Conflict Makes a Story Interesting

Brave Irene by William Steign Book CoverSpoiler Alert ButtonConflict makes a story interesting. Without it, tension doesn’t exist, and the reader will have no curiosity about what will happen next. Ultimately, they will close the book before the story is done. In the picture book, Brave Irene, William Steig successfully employs conflict to raise the stakes of the story. With each page turn, a new conflict makes Irene’s task increasingly impossible. Steig uses tension in three important but different ways. First he makes the reader care about the protagonist and her conflict. Second he sets a ticking clock to make time of the essence. Thirdly he escalates the stakes via the wind and snow to deter her every attempt to reach her goal.

In Brave Irene, the conflict is apparent immediately. Mom’s ill and someone must deliver the dress she’s made for the duchess. Irene voluteers. “She kisses her mother’s hot forehead six times, then once again, made sure she was tucked in snugly, and slipped out with the big box, shutting the door firmly behind her” (6). These loving actions make us admire the protagonist. We connect with her and become invested in her task/goal. This point is important. The stakes in the story have to matter to the reader as much as they do to the protagonist. If not, adding tension won’t make the reader keep reading. They’ll shut the book because the stakes are not high enough to care about.

Once Steig makes us care about Irene and her problem, he begins to twist the tension tighter. This gown is “for tonight’s ball” (4). He raises the risk that Irene may not make it to the palace in time. The stakes become higher.

As Irene sets off, the wind whirls the snow into her face. By the time she makes it to Farmer Bennett’s sheep pasture the weather has deteriorated. But Steig does something important in the midst of this increasing tension. He recaps—in case we may have forgotten—what is at stake. “This was an important errand” (9).

Having reminded the reader of Irene’s goal, Steig intensifies the action. The wind becomes violent. It even threatens Irene. “’Go ho—o—ome,’” the wind yodeled. “’Go HO—WO—WOME..or else’” (11). Could we blame Irene if she returned home? Before the reader can form that thought, Steig reminds us again of what is at stake, “the gown had to get to the duchess!” (11).

So Steig continues increasing the conflict in Brave Irene. “The wind wrestled her for the package” (12). Irene loses the gown. But the stakes of the story become bigger. She now goes to protect her mother and to “explain everything in person” (14). The wind continues to torment Irene. She falls and twists an ankle. She’s hurt. Alone. Yearning for home. Night falls. Darkness descends. Irene asks, “[H]ow long a small person could keep this struggle up” (18). As she faces each conflict, the stakes grow higher.

At this low point, Steig relieves the tension for a moment and allows a ray of light. Literally. Irene sees the brightly lit mansion. With success so near, Steig dashes any optimism by increasing the tension in the story. Irene falls “off a little cliff. Only her hat and the box in her hands stick above the snow. This is the protagonist’s lowest point. The stakes have never been higher. The difficulty in reaching her goal never greater. Will she quit? Freeze in the snow and end her troubles. Irene rises again, despite the wind’s meddling and achieves her goal. The conflict is resolved. The tension eased. The story ends.

Steig pushes Irene to the edge. He makes her suffer and, by increasing the conflict, the tension on the page, he also raises the stakes of whether she will accomplish what she set out to do: deliver the dress to the duchess before the party.

The first lesson Steig teaches about conflict in Brave Irene is that the reader must care about the protganist’s problem. They must be invested so when the character suffers, the reader suffers too. Having achieved this important point, the writer can increase the tension, and the stakes will rise also. Conflict is necessary for creating the tension which will raise the stakes and make the book a true page turner.


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