A young man from the wrong side of the tracks aspires to be wealthy. He strives and strives some more; just when things seem to be falling into place he finds out that he’s gotten a girl pregnant. Not the wealthy daughter of the factory owner, the girl he’s been courting to secure his place, but the girl who is (like him) from those down-at-heel neighbourhoods.
That is but one of the conflicts at the heart of An American Tragedy. Although it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read I don’t know if I can read it again. The depictions of American life were painfully honest and real. The depiction of the dark soul of American success was both galling and honestly beautiful. That is a book, and the conflict that drives the narrative is an earnest one.
A few months ago, author Patrick Todoroff (quoting someone else) said that the best stories are of the human heart in conflict with itself. As I think back on my favourite books I see that most of them fit that bill.
I’m going on about this concept now because there is another type of conflict that shows up in a lot of novels I read. Granted, I think it’s mostly in “romance” novels* and certain types of horror. But it’s common…and I am so sick of it that I’m ready to gather a bunch of writers in a room and feed them some tender, rare pieces of my mind.
I am so tired of the major conflict in a story resulting from one character withholding information from another. Maybe it’s because I prefer directness in my own life or because life is short or I’m just generally getting cranky. For whatever reason, when the whole story revolves around Person A not telling Person B that he’s the father of her little boy or the king of fairy warriors or the hotel is haunted I become a seething ragemonkey.
In good books there is occasionally a time where you see one character withholding information that could swiftly resolve a bulk of the mystery but you don’t mind because it makes perfect sense in the character’s makeup and it doesn’t SEEM that big a deal until after the story ends. In the Harry Potter novels this frequently comes up as Harry hides (unbeknownst to him) crucial information out of a misguided stubbornness. When you re-read the books you see several points where things would have gone a great deal more easily for the kid if he’d just spoken up. As life lessons go, I like this a lot.
It’s a different thing altogether when the “conflict” is simply the immaturity of an author’s worldview passed off as either romantic or scary. In real life people tell each other things. Well, in my real life at least. I don’t groove on passive-aggressive people and I am sick of seeing whole novels be festivals of passive aggressive manipulation.
*This is a whole ‘nother topic, as we Hoosiers say