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Worlds Apart July 2009

The Work of Writing V


For the last couple of months we’ve been talking about plotting and in particular about conflict and the role it plays in plot development. Conflict figures prominently in many of the earliest known works of literature and is still a pivotal element in fiction. In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a story written on clay tablets in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia, today’s southern Iraq) King Gilgamesh (who may have been one of Sumer’s very early rulers) and his friend Enkidu share many adventures and pit themselves against natural and supernatural enemies. In other words, they are in conflict with people and forces out to destroy them. Later, Enkidu dies and from that point on in the story, Gilgamesh struggles to come to terms with his own mortality and seeks a means of ensuring immortality. That is, Gilgamesh is in conflict with his fears and doubts at a personal level, and that symbolizes the struggle all people have when trying to understand the human condition. In a sense, Gilgamesh is in conflict with his own destiny as he struggles to avoid death.


“The Gilgamesh” was written some time between six and eight thousand years ago at the very dawn of written language, but its readers identified with its themes of conflict then and readers still do now. We have all experienced conflict of one sort or another, and we like to read about it in the lives of others, even if those others are fictional characters. Even so-called fairy stories involve conflict: Cinderella and her mean step-sisters, Snow White and the wicked witch, both symbolize the age-old struggle of good against evil as played out in writing by the protagonist and the antagonist.


All right, I know most of you out there aren’t writing fairy stories or epic poems about semi-mythical kings, but conflict can be an integral part of whatever kind of plot you’re developing. Whether you’re writing mystery stories, romances, speculative fiction or whatever, you will find that conflict can enrich the plot and make your story attractive and intriguing to readers.


My interest, and the central theme of my articles in the Marquee, is historical fiction, and the moment you begin to consider setting a story in some past era, be it recent or ancient, you come face to face with conflict. History is full of it. Not only do you find wars, rebellions and revolutions, but also conflicts between families, classes, secular and religious institutions – you name it, you’ll find it. These eternal and widely diverse conflicts and struggles can be used either to form a background to your story, or indeed can be the story itself which you, as the writer, dramatize through the addition of characters who are influenced by them.


Let’s look at an example. In his classic novel “A Tale of Twp Cities,” Charles Dickens uses the tumultuous events of the French Revolution to frame a story about love, deception and betrayal.  In his adventure tale “The Unknown Shore,” Patrick O’Brian (author of “Master and Commander”) uses the actual history of an eighteenth century British naval expedition against the Spanish colonies of South America as his plot. He adds his own characters to it, but the story moves forward in accordance with what actually happened to the ships and their crews. O’Brian uses his considerable powers of imagination to personalize the story, but he does not make the story up.


Conflict looms large in both these novels. In the first case, the characters struggle against the class warfare of the revolution and against each other’s beliefs and divergent aspirations, while in the second, they struggle against the elements and extreme physical hardship. Both stories are compelling and memorable, and each uses historical events as the core of the plot, although those events are used in different ways.


Look at history and you will find conflict; look at conflict, and you will find a story.


Write on,