execution were well worth the time and money required to publish and market it. I’ll also admit here, before all of cyberspace, that of the books I’ve recently put aside, one was a NYT Bestseller and one was written by a Nobel Laureate. We could assume that I don’t know:

1) anything about literature,
2) what I am talking about,
3) a good book when it slaps me in the face.
And we might be right. But since this is my blog, I’ll voice my opinions.

For me, the difference between interesting conflict and tortuous hand wringing often falls in one of three categories.

I don’t like the characters enough to care about their problems. The idea that the protagonist should be appealing is specific to children’s and youth literature. Books intended for an adult readership often show no compunction to create congenial characters. Why should I spend leisure time with people I don’t like?

The solution to the problem is obvious, yet the protagonist can’t or won’t see the answer. In these cases, the protagonist is in love with dithering. Give me a plausible reason for ignoring the solution.

An extended internal conflict has no relief from action. Mentioning the third category puts me on a slippery slope. I am the first to admit that ambivalence and guilt are a writer’s best friends. For me, internal conflicts are the most interesting, but when I’m faced with page after page of internal monologue from characters I'm not fond of, I tend to reach for another book.

1 comment:

Tim Bogar said...

Good thoughts on conflict. I generally agree that I gotta like the protagonist, though I tend to be more interested in plot than character. If a book has a catchy plot AND an engaging character, then I’m really hooked. I keep trying to remember that and make my protagonist likeable. No, more than that, engaging. I think he’s still too stolid.
When a protagonist can’t or won’t see the solution, I feel like the author is dealing me dirty, is cheating me. I’ve recently developed what I think is a nice addition to the internal conflict Tayne feels. He wishes Eskin would go home from the Keep, but he has promised his family clan that he will keep Eskin there (mainly so his sister can marry better).
Too much internal conflict without action is one of the main things that stops me from finishing a book. I found the book and a half I read by John Green boring.