Monday, December 5, 2011

Conflict in Nonfiction

Good morning!  Nonfiction Monday is being hosted by Gathering Books.

Last month I spoke in Ithaca, NY at the regional SCBWI shoptalk meeting. My topic, of course, was writing nonfiction and in particular story and voice in nonfiction.  One question has stuck with me since that night.  One woman who was working on a biography asked, "Does there have to be conflict in nonfiction?" 

I told her that, yes, especially in a biography.  She wasn't sure that her chosen subject had encountered any conflict. My response was, nobody's life is smooth sailing, and if it is nobody wants to hear about it.  So,  after a little discussion, she admitted that the woman's life had not been all sunshine and roses.  Now the writer has to decide whether the conflict, which seemed to be more in the subject's personal life, is appropriate fodder for a children's book. But that is a topic for another time.

So, my short answer is yes, there should be conflict in nonfiction.  However, that conflict can take many forms.  In a biography, which most resembles fiction writing because it is character driven, the writer must present the struggle the subject went through.  As in fiction, that struggle could be internal or external.  Most of the picture book biographies that I can recall tend to focus on the external struggles especially when someone steps out of traditional roles to forge new territory. Think of  Marian Anderson (When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan) against the racial atmosphere of the time; Louise Smith (Fearless by Barb Rosenstock) who made her name in stock car racing;  Annette Kellerman (Mermaid Queen by Shana Corey) who broke rules in woman's roles and fashion.

I would love to hear from you about picture books biographies that deal with internal struggle as well.  Off hand, I am coming up blank,  (although most people who struggle against tradition also face internal doubts).

Older biographies delve deeper into the psyche of characters.  Darwin comes to mind in Deborah Heligman's Charles and Emma. 

But conflict can also be represented in other nonfiction.  When writing about an invention or discovery you should address the setbacks as well as the successes.  When presenting information, you give more than one opinion, which can often be conflicting.  In a how-to you provide warnings where caution is required.

Conflict can come in the form of tension in the writing or presentation of the material  - surprises in the language, or in the turn of a page.  An ABC format, for example, could have unexpected entries that keep the litany exciting.

If you think of other examples of conflict in nonfiction, I'd love to hear about them.



  1. This is thought provoking - I guess I assumed that conflict has to exist even in nonfiction to move the person/event forward. As far as internal conflict, the title that comes to mind right away is Barbara Cooney's "Eleanor" - she had to fight against her own feelings of lonliness and inadequacies, didn't she? I'm going to have to think through for some others.

  2. Off the top of my head, I thought of Don Brown's picture book biographies - we've reviewed several (Bright Path, Odd Boy Out) - and the conflicts are pretty evident as well - both internal and external struggles. I'm glad you raised this issue - Heidi Grange also raised an important question about fictionalized accounts of biographies - and the boundaries between facts/realities and retellings. :) Thank you for your participation this week!

  3. Oh, such a good question. I can't say I've thought about it before but certainly see what you're getting at. I would agree that the best nonfiction books do incorporate some element of conflict or tension that works within the narrative. If it's about a person or a creature it should allow the reader to connect to the subject. A quick look through recent nonfiction books I've blogged about have it. Even a seemingly 'simple' like A Red Eye Tree Frog has it - Will the frog find breakfast or will it become breakfast? Maybe that's why they stick in our minds the longest. Really good point to bring up.
    Apples with Many Seeds

  4. Thanks for stopping by Tara. Eleanor is a good example of internal conflict. Thanks!

  5. Myra, thanks for the nod toward the Don Brown books. I'm glad this blog got you thinking.

  6. Hi Tammy,
    I'm glad you brought up a different kind of nonfiction like the Red-eyed Tree Frog. Hopefully you'll see it more often now. If so, let me know.