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Be Careful With Conflict

I once read a biography of Earl Stanley Gardner, an attorney and prolific author who wrote close to 150 novels. His most popular books starred attorney-sleuth Perry Mason, and that became a hit television series in the late 50s and early 60s and then again in the 80s. How did he come to write such successful books? One anecdote mentioned in the biography said that when he was a beginning writer, he sent a story to Black Mask Magazine, that was rejected, but along with the rejection was another note, apparently meant for the editor’s secretary that was a rant on all the faults in Gardner’s story. Gardner took it as advice on how to write, so he paid attention to the editor’s criticism. He rewrote the story. When he resubmitted it, he thanked the editor for the suggestions and his story was accepted, probably because of the editor’s embarrassment. Recently, I picked up a copy of Gardner’s first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, at a yard sale. As I read it, I had to smile. All of us involved in writing fiction are told about the importance of conflict in keeping reader interest. Gardner took this advice to heart, and his book is almost a parody or maybe a lesson on conflict in fiction. It begins on the first page when Della Street walks into Mason’s office and says she thinks the new client is a phony. She’s opposed to this client at every turn in the plot. Then it’s obvious that the client is lying and withholding information and Mason knows it, but how to find out the truth? From what she tells him, Mason knows he’s up against some tough foes, and he’s in danger of being disbarred. And then Paul Drake, the detective, comes in, and he becomes another source of conflict. So by halfway through the book, Perry Mason is in conflict with his secretary, the detective he uses, the client, and an assortment of tough characters. Gardner establishes Perry Mason as a tough fighter who will battle any and everyone, but to me it seems like the conflict was laid on so thick that it became a parody. Conflict is important, but when it becomes obvious or biased, it becomes trite and boring. For instance, when the wife opposes her husband’s dream of adventure. Boringly obvious set-up. And biased. For one thing, why can’t it be the wife’s dream of adventure? And why can’t the conflict come from another source than the obvious spouse, who could be supportive. Surprise us with the conflict. We’re inundated with the standard issue, and a lot of us are too sophisticated to buy into a writer’s lazy use of it.

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