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April 2017

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An unusual take on conflict

Some time ago, I read a book called Guru, by Jeff Griggs.  In the process of learning improv (that sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it?), Griggs encountered Del Close, an improv guru associated with Second City, and he ended up writing this book about the experience.  Close was nearing the end of his life, but despite severe health problems, he still had enough snap and crackle to make a deserving subject for Guru.  There are some hilarious scenes built around the Odd-Couple-like relationship between the mentor and protege.

Much of what Close told Griggs about improv can give a writer food for thought as well.  Examples:

"Lack of emotion is lethal.  It will kill every scene."
"Stop thinking about plot and start thinking more about relationship."
"Don't ever think this journey is about you.  It's about everyone around you."

I don't mean these quotations to serve as absolute pronouncements, but rather as jumping-off points for discussion, as ideas to mull over.

The part of the book that has stayed with me the most was when Close described how the actors tended to lose their audience when a scene devolved into an argument between characters.  The actors, thinking that conflict was necessary, often resorted to argument, but the audience would then get restless.  Close said, "... the scenes where the characters avoided conflict and worked with each other instead of against each other were far more interesting." 

That stuck with me because authors also know the necessity of conflict, and this seems counterintuitive at first look.  But, after reading that part of the book several times, and thinking it over, I came up with this idea: If the characters avoid direct confrontation for a while, it builds tension.  Also, when the characters do work together, they're building something; they're moving forward.  If they're blocking each other, then the scene is at a standstill, in a way (as in the old Monty Python sketch about the Argument Clinic: "Yes it is." "No it isn't." "Yes it is." etc.).  Characters do need obstacles and antagonists, and villains have their place.  But antagonists and villains need to have their own agendas, something beyond just thwarting the desires of the main character.

Anyway, I found it interesting to think about!


Now that really did give me food for thought :) I've noticed in books that same tendency in me to get restless when reading argumentative dialogue for what seemed no reason except to create tension. I don't mind a little kibitzing, but endless debate does get old. Thanks for that reminder :)
We seek forward momentum. :-)
You're right - the best part of the Argument Sketch is where John Cleese posits that he could just be arguing on his own time for fun. So great.
There's also a useful point that Palin's character makes in that sketch, about conflict being more than just the automatic contradiction/gainsaying of whatever the other person says.
No there isn't.
Yes there is.
*Bing!* The 5 minutes are up, thank you very much!
I think scenes of working together are often the strongest, but usually when the people are working together despite their differences, or after some amount of conflict. A group of best friends who have never argued working together would out you to sleep.
A group of friends who haven't spoke in five years because of fallout, who get back together when one of the group dies and they have to plan a funeral -- that's good stuff.
Right. Unusual alliances, hidden agendas, surprise ideas, secret crushes or grudges, can all enrich the "working together" scenario!


That's very thought provoking! I can see how open conflict could be an easy way out, especially if it the reason for it isn't coming from deep within the characters. Of course, I think what isn't said, or acknowledged, or acted on is often more interesting, anyway.
Yes--it's more interesting if they don't always approach the conflict head on, but sideways or backwards!
Great post!

That's the way most people handle conflict, isn't it--in real life, that is. And it makes so much sense to layer those approach-avoidance tactics into our books.
There are people who thrive on conflict, but I think it's true that most of us avoid it!
Interesting. I think you hit it when you talked about characters getting stuck--that DOES stall out a scene, on-stage or in a book. Thanks for the thoughts.
Griggs talks a lot about the forward momentum of a scene, and how to sustain that.
I always thought the TV show ER did that very well--kept things moving forward in unexpected directions, instead of getting mired in predictable formulas.

works for me

I hate arguments. I hate fights. A sign I'm going to post beside my door: CONFLICT NOT SPOKEN HERE.

Re: works for me

Hm, I think there has to be conflict, but it doesn't have to be expressed in an argument. It can be more suspenseful--and more realistic--to put off open confrontation for as long as possible.
Great post! So much to think about. This quote actually struck home for me. "Stop thinking about plot and start thinking more about relationship." That's what a story is for me...all about those relationships.

And today I am going through those argument scenes and realizing how many of those that are for argument's sake and do nothing to move the story forward. Revision time.
I think the relationships will determine the plot.

I've been thinking more about the uses of the argument/big confrontation, and I like the idea of pushing it off until it can be pushed off no longer, raising the pressure to the boiling point.
I like that idea too, pushing it off, but there are a few arguments that I still think need to happen early on and can't wait since they part of the inciting incident. But to make them different and meaningful, there's the rub.
Yes, ultimately nothing is absolute--we have to make the choiced that work for that particular story!
This is so true! If there's a good reason these characters could be in conflict, but circumstances force them to work together, that's very compelling. Besides, conflict is most interesting when it moves the plot, as with protagonist versus antagonist. Seeing characters who are basically on the same side fight with each other is only interesting when this could change the course of the plot significantly - splitting the protagonist's forces, causing someone to defect to the other side, etc.
"conflict is most interesting when it moves the plot"

I think you've hit the nail there.