In The Wizard of Oz, lovely Dorothy and her little dog Toto arrive in Munchkin Land and meet the Good Witch who gives the girl a pair of shoes. The Good Witch could have mentioned that Dorothy had the power all along to return home; but no, the girl must travel down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, meet up with a clumsy scarecrow, a rusty tin man, and a sissy lion. Then they encounter all sorts of dilemmas and obstacles on their way, including a maniacal witch, an enormous talking head, and – gasp! – flying monkeys!
So why didn’t the Good Witch just tell Dorothy about the shoes in the first place? Maybe she wasn’t so good, after all? Sure, send an innocent girl alone into the forest with lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!
When L. Frank Baum wrote the book in 1900, he knew the difference between a sweet paragraph and a complex, imaginative story full of conflict and tension. Without the conflict, there wouldn’t be anything to tell. If Dorothy had avoided all the problems, she simply would have returned to Kansas to quietly live out her days on the farm. Fade to black. No story, no movie.
In a well-written story, the main character must want something and either she gets it or she doesn’t. The story can include a variety of sub-plots, but the focal theme is carried by one burning desire: kill the dragon, catch the whale, solve the murder, or stay alive by singing to the captors. The conflict doesn’t always have an inspirational ending. Romeo and Juliet both die. No one knows if the lovers get back together in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. And, the conflict in George Orwell’s 1984 is never resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.
As a writer, you have the privilege to name, own, work, and rework the conflict in your story. Author Margaret Mitchell only wrote one novel, Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936. She wrote the ending first. Mitchell knew about conflict and drama, and used the horrors of the Civil War as a background to the evolving conflict between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. The book was originally titled Tote the Weary Load and Scarlett’s name was Pansy. Somehow, it wouldn’t work if the book ends with Pansy collapsing dramatically on the grand staircase, uttering the famous phrase, “Tomorrow is another day!” Such a statement belongs only to a woman named Scarlett O’Hara.