No story without Conflict

I don’t care for conflict.

That makes writing awkward, because without conflict, there’s no story.  If you write an interaction without conflict, count on filing that scene in the “round file” (the trash can).  A story is just a series of tense situations caused by conflict due to  petty bickering and misunderstandings and which lead to a final climax. 

For instance, does your hero declare her undying love?  Well, if you let her spit out the words (she could be misunderstood, she could be beamed out of the room in the middle of her declaration) and it’s not the final page of the book, the other character in the room must respond in a way that creates conflict. If there’s no conflict then there’s no tension and without tension, it’s pretty much a dead scene. 

This is a dead scene from my story; nothing I do seems to add enough conflict.  These two characters are just intended to introduce Helen to the story and confirm, without Dayton having to say so, that Helen’s a real piece of work. But without conflict, it really doesn’t work. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Maybe it’s worth salvaging.

Here’s the passage without conflict:

Xiao Hong and her husband, Kuan-Yin, bustled towards her desk, intent as always on fulfilling social niceties.  Rachel wondered how quickly she could say goodbye. Make an effort at diplomacy, she reminded herself. If her consulting business took off, she might need to hire them back.

 “As your Aton Apple would say, ‘The moment you part, former colleagues become the best and brightest,'” Xiao Hong smiled. “We look forward to being the best analysis team you used to know. Maybe someday you’ll hire us in your new consultancy. Until then, farewell Dayton.” Kuan-Yin added, “watch your back. Helen’s making a cameo.” Xiao Hong rolled her eyes. “The Project Manager once voted ‘Most Likely to Pike a Head’ now apes a maternal persona.” Kuan-Yin agreed, “She’s poised to deliver the project to Congress as a grandchild to the first day of school.” Helen’s about-face irritated everyone. In the scant months since her retirement, she’d returned as a consultant. Nominally Project Manager, her few remaining responsibilities were to knit together the threads to complete the project, and this she did with an air of compassionate concern that no one trusted. Soft-voiced, gentle advice drew gaping astonishment from those who had witnessed Helen play ruthless politics for years. Helen stole credit, hoarded resources, undermined talent and frustrated any initiatives not her own; there was little love lost for the former head of Hardware Development.

“Thank you for stopping by,” Dayton said, swinging her chair to face them. “I’ll miss you both. I’m sorry we can’t talk longer but if that child is late, it’s on my head,” and she gestured to her screen. Xiao Hong started to respond but Kuan-Yin signaled it was time to go, so she simply observed, “In your customary white you blend into the walls. She never had trouble ignoring you in meetings, did she? Perhaps you won’t see her after all.” And with conspiratorial smiles, they left. Rachel thought gratefully, they really were the best analysts she’d ever known. Keeping a low profile and even coloring her wardrobe in meek and passive tones had enabled her to stay under the radar, skirting several office dramas.

Here’s the same passage with conflict. I still think it drags, but aren’t the sentiments more believable, coming from fairly hostile witnesses?

Dayton grimly watched Xiao Hong and Kuan-Yin approach to offer a formal farewell. Most married couples on the team acted day-to-day as though they’d never met but Xiao Hong and Kuan-Yin were never apart. Although he towered over her, somehow he never stooped nor did she rise; he moved methodically while she butterflied nearby. Dayton would miss their synergy but didn’t have time for it now; how long will this take?

Aton Apple’s Rule #5: Diplomacy is the only reason business ever succeeds.

“Hello, Dayton. As your Aton Apple would say, ‘The moment you part, your former team becomes the best and brightest.'” Xiao Hong smiled, her eyes lighting up her face. “So, as the best and brightest analysts you ‘used to know,’ farewell.” Rolling his eyes, Kuan-Yin added, “watch your back. Helen’s making a cameo.” An in-your-face micromanager, Helen’s minions quit or she replaced them, often before they drew their first paycheck. The tight-knit few who endured, welcomed her retirement. When six months ago she’d returned as a consultant, her newfound maternal persona was a creepy contrast they mistrusted. Xiao Hong agreed, “She’s paranoid and delusional. What is she on?” Crossing his arms and bracing his feet like a master sage, Kuan-Yin affected a look of extreme wisdom; “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” His audience looked puzzled, so he gave up and spelled it out; “…and a paranoid, delusional woman is just that.” Frustrated by his Freud quote’s failure to impress, Kuan-Yin fumed; Aton Apple makes the ‘wise guru’ act look easy. Kuan-Yin was young.   

Xiao Hong bowed her head in agreement. “Still, she’s poised to escort the Petrel to congress as a child to graduation.” Dayton’s chair squealed as she swung to face them. “Thanks for the heads-up; I’ll miss you.  I can’t stop to chat – if that ‘child’ is late, it’s on my head.” With a blank look that spelled his hurt, Kuan-Yin began to withdraw. “Sorry to bore you, Dayton. The project is over. If you want some space, say so.”

Dayton paled, unconsciously leaning forward to bridge the distance. Her arms traced apologetic arcs as she protested, “but I’m not done. Peregrine had the codex. I’m using it to validate…” Xiao Hong looked more bee than butterfly, interrupting, “Peregrine never had the codex. We needed it to validate our own tests – you know how it goes, Dayton. It wasn’t there so we made do and moved on. ”

Dayton shook her head – they didn’t understand; “but I have it – this is the codex.” Kuan-Yin felt for her. After finally securing a management position, it couldn’t have been easy to return to writing. He spoke in calming tones. “Let it go, Dayton; they promoted you once, they’ll give you another project. Get over it.”

Dayton checked her temper. He meant well – why flame a guy who just happened to . The powers that be didn’t trust me to deliver the Petrel; what if I can’t even deliver an accurate report? “You’re right – they promised me another.” Someday. “But that’s beside the point. The codex implies the project’s been compromised. I can’t leave it like this.”

 “Then the codex is wrong.” Kuan-Yin was exasperated. “Include it as an appendix and you’re covered either way. Problem solved. Certify the report and you’re done.” Sharing a glance with Xiao Hong, he inclined a shoulder in an imperceptible shrug. Drama queen.

Dayton moved to argue but Xiao Hong cut in. “Dayton, due respect, this smells like separation anxiety. If you change your mind, we’re taking Peregrine for drinks in a couple of hours.” Kuan-Yin turned to leave. “He returns to Cebu, tomorrow. Text us and we’ll let you know where we end up.” Threading into the maze of cubes, they left.

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