View Full Version : How to add conflict in a short personal essay/memoir

12-17-2007, 02:50 AM
Help! I got feedback on a short essay about adding/showing more conflict. I know the feedback is true, it would be better with more conflict. In the situation there was quite a bit of conflict but it was over a long period of time and the story is more of a snip of the end of that time.

I'm trying to think of how to add the conflict without a ton of backstory. And i'm looking for threads about conflict... and can't find them yet. They've got to be out there, i just can't seem to find them.

Any hints on how the rest of you add the conflict to your true stories? (without going on and on to build up the history between the characters)

I know... totally vague thing i'm asking for... but maybe someone can read my mind and know what it is I'm looking for. Haha! (i think i was hoping for threads similar to the Prompt/writing exercise threads of Show don't tell)

Thanks all!

12-17-2007, 07:10 PM
I know exactly what you mean, and rather interestingly, I just finished reading a memoir, The Wishing Years, by Coralie Cederna Johnson, that handles this challenge nicely. The book is about her life through her school years, and it consists of a long list of chapters with individual stories in each. Sometimes it takes a cluster of chapters to get all the way through an event, like the funeral of a cousin who died in WW II. Each chapter is a complete story unto itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, and each has an element of conflict. I especially noticed this. (The book also makes splendid use of dialog, and I'm eager to read her recently released follow-up, A Tree Grows in Trout Creek.)

The difference between an essay, a story, and documentation is that essays are about your thoughts and interpretations of events and ideas. The thoughts will be more interesting if conflict is involved. If conflict weren't involved, you probably wouldn't be moved to write the essay ... Stories are about action -- what happened -- and again, conflict is probably what moves you to write the story. Documentation is a data dump. The data will be more interesting if it's incorporated into a story.

You can have a complete story, with conflict, in a single paragraph. I wrote such a "story" the other day. I'd include it if I could find it. :Shrug:

To sum things up: Life is a series of conflicts, major and minor. "What shall I have for breakfast today?" can work as a conflict element if it's handled right. So, incorporate some smaller conflicts as you go, and see if that suffices.

Hope this helps, if not with this specific essay, then later with other pieces.

Dakota Waters
12-18-2007, 12:51 AM
Hmm. I agree with the above, that you probably wouldn't want to write about it if there weren't conflict involved. The basic types of conflicts are a person v another person, a person v society, a person v nature (human nature or the 'nature of life' or the literal weather), and a person v self.

It's really easy to get bogged down in believing that person v person is the only type of conflict, but if you are compelled to write about it chances are one of the above types of conflicts exist. Any of those elements can be foregrounded without too much backstory if you just use really compressed language-- a small handful of the right words might be able to suggest all the backstory you need.

If this doesn't help, or you need more, give us some more specifics. There are some crack folks on here who could help you figure this one out.

12-18-2007, 04:27 AM
Aha! I found that short paragraph parked in a blog post (http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com/2007/11/how-long-should-story-be.html):

My most embarrassing moment came the year after I graduated from college. I had studied German for two years, and thought I knew a few words. But one evening I attended bridge club, and the the hostessís mother-in-law was visiting from Austria. She had helped Ossie prepare elegant pastries for dessert. I wanted to tell the woman how much I enjoyed the treats, but she didnít speak a word of English. Calling upon my best German I said, "Das kuchen sind sehr gut." (The cakes are very good.) She looked at me, shook her head and said, "No speak English." I blushed and tried again, more slowly, with the response, "No speak French!" She looked so embarrassed, and I was horrified that she didn't even recognize that I was speaking her language! Believe me, that was the last time I ever tried speaking German!

The conflict in this case was me against my own vanity -- not wanting to appear stupid. Vanity won out in this case. Unlike the movies, in life, the good gal does not always win!

This single-paragraph story will never win an award, but it does illustrate that conflict can be packed into the tightest corner.

