WRITING MEMOIR IS A LOT LIKE WRITING FICTION — only with all the made-up parts left out. You have scene (place and time), which is inhabited by characters, dialogue, and action. You have a point of view, usually first person, through which the narration occurs. In addition, memoir also includes reflection, in which narrators expand upon the impact and meaning of life events.
Today, I want to talk about scene — in particular, the importance of incorporating conflict into scene.
It can be tempting to think that conflict comes about as a result of events — a battle, a hurricane, an invasion of body snatchers. But those events, in and of themselves, are not conflicts. Conflict arises from how events or circumstances impact a character’s needs and wants. A battle is only a conflict if you care about the outcome; an invasion of body snatchers only matters if you want to continue living.
So, conflict always begins with characters.
There are many, many different sources and intensities of conflict. These may include
- Life-and-death conflict, such as the aforementioned invasion.
- Internal conflict between wanting to tell the truth and wanting to be polite.
- External conflict between two people who want exclusive ownership of a material object, a house or car or land — or child.
- Conflicts between characters’ wants and needs in a volatile marriage.
As Debra Dixon says in her book on writing, GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction,“Conflict is the obstacle or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his goal. Conflict is not an optional element.”
Dixon is referring to fiction, but the same concept applies to memoir.
In The Plot Whisperer, Martha Anderson writes, “All of us face antagonists and hurdles, hopes and joys, and by meeting these challenges we can transform our lives. …Every scene in every book is part of a Universal Story that flows throughout our lives, both in our imaginations and in the reality that surrounds us. …What is left at the end of the story has the potential to transform not only the writer, but all those who read the story as well.”
In your memoir, as in any story, there may be layers of conflict. The overarching conflict is the reason you want to tell your story. You’re writing because you overcame a life obstacle, survived against stacked odds, or went through a dark time and came out stronger. You are the hero of your own adventure, mystery, or slice-of-life story. For your memoir to have coherence, you must identify this overarching conflict-theme and it must be the underlying force driving every scene.
Each scene or vignette must also have its own conflict. The undercurrent will always contain your overarching conflict, but there can be layers of tension and conflict on the journey.
Let me give you some examples:
In our Read Like a Writer series, we have been discussing Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The overarching conflict or tension in the book is between the earth and sky, between flight and gravity. But if you read the first chapters, you will be able to identify several other sources of tension: Beryl wants to find her pilot friend, Woody, but she has been called on to deliver Oxygen to an outpost. She’s worried about her friend, and this task prevents her from looking for him. When she gets to the outpost, she speaks with a man who has “blackwater” sickness. Beryl is repulsed by illness, yet she forces herself to stay and talk with the man out of kindness. So her natural repulsion conflicts with her desire to be kind.
In The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison’s overarching conflict is centered in her incestuous relationship with her father. She identifies this conflict, the socially unacceptable desire vs. the danger of being discovered, in her first paragraph: “We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.” (p. 3).
Nicole Johns, in Purge: The Rehab Diaries, begins with excerpts from her journal entries. Each entry reveals something about the core conflict of self-image:
12/10/01: I made myself sick and it felt really good. I liked it. I’m one sick fuck.
“12/21/01: 143 lbs. I feel disgusting. I look disgusting. I need to lose at least 10 lbs.
“4/29/03: I slipped. I binged and purged.” (Kindle Locations 121-123 and 143)
Frank Conroy, in the beginning chapter of Stop-Time, writes about his father as an unreliable person in his life. Conroy understates the tension in their relationship in this description of visiting his father on his deathbed:
“Half his face was paralyzed from the brain-tumor operation and jaundice had stained him a deep yellow. We were alone, as usual, in the hospital room. The bed was high to my child’s eye. With great effort he asked me if I believed in universal military training. Too young even to know what it was, I took a gamble and said yes. He seemed satisfied… Now I have no idea if that was the answer he wanted. I think of it as some kind of test. Did I pass?” (pp. 11-12)
In “Sabbatical,” a chapter of my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I describe the conflict between wanting to know what my mother had written and my fear that reading her version would somehow destroy my own.
“Plucked from my mother’s treasure trove of boxes, four thick binders labeled “World Tour” have waited patiently on a bookshelf in my office. I’ve been afraid to open them—afraid my mother’s versions of events will be too different from my own, or swallow my memories whole, altering them in some fundamental, irrevocable way. I want to hold onto my own versions of our trip around the world, seen and understood through my childish eyes.” (p. 57)
The point of these examples is to emphasize that that every scene of every chapter of every story must contain conflict in order for the story to matter.
Take out a scene or vignette you are working on and read it. As you read it, ask yourself, “Where’s the conflict?”
Once you’ve identified the source of the conflict, make sure that conflict is central to your scene. If you can’t identify conflict in your scene or can’t identify how it supports conflict in a related scene elsewhere in your memoir, then cut it entirely. Your readers will skip over it anyway.
In short, conflict is king. Without conflict, there is no story and nothing to compel readers to turn the page. Stories that hook us and keep us hooked always contain tension, which springs from conflict.
What is the conflict in your story?