The Conflict that Keeps on Conflicting

It’s a well-known writerly fact that the prime driver of reader interest is conflict. My college writing professor always used to say that if you wrote about an old man who needed absolutely nothing more than a porch and a sturdy rocking chair, everyone was bored. But if the only thing that old man really needed beside the rocker and a porch was an old woman who just couldn’t stand to see him sitting there rocking all day, then you had something.

But conflicts are such a useful tool because they are, by nature, dynamic. They are the itch no one can keep from scratching. And the more we scratch, the bigger the itch gets. And it doesn’t just get itchier, it MUTATES!

Consider a real-life situation.  I take my dog for a walk through the neighborhood. As I wind down a long street toward the cul-de-sac, I see a woman frantically waving her arms and yelling something I can’t quite make out. I walk a little closer until I can see her desperately holding onto a leash, a feverish dog tugging at the other end. And now I can hear her. She’s saying over and over: “Get away! I can’t control the dog!”

So even though it breaks my dog’s heart, I pull her up short and drag her back home before she’s completed her appointed rounds.

A few days later, same walk, same woman. Once again she’s waving her arms and screeching for me to get away. Again I pull my dog up short. But this time I’m angry. What does she mean she can’t control her dog? If she can’t control her dog, what’s she doing walking around the neighborhood with it? She expects to just lurch down the street and have everyone flee before her?

I make up my mind that the next time I run into the woman with the runaway dog I’ll say something. I rehearse it in my mind. “Look, lady, if you can’t control your dog you shouldn’t be walking it around the neigborhood.”

A smallish, every day conflict, the kind life is rife with. So as a writer, how do you leverage the situation, mutate it into some unexpected direction?

Philip Roth wrote in the voice of his fictional alter-ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, a lament that has always reverberated in my mind: “If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life! If one day I could just approach the originality and excitement of what really goes on! ”

What is the human imagination, in other words, in comparison to God’s imagination?

Back to our story. A few days later I’m coming down toward the cul-de-sac and there is the out-of-control lady again. She starts the usual screaming, the hand waving. This time I keep coming, trying to get close enough to deliver my message. “Look lady,” I begin. But she just screams more frantically. “I have a bad arm!” she shouts. “I can’t control the dog!”

“Then you shouldn’t be . . . ” Before I can get the whole sentence out, the dog lurches, the woman yelps and pitches forward on the swale. The dog is snarling, furious, churning its legs and dragging the woman and her bad arm along the ground.

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