Problems & Conflict: The Story of Life
July 17, 2012
I have long been fascinated with authors and their thought processes about writing. I recently ran across a quote in The Writer by one of the nation’s most respected and traditional mystery writers, Phyllis A. Whitney. She said: “Problem. Purpose. Conflict. Goal. Use them. Think about them while you are in the planning phase of your novel; keep these elements in the back of your mind to guide you while you write. When you have written a scene, make sure they are all there, or that if one or another is missing, it is intentional, and the effect is what you want.”
Novelists write about life.
The guts of a story may come from life’s experiences. Or they may come staggering straight out of the sentimental or grotesque innards of a writer’s imagination.
It doesn’t matter.
The story is about life. And what is life? It is a personal and individual journey filled with:
They may keep changing as the years pass, but they never end.
At The University of Texas, I had taken every journalism course that the school offered. I spent every day and most nights hanging around the Daily Texan office, trying to soak up every scrap of information and advice I could find to make me a good newspaper reporter.
That’s all I ever wanted to do.
Find a big-city newspaper. Get a job. I would be home for good.
I found the big-city newspaper, the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram. Its morning and evening editions, when combined, made it the largest daily newspaper in Texas.
I got a job. Editor Frank Friauf, in a weak moment, hired me as the new police reporter, which, I learned, was the training ground for every new blood who came on board the Star-Telegram’s staff.
On my first day, we received a call that a man had shot and killed a woman out in a small tourist court on the old Jacksboro Highway. Death spent a good deal of its time on old Jacksboro Highway. Death had its own table at the honkytonks and beer joints lining the highway and a bed at the cheap motels and walkup apartments, which generally rented by the hour when they rented at all.
There it was. I had a problem: A woman was dead.
I had a purpose: A good story would get me a front page by-line, which was similar to the Holy Grail.
I had a goal: It was important – no, it was vital – to cover the story and have it written before our final two o’clock deadline.
And I had a conflict.
I ducked under the yellow crime scene tape, walked through the open door of room seventeen at the tourist court, and saw the perpetrator of the crime seated on the foot of an old bed with a frayed, flannel bedspread. His hands were cuffed to the railing on the bed. He had probably not shaved for the past two days. Behind him, the woman lay sprawled on the bed. Her blood had left the wall looking like a red and abstract painting created by Jackson Pollock. The police sergeant was leaning against the wall, holding the 12-gauge shotgun. It had been fired once. It could sure do some damage at close range to a hundred-pound woman wearing a black dancing dress. She was barefooted. Her shoes were nowhere in sight.
And here was my conflict. I had sat through thirty-six hours of journalism at the one of the nation’s most prestigious schools of journalism. I had listened to professors pontificate day after day about what makes a good story, how to write a good story, how to make sure that I always included the who, what, where, when, and how of a news story. I knew how to write the seven kinds leads listed in a textbook. I had studied all about ethics of journalism. I could make a compound sentence sing and dance.
But no one had ever told me what to say to a man who had just killed a woman in a cheap motel.
I looked at him.
He stared at the wall.
The police sergeant looked at me.
I stared at the dead woman.
It was already past one o’clock, and time was ticking away.
The police sergeant grinned. He liked to see kids squirm, especially kids who thought they were grown, thought they were newspapermen, and had just realized they were only playing games in a real world where men actually did put a shotgun to a woman’s head and pull the trigger.
Crime of passion. Crime of pity. A crime nevertheless.
The man looked as though he was ready to cry. I looked for a place to sit down. There wasn’t any. I simply said, as politely and respectfully as I could under the circumstances, “Sir, what could she have possibly done to make you so mad?”
He looked from me to the shotgun and back at me again.
I glanced at the police sergeant. ‘Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s unloaded.” He grinned again.
“I wasn’t mad,” the man with two-day whiskers whispered.
“An accident?” I asked.
“She was gonna walk out on me,” he said. “She had my wallet.”
He laughed softly. “But I had her shoes,” he said.
I kept waiting.
“And somehow,” he said. “between her trying to leave me and me trying to keep her from leaving, and me begging her to stay, and her calling me every name she could think of, a shotgun went off.”
“You shoot her?” I asked.
He glanced over his shoulder, let his gaze drift across the black dancing dress, and shrugged. “Somebody sure did,” he said.
He had a problem. He had a purpose. He had conflict. He had a goal, and he achieved it. The hundred pound woman in bare feet did not make it past the door. She didn’t even make it out of bed. He met his goal. She missed hers by about ten steps.
Caleb Pirtle III is the author of the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection.