Conflict Modulation

I promised earlier to write about what I've called 'conflict modulation' and to explain my use of the term 'modulation’ and its application to the concept of conflict in fiction.

I'll start by apologizing for the technical term. When I read about what Jack Heffron, in his Writer's Idea Book, called 'one-note wonders,' internally I compared it to my training in telecommunications. Despite the differences (my understanding of 'modulation' being highly technical versus Heffron's idea of 'one-note wonders') the definition of the word still applies.

Let's start by looking at the definition of 'modulate':

mod•u•late (moj′ ə lāt′, mod′ yə–), v., -lat•ed, -lat•ing.v.t. 1. to regulate by or adjust to a certain measure or proportion; soften; tone down. 2. to adapt (the voice) to the circumstances. 3. Music. a. to attune to a certain pitch or key. b. to vary the volume of (tone). 4. Radio. to cause the amplitude, frequency, phase, or intensity of (a carrier wave) to vary in accordance with a sound wave or other signal. —v.i. 5. Radio. to modulate a carrier wave. 6. Music. to pass from one key to another. [< L modulā(us) measured, regulated (ptp. of modulārī).]
—The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. New York: Random House. Copyright © 1979 by Random House, Inc. p. 858

My Air Force training speaks to definitions 4 and 5, and definition 4 addresses amplitude modulation (the AM band on your car radio), frequency modulation (the FM band), and phase modulation, all of which I’m familiar with. (I’ve no idea what intensity modulation is.) That, however, is by-the-bye. I’m more concerned with definition 1, although I do take issue with 'soften; tone done,' because modulation can go in the other direction. These speak to the circumstance of calming a person who is all a-dither, who has raised their voice and who is clearly upset, and you tell them either to 'calm down' or to 'tone down your voice' or, if you’re well-spoken and are wont to display your vocabulary, to 'please modulate your voice.' What’s really being requested is that the person re-modulate their voice, as our voices are always being modulated. Someone who, when upset, does not raise their voice, is said to speak in well-modulated tones, which proves my point. We are always modulating our voice, taking it from barely discernible whispers to friendly conversational tones to booming yells to ear-piercing screams. If you'll pardon another technical digression, since this form of modulation doesn't involve what in amplitude or frequency modulation is called 'beating one frequency against another,' but rather involves the constriction or the loosening of one's vocal chords, perhaps this is a form of intensity modulation.

In any event, what happens with modulation with respect to fictional conflict is an increase in intensity or pitch as the story develops.

I'd like here to inject a quick definition of 'conflict' as it applies to fiction. Conflict is not slam-bang action. A barroom brawl is the result of a conflict, not the conflict itself. Fist fights are the basest form of conflict. Conflict in fiction is more a contest of wills: Character Republican wants to be President of the United States; character Democrat wants the same. Character Republican therefore employs tactics to discredit and cast aspersions upon his opponent. Character Democrat does much the same. That's conflict.

Now, let's talk about modulation: We have our basic conflict, character Republican racing against character Democrat for the highest office in the land. Character Republican throws out the charge that character Democrat committed adultery thrice in the two years previous and if a man can't be faithful to his wife, how can we expect him to be faithful to his country? The conflict still exists, but it has changed. It has been modulated: Character Democrat now must defend himself against Republican's charges, which he does, but his defense is feeble.

Let's modulate it again: Character Democrat's feeble defense has caused his standing in the public's eye to be severely damaged. He must now resort to damage control while still launching more attacks against character Republican. His attacks seem lame, however, an attempt to deflect attention away from his infidelity.

Let's modulate it a third time: His wife, learning the truth of the charges (thanks to media dogs) is feverish and is threatening divorce. To her, his defense is no defense at all. Character Democrat must now continue his race for the presidency while dealing with the media dogs who refuse to bury the adultery bone and while dealing with a frantic wife.

Let's modulate it one last time: Without his knowledge, character Democrat's wife not only goes through with her threat to file for divorce, she also takes to the talk show circuit on television, and now character Democrat feels that his chances for election have completely evaporated. Etc, etc, etc.

You'll notice that I chose to focus on just one presidential candidate. Fiction does this. Character Democrat is clearly the main character in this story concocted to demonstrate conflict modulation, and the reader will worry whether or not character Democrat will achieve his goal.

As you can see, 'modulation' is somewhat synonymous with what has long been called 'plot complications.' Complications imply that new problems arise as the story develops, but they are different from what I mean by 'conflict modulation.' Complications give rise to the modulation. In fact, complications are necessary for modulation to exist. In a story where the conflict never changes, you have Jack Heffron's 'one-tone wonders,' stories with no conflict modulation. Basically, we never learn anything new about the nature of the conflict because no new complications arise. The result is the reader also never learns anything new about the characters. When a new complication arises, the basic conflict is still the same, but it changes and because it changes the characters' reactions change. Think of a song you like, or a symphony, where you hear the music (or even the singer) repeating the same refrain, and then the pitch changes and the refrain, although it is still the same, is now sung/played in a different key. That's modulation and that is essentially what happens when a story is well-modulated: new complications raise the conflict to a different key, intensifying the conflict and worrying the reader all the more. The writer is not striking the same note all the time.

Heffron had used an example that struck a chord with me, helping me to relate what he was saying to something I already knew, and my understanding expanded. His example harmonized with my experience. This is why an aspiring writer should read as many books on writing fiction as possible. On one level, the rote learning will eventually drill the lessons deep into the neophyte's skull, and on another level the neophyte will sooner or later encounter a writer whose instruction is in concord with his experience.

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