The Persistent “What If?”

There are certain things I avoid whenever possible—reptile vivaria, stadium concerts, any and all post-Thanksgiving sales. But I’ll take any of these, any time, when faced with a conflict. I’m terrible in situations of disagreement and controversy, mostly because I lack what my grandfather called the necessary constitution. I have neither the stomach nor the head for confrontation, and this squeamishness is not something I’m proud of. For me, direct conflict with another person is both terrifying and dreadful, because unlike that snake in the vivarium or the first shopping day of the holiday season, conflict is knotty and unpredictable. You never know, once you open that can of worms, what will come out. With an issue out in the open, one or more of the parties is bound to uncover a host of sub-issues connected not only to the present, but the past and even the future.

The same might be said for fiction. Except conflict in fiction is something I happen to enjoy. Fictional conflict, as readers of LitStack well know, can occur externally, between two opposing characters, or take root internally, within a single character. But regardless of how conflict occurs, it must, as Robert Olen Butler says, address a character’s “yearning,” the force of human desire that drives character and story. As Butler describes in his book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (edited by Janet Burroway),

There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.”

Yearning is an essential feature of a character, and conflict the result of a person or thing that comes between a character and her yearning. As Butler notes, “fiction takes place in time,” and  the conflict is portrayed in time through detail, in the form of small but charged frictions. Toni Morrison refers to these as “intricacies.” These occur as pitfalls of situation and setting, incongruities between characters, and other “problems” that exist organically in a story’s milieu.  Think of intricacies as small, potent details that provide tension in obvious or even metaphorical ways.

Take Joyce Carol Oates’ classic story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966) Connie is a teenaged girl, susceptible to boys and music and hanging out. She argues with her mother and feels superior to her less-attractive older sister, and yearns for the freedom and the “haven” she finds on Saturday nights when she and her friends sneak across the highway to a burger joint where the “older kids hang out.”

Connie’s conflict seems at first simple youthful rebellion, until home alone one Sunday afternoon while the family is out, she encounters a stranger at her screen door. He’s a killer, menacingly named Arnold Friend, who’s spotted her at the drive-in, and Friend wants Connie. At first, Connie sees Friend as nothing more than an unwanted suitor, as he’s both smooth and careful, but she quickly realizes he is something else, neither a boy—he turns out to be much older—nor a suitor. Friend cajoles and sweet talks Connie until he verbally crosses a line, and in a prolonged exchange of dialog, offers a sinister version of the freedom she’s been after, the chance to spare her family if she’ll just take a ride in his car.

Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend erodes the world as she knows it, and the descent is finely drawn in the story’s oppositions. The screen door of Connie’s house, which might be mistaken for a kind of symbol, is in fact an opposition, a friction that is organic to the setting. Sometimes the door is open, other times it’s closed. At first Connie is outside the door, then she is inside, and just before she capitulates, Connie and Arnold stare at each other through the mesh. When at one point she tries to lock it, he says, “It’s just a screen door. It’s just nothing . . . I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend.” Yet the screen door is all Connie has, and as a detail it reveals how tragically vulnerable she is.

For an object lesson in oppositions, take the boots worn by Friend, which by all lights have to be some of the creepiest shoes in all of fiction. They are greasy, black and scuffed, and as Connie eventually notices, “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it.” And later, “Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle.” This is all discomfortingly wrong. It’s also remarkable characterization, detail that tells us all we need to know about Friend yet at the same time renders him inexplicable. The detail also reverberates to Connie, in what we as readers fear for her, and the depravity she is subject to. Those boots, as much as anything else, are a threat, and that makes them a terrifying and excellent opposition.

For writers of fiction, the development of oppositions is an important part of a story’s creation, one that requires the writer to persistently ask what if? As in, what if all that separates Connie from Arnold Friend is a screen door? What if Arnold Friend wears boots that are eerily small? In the process of writing out a conflict, I’ve asked this question and it helped bring greater clarity by focusing on the small ways tension can drive the action. And like any process of clarification, it brings certain details to light. These details may not make things easier for your characters—though if you’re lucky, they’ll make things more complicated.

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