My Eye Goes for Conflict

By Lee Cataluna

The question I think writers get most often is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" Or maybe that's just a question that people ask me a lot because I come up with oddball things to write about. I dunno. I have yet to come up with one satisfying answer, so I try to figure out what people want me to say. Or need me to say:

Story ideas come from childhood experiences.
Story ideas come from the police blotter.
Story ideas come from moments of intense emotion.
Story ideas are delivered to your inbox daily if you subscribe to

Story ideas are gifts from a higher power and your job is to serve as a clear channel for the divine inspiration.

There's a Story Fairy who flits around town sprinkling Idea Dust, and you have to sit still at your desk because her aim isn't very good and she just might miss and sprinkle your idea on someone else.

The truth is that story ideas come from myriad sources. What separates a writer from a non-writer is two things: 1) when inspiration presents itself, a writer recognizes it as a potential story and 2) a writer writes it down.

For me, when I go gathering — like a child with a basket skipping out to the forest… OK, not like that, but I sort of enjoy that image — I look for conflict. When I say that to students, the first thing that pops into their heads is that I look for people beefing, and that's not the case, though if it's a particularly funny fight, I'm taking notes and probably video.

What I mean by conflict is I look for things that are in opposition: a prison guard stopping to smell a flower, a married couple who never look each other in the eye, an iceberg floating down the Ala Wai. Stuff that stands out. Then the process of writing is like trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

The whole world is full of conflict, little and big, and if you look around, there's always some situation that speaks to you, something that your gut knows stands for something larger, some bigger truth. The ant rolling the big bread crumb, the old lady counting out her pennies at the cash register while a line 5 deep waits impatiently behind her, your memory of the first day of Kindergarten… all those kinds of things are jumping off points for writing.

Of course, not every piece of writing is about conflict. You can always write about perfect mountain streams and dew drops on daffodils. But even within those ideas are places of conflict to explore: the conflict of moving water pushing against immovable rock, the conflict of a flower's beauty being such a temporary thing. My eye goes for conflict because of my training in journalism and in theater. Nobody wants to see a play where a beautiful mountain stream just gurgles peacefully for two hours. They want some complications in that stream's life, or else there's no story.

Lee Cataluna is a journalist, playwright, teacher, and the author of Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa and Folks You Meet in Longs.

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