A character in a story will want something. In order to get it they will at some time or other need the assistance of other characters. Information, permission, objects or help of some kind will be required and the character will have to ask for it.
If the person holding the power just says yes to the character, giving them what they need, it won’t make for a very interesting story. Getting what you want quickly and easily, while certainly preferable in real life, leads to a simplistic and dull tale in fiction.
But that doesn’t mean a flat ‘no’ and slamming the door in the character’s face will make things any more interesting.
Creating drama in a minor situation that’s meant to be short and functional can sometimes seem unnecessary, especially if doing so is going to turn into a long involved scene. But getting what you want is behind pretty much every story narrative and not using that dynamic to its full potential is wasting a golden opportunity to draw the reader in deeper.
If our guy is a detective on a murder case and he goes to a bar and asks the barman if he recognises the lady in the photo, and the barman goes, “Sure, she was in here last Tuesday. Left about midnight with a guy wearing a monocle and a top hat,” it’s all going to feel a bit convenient (unless you’re watching Law & Order, where the barman with the perfect memory is a New York staple, apparently).
Similarly, answering in the affirmative to ‘Mom, can I go to the party Friday night?’, ‘Are you going to tell me where the bomb is?’ or ‘Did you kill the victim?’ will pretty much bring your story to a swift conclusion.
But being contrary just for the sake of it is not particularly interesting. Refusal to cooperate because sometimes people aren’t in the mood to help is more a delaying tactic than a well thought narrative approach.
It all comes down to this: the person who has the thing your character needs should not want to give it to them. And for a specific reason.
Working out what that reason is will lead to getting what they need, and that can happen in a single line of conversation or take the whole book, but it provides a dynamic between characters that a simple yes or no doesn’t.
So, if Milly asks her mother if she can go to the party and Mom says no, that that will make sense and we all know parents are wary of letting their children go out late at night, but that’s an unremarkable scenario. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Many stories have clichéd and obvious scenes, in fact a lot of genres more or less require them. Readers may expect parents to be unfair and unreasonable. But it’s still a cliché.
On the other hand, if Milly’s mother doesn’t like the stuck up parents of the boy who’s having the party and Milly wins her over by promising to block their toilet and flood the bathroom, then not only do you get a quick moment of conflict, but you also get an idea of the kind of people these characters are.
Ultimately that’s the real reason for any conflict in a story, to allow your characters to reveal who they are.
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