The Importance of Conflict

I’m taking a class on Newbery award winning books, and I’m reading some fantastic award winning literature for children.  Some of the books are truly out-of-this-world fantastic, such as:

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose

But some other books on my reading list I’m having issues with.  And they have have something in common: lack of conflict.

They’re written beautifully.  They have big themes.  They have style and voice.

But I really take issue with the lack of conflict because it makes me ask: so what?  Why are we reading about this character in this moment?  So what?  Why is this event important?  So what?  How is this character learning, changing, growing, evolving if they don’t face any challenges?  So what?  Why write this story, about this character, in this moment?

If there isn’t any conflict, then the story itself loses immediacy, urgency, and importance.  Where’s the risk? Where’s the possibility of failure?  Why should the reader root for success?  And then why should that success mean something?

Stories that lack conflict also lack pacing.  And perhaps this is why the Newbery has been criticized as being a bunch of “great” books that kids don’t read.  Pacing is critically important in engaging child readers.  Without conflict, without tension, without risk, keeping the pages turning is near impossible.

The Newbery committee typically focuses on the following criteria in literary fiction:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Hmmmm.  Development of plot.  Seems to me that’s where conflict should go.  Or perhaps it could go under delineation of character. (As without testing your characters, how can you see what they’re made of?)

However, maybe conflict should get its own category.  I’d argue it’s important enough.  Aren’t some of the most memorable characters in classic literature made memorable through the challenges they face? Would Romeo and Juliet be as memorable without the feud between their two families?  Would Jane Eyre be as memorable without her internal struggle between passion and morality?  Would Pip be as memorable without the conflict between his superficial values and his conscience?

Something to think about if you’re a writer.  One of my favorite pieces of advice is: to be MEAN, be CRUEL to your characters.  Make them face their biggest fears.  Throw everything you can at them.  I love that advice.  When I do it, my characters become more alive, writer’s block isn’t a problem, and the plot moves at a steady pace.

Now if I can just get the Newbery committee to acknowledge conflict as its own crucial entity in the selection process…

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