Friday, May 20, 2011

Did You Hear What I Meant?

Nothing drives a story like conflict. No reader will be interested in a plot where everything goes according to plan. Nor will they care about characters who get along all the time and whose greatest fear is facial muscle cramps from their perpetual smiles.

Conflict is easy to start. Mix people with different backgrounds, goals, values and ambitions. Add doses of love, lust, jealousy, anger and greed, then stir. The next thing you know, your characters are dropping like flies when they're not jumping from bed to bed.

But nothing drives conflict better than the gap between what one person hears and the other person means. What we hear and how we interpret it is influenced by all those differences and emotions. We look for words and meanings that fit with our own narrative, accepting what we like, rejecting the rest. That is the stuff of conflict and great stories.

Unlike fiction, where bad guys can be held to account and all wrongs can be righted by the last page, the real world is a lot messier. But the same rules about conflict apply. President Obama's speech on the Middle East is just the latest example. Everyone who has commented on the speech heard the same words but the words meant different things, depending on the listener. Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the best writers and thinkers on the subject, blogs about this for The Atlantic, posting and commenting on the wildly different responses to the speech.

All of which leads me to one of the most important rules of conflict. Not all conflicts can be resolved. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to manage the conflict in a way that minimizes the harm it causes. Unless you're a writer. In which case, you can do any damn thing you want. One more reason I love my job.

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