What’s the highest setting on your conflict dial? 7? 8? 11?
Spinal Tap may have been a bunch of drugged out wankers but they had a point. There are times when it’s a moral imperative to turn it up to 11. And yet so many writers don’t. They’ll either leave the dial at whatever preset the assembly line monkey chose or they’ll turn it up to 8 thinking they’re being daring.
Perhaps they are. Perhaps they’re a delicate flower and 8 is further than they would normally dare to go. Good for them. Or perhaps 8 is exactly what the scene calls for. Some conflicts don’t need to be turned up to Abercrombie levels of violence. However that doesn’t mean authors can leave the dial alone.
Escalating a conflict doesn’t mean that characters have to pull out grenade launchers and start WWIII. I’m never disappointed when they do but that’s a personal preference. Escalating the conflict could be as simple as turning up the dial on an argument from heated discussion to shouting match before finally dropping the bomb of “I can’t believe you said that!”. Yet so many new writers don’t. Why is that?
Besides the obvious answers of inexperience and and timidity, I think it’s because we, as a society, are afraid of conflict. In school, business, and society we’re encouraged to hold back that angry comment, don’t punch the rude jerk (even though they deserve it), and above all don’t lose your temper. Altercations should be avoided even if containing our fury gives us a perpetual twitch.
It’s so ingrained that we unconsciously hold back. Well, you know what? It’s okay to get angry.
Conflicts in a story are more than a source of action and tension. It gives characters a reason to grow, to act, and to learn. The more intense the situation, the harder they have to work to survive it. So when an author pulls their punches on the page, whether literally or metaphorically, they’re not just cheating the reader. They’re cheating the character.
Unfortunately it’s not a situation where there’s a clear cut solution or a standardized unit of measure. Some dials have to be turned further than others. But the important thing to remember is to ask yourself “Can I take this further and if so, would the story be better if I did?” If you don’t feel you can be an impartial judge then ask your beta readers what they think. Because if it can and does than by all means, turn that dial.
A great way to dial up the tension is to ask, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to my character right now?” Then do it. Helps break those false barriers we instill on ourselves.