One of the topics of an excellent writing book I’ve been reading, Immediate Fiction, struck me in an encounter in had with a clan of wasps at work. In Immediate Fiction, the author describes real conflict as the result of a want or need and an obstacle.
I work at the airport as a Fueler. This means I’m one of a number of guys who refueles aircraft after they land at our private terminal or at the airlines. Part of my job is refilling our trucks at our fuel storage facilities, or “farm.” The picture you see associated with this post is of an overhang in the open shed where we hook up the fuel hoses to trucks being refilled. This was also the spot a clan of wasps decided would make an excellent site for their new home. Arriving to refill a truck today, I discovered one wasp after another crawling into a hole in the metal framing. Being adverse to being stung in the course of executing my job duties, I decided to frustrate their efforts. I taped over all the holes in the shed frame and waited to observe the results. I hoped that the wasps would see the route in and out of their home blocked, and relocate. Problem solved. What I underestimated was the wasps desire to make their home in that location. Not only did the wasps get frustrated and leave, more arrived and they coordinated trips all over the frame, examining every joint and flaw for an entry to their home building site. Finding none, they hovered mid-air for minute after minute surveying every angle of the shack and its framing. Unbelievable. Not to be easily dissuaded the began landing near the tape I’d placed over the hole and canvassing the area. It soon occurred to me as they began crawling over each other that perhaps they had decided to relocate their home: right beside to taped over hole. Crap. But their resistance was matched by my insistence on their vacating the premises. I located a can of lubricant (not unlike WD-40) and sprayed the entire area. I hypothesized that if the area was too slick, perhaps they wouldn’t be able to build their new home. I hoped. So far, an hour later, I’ve only succeeded in making them desperate, but no less resolute. They continue returning–the whole family–to see if access to their preferred building site has been restored. A coworker is on his way with more toxic chemicals. (Update: toxic chemicals which proved attractive to wasps as they flew toward me while being sprayed!)
Back to the point of the story. As in Immediate Fiction, my face-off with the wasps was an excellent real-life example of conflict. They wanted desperately to build their home inside the frame (want). I frustrated their desire by first taping over the entry to the frame (obstacle #1), and then by spraying the area with lubricant (obstacle #2). When they continued to resist, I sprayed them with toxic chemicals (Prist). From their perspective they were in the fight for their lives. After all, most creatures will fight hardest and most desperately when their home is attacked, or their ability to make a place for themselves is frustrated.
As Immediate Fiction suggests, our best writing occurs when we have characters with strong desires/wants/needs… Life-threatening, life-changing, life-improving dreams, hopes, and fears. Then when we’ve instilled (of discovered–depending on how you want to think about it) those in our characters, we need to frustrate them at every turn. They just want to go home, we block the road, break the car, kill the horse, derail the train, tape over the hole. When they refuse to take no for an answer, we sell the land to someone else, raze their home, plant bombs on the property, or spray toxic chemicals all over. The result, grand conflict.
And conflict is essential to story. No conflict (as Immediate Fiction stresses), no story.
Note that while genuine conflict is essential, it is only one of the ingredients. To really have a story in the case of Me vs. The Wasps, we’d need a resolution. In this case, you could have the wasps sting me to death, rally and drill through the tape with their stingers, or have them decide things are a little dicey in Montana, and fly to Bermuda where they can build a pleasant palace on the beach. Either way, Conflict + Resolution = Story.