We're often told as writers that we should try to maximize the drama, conflict and tension in our stories. Put our characters through hell, make them suffer. Stories may not pull the reader along unless bad things happen to the protagonist.
I watched a movie the other night, Mona Lisa Smile, that made me revise what I think that actually means.
Two of the characters in the movie highlighted this for me. The movies is set in the 1950s, when social mores involving women's roles are in flux. Character A is conservative and somewhat repressed. Throughout the movie, she takes pleasure in publicly judging others, and inflicts pain through biting comments and insinuations involving their moral fibre. At least once she takes away another character's chance at happiness. Character B is a free spirit, whom Character A sees as promiscuous. Character B seems to be drowning her sorrows at one failed relationship in a series of affairs. Throughout the movie, Character A takes gossipy, hurtful potshots at Character B's behaviour.
Towards the end of the movie, Character B sees something that makes her understand Character A's supposedly perfect marriage is a sham. In a subsequent scene, Character A lashes out at Character B, dropping the veiled insinuations and calling her a whore in front of all their friends.
It's at this point that I expected Character B, armed with her new knowledge, to lash out in kind, and give Character A the comeuppance I thought she deserved, by exposing Character A's secret, and thus ramping up the conflict in the scene. Instead, Character B, finally understanding where all Character A's anger comes from, allows Character A to finish using her as a punching bag, then draws Character A into a hug and comforts her.
It was an unexpected twist for me as a viewer, and I felt it worked even better as a scene than going for the easier conflict. Whereas having Character B take a simple revenge might still have taught Character A a lesson and let her grow, and given Character B catharsis, the alternate solution allows both characters a great moment in the story, while still surprising the viewer and providing a dramatic scene.
The a-ha moment for me is that conflict does not always equate with drama, and there are other ways to insert drama into a scene without both characters being at odds.