by Michael Dymmoch
Conflict, the cliché goes, is the essence of story. Movie slug lines follow the formula: (protagonist) vs. (antagonist) in a world where... Fictional conflict tends to be glorified and hyperbolic. In his last blog, Sean confessed that bullets ripping through inanimate objects in slow motion was “utterly beautiful.” He didn’t show a video of bullets tearing through human skulls (or as shocking—and to some, more horrifying—through live animals) but we see it happen frequently in movies, and we read vivid (if inaccurate) descriptions in books. (Who, after all, would find the odor of putrefaction entertaining, or the smell of shit—as when the sphincters loosen and the bowels let go? Where’s the romance in scraping splattered brain tissue off a wall, or scooping human road kill from a highway?)
Violence has replaced conflict in most popular fiction. It’s easier to throw in a fight, car crash or gruesome murder than to convincingly simulate a gut-wrenching marital conflict, or the subtle but systematic verbal abuse that occurs every day, all around us. Everyone “gets” Jason Bourne, not many have the stomach to watch, much less appreciate the genius of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.
In real life, most of the conflict is subtle or banal. It makes us uncomfortable so we avoid it or tune it out. And most conflict takes place inside the protagonists (us, of course, the heroes of our own stories), often unnoticed (even by ourselves until the ulcer perforates or the heart seizes). In art, conflict must be externalized—the artist must behave oppositely in art as in life, must seek conflict out as diligently as he avoids it in his daily dealings, must study every subtle squirm and grimace. And he must understand conflict’s genesis.
So what? The Bourne Identity is entertaining. So is Pulp Fiction. And Shoot 'Em Up. What’s the point?
The point is what’s the point? When conflict exists purely for entertainment, it doesn’t satisfy. It’s like a diet of popcorn. You may keep consuming it—even past the point where you’re full—but it hasn’t much nutritional value. Conflict in art, leaves you sated. And wrung out. Unable to consume more until you’ve digested what you’ve just experienced. Great conflict has you revisiting a story for days, often for a lifetime. And great stories rarely allow for sequels. Can you imagine Two Hundred Years of Solitude? Hamlet III? Or Mystic River VII?
On a lighter note: Best wishes for a healthy, prosperous new year. And may all your serious conflicts be in fiction.