by Cait Collins
On July 4th, I watch the kids from church play on a waterslide set up in the church parking lot. They were having a great time together. No one pushed ahead of the others or pulled hair. They weren’t fighting. Everyone got along and had fun. Even the insertion of a neighborhood child, a stranger, didn’t make a difference. He was just another kid.
Over the years I’ve learned kids don’t start out hating other kids. Instead they learn to be suspicious, to be bullies, or to crave and demand attention. Sometime the changes are subtle; almost unnoticeable. But the changes begin to take over and Johnny moves from bitter comments to outright cruel barbs. Finally, Johnny and Billy are no longer friends; instead they are life-long enemies.
This type of situation is not the domain of children. Adults fall into the same trap. A careless word begins the suspicion, a forgotten appointment, a lie comes between friends. And a relationship is destroyed. The sources of the problem as well as the progression of the feud make good reading in the hands of a skilled writer.
So how do we go from “Mom, he’s hitting me” to “keep your hands off my girl or I’ll kill you?” The answer is simple. You do it one nuisance at a time. Don’t blurt out the issues. Instead, leave a cookie crumb trail of hints and let the tension build until the final confrontation that ends with irreversible consequences. And don’t leave the people in the combatants’ inner circles out of the mix. Whatever happens with the protagonist and the antagonist affects the people around them.
I prefer to take a minimalistic approach to conflict. I replace adverbs and adjectives with strong nouns and verbs. I let the setting and the dialogue tell the story. No matter which path a writer selects, the climax should be explosive figuratively and possibly literally.