Conflict and the Republican Primary

About a week ago, a friend of mine who’s writing a blog about novel writing brought up an interesting concept. In the process of writing fiction, he reported, one must insert conflict into the most atomic levels. What does this mean? Well, we’re all familiar with the idea that the story arc of fiction is about conflict and you may even recall the three famous themes of western fiction: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs himself. But that’s what you might call the meta-conflict. To really keep readers turning pages you need conflict on the level of the paragraph and dialogue. For example, the following would be bad dialogue:

“Let’s hike over to Mount Wammuu,” said Frank.

“That’s a great idea, ” agreed Bob. “I’ll make sure we have all the supplies we need!”

Better dialogue would be…

“Let’s hike over to Mount Wammuu,” said Frank.

“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, ” scolded Bob. “Everyone knows Mount Wammuu is populated by man eating bears. And there’s no way I could find the supplies we need! You’re a moron!”

The first example has no conflict; the second plenty of it. And this is just on the level of a few paragraphs. With the second example the reader is intrigued. “Are they actually going to climb the mountain? Will they be eaten by bears? I must read on!”

As I thought about it, I realized music is a lot like this. In music you have the idea of tension and release. Tension is created, often by deviating away from patterns already established in the song or by using chords that need to resolve to the main chord of the song. (If the song is in G major for example, the song ultimately should end up on a G major chord.) There’s all sorts of ideas in music theory about creating tension which is essentially creating conflict.

Recently I was also thinking about how certain people seem wired to see the dark side. Some funny light went on on the coffee maker? It probably means that the coffee maker is broken and will take thousands of dollars to fix and in the meantime is spewing noxious radiation in the air. Your boyfriend is a few minutes late? He’s probably still zipping up his pants having just had sex with your best friend. We’ve all got this voice in us, though whether we choose to listen varies from person to person. But this voice seems to thrive on creating tension and conflict.

So this all leads up to some thoughts I’ve had watching the Republican nomination process (with a largely distanced eye.) Something like 9 months ago, I basically said, “It’s going to be Romney,” and lost interest. But I couldn’t not be aware of these spasms, highlighted by the press, of, “It’s Perry! Wait, no, it’s Gingrich! No, it’s Bachman! No, wait, it’s Cain! No, it’s Gingrich again! No, wait it’s Santorum!”

Now, the exact mass psychology creating these spasms is probably impossible to understand, but I do think the press, as the storyteller so to speak, has a large role. They want to tell an exciting story and, as a result, craft conflicts, many of which, frankly, aren’t really there. Honestly, did anyone think Cain had a chance? Bachman, really? Gingrich, who has popularity ranking in the 30 percentile?

Just yesterday I saw some headline along the lines of “Santorum wins three states.” But if you look at the actual delegate count Romney is well ahead. As Romney himself has pointed out, he’s winning the big states (in delegate counts), Ohio, Florida, etc. If that headline was to be honest, it should have said, “Romney has substantial lead.” But there’s no tension there, no conflict.

Now I’m not saying this hasn’t been an unpredictable nomination process. And I suspect that is driven partly by the media’s crafting of this exciting storyline. Some guy in Arkansas would love to see Santorum in the White House but knows he hasn’t a chance against Obama so he settles on Romney. Then this guy sees all these headlines and thinks, “Maybe Santorum could win – maybe he does have the support,” and switches to Santorum. The reality starts to look like the media narrative.

I’m also not saying the that media is knowingly crafting this story. I think it’s a much more subconscious process driven by this innate human desire to have conflict (the broken coffee maker again.)

As another example, I’m reminded off a recent headline along the lines of “Prescription drug deaths now past auto fatalities.” You think, “Gee, that’s awful, Everyone know there are lots of auto fatalities.” But then I looked at a chart accompanying the article and realized part of the reason prescription drug deaths were now past auto fatalities was that rate of auto fatalities had actually gone down.* The headline could have just as easily said, “Yaaay! Auto fatalities are dropping!” By there’s no conflict there.

*No word on the declining rate of auto fellatio, but by definition that involves a certain amount of “going down.” HAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAW!! I kill me.

My larger point here is that we need to be aware of when we’re being manipulated by people’s desire for conflict – whether it be news reports or reports of broken coffee makers – and act accordingly.

2 Responses to “Conflict and the Republican Primary”


  1. John Saleeby

    Dude, you really make me think with this stuff. I’m gonna read up on that, do some research. Something tells me that you’re full of shit here. I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet, but one month from now after I’ve been reading everything I can find on the matter and I know for sure what the hell you are talking about I am sooo going to tell you to fuck off. But until then – Good Post, Wil! Yeah!

    If you want to see something really funny look up Topher Grace and Dan Fogler in “Crocodile Tears”. It’s a four minute Comedy thing that you can find on the net somewhere. I dunno, I saw it last night. It’s funny and shit.

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