12-19-2007, 02:41 AM
I just did a book review of a book about a guy going through surgery. (Perry Foster, "Hands upon my heart"). One of the reasons the book was so compelling was because he was so darn edgy. His own fears created the dramatic tension. It made me realize that while the obstacles in action stories come from the outside, a lot of the obstacles in life are surrounded by edgy frustration.

I've become pretty good about ignoring these inner conflicts in real life. I have to or they would get in my way. But in a story, it might be appropriate to drag the reader along the conflicted process, amping up fears or frustration.

Think of gritty action movies. When the camera pulls in close to the hero in a dangerous situation, often eyes are wide and there is sweat popping up on his or her forehead. If you're inside that character, the sweat is coming from some edgy emotion that could add conflict to a life story.


12-19-2007, 03:49 AM
oh my gosh... such helpful information... from wonderful, helpful folks. I didn't expect a response at all because my question was so big and vague. But you all knew exactly what i meant. Whew, i'm so relieved because that means i'm not lost all by myself!

whew.. sorry.. feeling a bit dramatic today.

i'm reading and re-reading your comments and suggestions. And i'm glad to have book recommendations! I'm always about reading a good book.

My essay is about being a mom, raising a son, who (as a young adult) joins the army (what the F?!!!!). When i first got my crit.. it was hard for me to think much about it being outside of the person vs. person... but i'm realizing it was all about me vs. myself (as a mom) but i didn't know how to 1) handle that in an interesting way and 2) how to open up and expose those feelings on paper for people to read AND to risk the dreaded rejection slip!!!!!!!!!!! ACK!

I"m letting all this new thinking sink in (i'm a slow processor!)


12-19-2007, 06:31 PM
Hey grrl,

I have two thoughts here. One is that you can take us inside Mom's (your) head with internal dialog (set off with italics), but that gets tedious. The other is Jerry's suggestion of showing the sweat, or the tremors of anxiety as you pick up a cup of coffee and slosh it in your lap, or ... yes, showing makes for better reading than telling.

May I suggest getting a couple of Sue Grafton novels under your scalp? Although I haven't read the whole alphabet up to wherever she is now, I've read at least half, and I feel as if I've known Kinsey Milhone forever. I know how she things, feels and reacts. Whatever Sue is doing works. Study her. She's not the only good example, she's just my favorite.


01-16-2008, 12:12 AM
"Prompt/writing exercise threads of Show don't tell"

Does anyone know where this thread is? I missed this one and it looks like a goodie. Thanks.

01-17-2008, 02:35 AM
"Prompt/writing exercise threads of Show don't tell"

Does anyone know where this thread is? I missed this one and it looks like a goodie. Thanks.

In the blog entry I wrote today, I include a discussion of show-don't-tell, as well as some thoughts about conflict within a memoir.

Here's the permalink, in case you don't get to it right away: Show don't tell and other writing lessons. (http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/memoir-writing-lessons-from-the-heart/)


01-17-2008, 06:11 PM

I went hunting for that thread. I never found it, but I did find some goofy, fun prompts. I can tell you hang out in that section a lot. ;)

01-18-2008, 02:05 AM

01-18-2008, 05:53 AM
I found the thread riter, it was pretty old. I haven't done any of the prompts on this site due to time constraints, but they look like fun.

01-26-2008, 07:55 AM
wow...folks... I didn't realize there were new comments on this thread.

Just a quick note...

thank you so much everyone!

Jerrywaxler... I'll follow that link for sure

I am still looking for some of the books that were suggested. .. it seems the coralie book is available to me online only and i haven't taken the time to order it yet. But it's a book I want to read.

I forgot to check Barnes and Noble for Hands Upon my Heart..and I was just there tonight! CRUD!


i revised, revised, and revised. Now i've posted the latest version on the Share Your Work section. I also may have a place to submit it... their word limit is 2000 words... so i had to cut and cut and cut.. after i added conflict. Ugh!

Now i must say goodnight. It was a looong work week and this glass of casorzo has me too warm and fuzzy.

Thanks again everyone.