One neighbor speaks across the fence to another neighbor. Fences make good neighbors. Or do they? Excerpt:
Time and again, my graduate students write stories in which the main character simply observes what takes place around her. On some level, this isn’t surprising. We as a society spend a lot of time alone, and much of our contact with others is both inadvertent and anxiety-producing. On the subway, we avert our glances when someone catches our eye; we avoid knocking into people on the street. For our safety, and our sanity, we are conflict-averse, and writers may be temperamentally the most conflict-averse of all. We do our jobs alone in front of a screen, often in our underwear; we are born—or at least trained—to observe. But it’s bad for a writer to be conflict-averse, at least bad for him to be so on the page, because conflict is what makes for tension in stories, what pushes fiction forward and informs character.
"What’s wrong with watching?" a student will ask me, and I will say, "Nothing, if you do it in moderation." Watching, after all, is part of the human experience. But if it’s all your protagonist does, then your story is going to be inert. That’s because watching is a passive process; it involves no action, no choice, and therefore it has no moral complexity. In a good story, a character is forced to make choices. And if you have trouble getting your characters to make choices, you need to put them in a situation where they have to choose. What if you’re seated on a bus and a stranger puts his hand on your thigh? You can scream; you can tell the person to remove his hand; you can, I suppose, encourage him; or you can do nothing at all. But in this instance, even doing nothing is doing something; not choosing is its own sort of choice. What I tell my students, then, is they have to make their characters do something. They need to put people’s hands on their characters’ thighs.