Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 52: Stagnant Story Conflict


Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 52: Stagnant Story Conflict

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 52: Stagnant Story ConflictWhat’s so hard about story conflict? You throw your protagonist and your antagonist onto the page–insta-conflict! Right? Actually, not so fast. Turns out creating a fascinating story world in which dwells a fascinating hero and an evil villain is not enough, in itself, to create integral and interesting story conflict.

I’ve read quite a few unfortunate stories in which the protagonist spent the majority of the book pacing around his base thinking about that dirty antagonist and all his dirty deeds. The protag shakes his fist at the sky, curses the antag, and promises to make him pay. Then he resumes pacing. Finally, the Climax rolls around, the protag and antag meet, they fight, the protag wins.

Of course, the author is lucky if I’ve actually stuck around long enough to read his fascinating Climax, since all that pacing on the protagonist’s part slipped me the Mickey chapters and chapters ago.

The dangerous part of all this is that it’s super easy for authors to fall into this mistake without even realizing it. But never fear! There is an easy precautionary measure you can take to make sure your conflict is alive and well throughout your entire story.

Do You Understand the True Nature of Story Conflict?

Where many authors go wrong with their conflict is simply in failing to understand what story conflict really is.

Is story conflict…

  • A protagonist and an antagonist on opposite sides of a war?
  • Two characters arguing?
  • Two characters duking it out?
  • Two characters nuking it out?
  • An evil antagonist making your protagonist’s life miserable?
  • An evil antagonist giving your protagonist an opportunity to look awesome?
  • Good stomping all over evil on its way to ultimate triumph?

Short answer: no.

All of these are often manifested aspects of story conflict. But they are not, in themselves, conflict.

What this means, of course, is that you can create all of the above in your story and still not have a story. Without organic conflict, the above elements will only ever be flimsy window dressing.

Powerful Story Conflict in 2 Steps

Conflict-as-plot is about much more than simply characters who nominally oppose one another. Fundamentally, conflict is about two things:

1. Goal.

2. Obstacle.

Your protagonist and your antagonist each want something, and they’re each getting in each other’s way. As a result, they must each keep readjusting their tactics in an attempt to outmaneuver the other. (Find how more about how the antagonist’s goal powers the conflict in this recent post.)

This is what drives your story conflict on the macro level of your entire plot, and it does that by, first, powering your story in a seamless line of cause and effect throughout every single scene. Remember scene structure?

Proper scene structure looks like this:

Scene (Action)

1. Goal (Character wants a smaller something that will help him gain his overall story goal.)

2. Conflict (Obstacle prevents character from gaining his goal.)

3. Disaster (The obstruction leads to a whole new set of problems.)

Sequel (Reaction)

1. Reaction (Character must reflect on his new setback.)

2. Dilemma (Character must face the new set of problems created by the disaster.)

3. Decision (Character comes up with a plan for a new scene goal to help him gain his overall story goal.)

When all your scenes are focused on a specific mini-goaldesigned to help your character gain his overall story goal–and that goal is then met with a specific obstacle related to or empowered by the antagonist in some way–then your story conflict will never stagnate. It will be organic and powerful. Your characters will never need to spend their time pacing the room and thinking about the conflict, because they will always be driving it forward.

How to Write Your Story Conflict That Isn’t Really Conflict

Here’s the problem. Too many authors write story conflict that isn’t conflict so much as a delaying tactic to fill up their books until they can actually get around to the Climax. The characters have to do something, right? And if they meet up with the antagonist too soon–and defeat him–well, then, the story is over right then and there, isn’t it?

So what can you do to fill all those intervening chapters? Maybe something like this…

Brunhilde walked down the hall at Ft. Nibelung, headed for her third briefing of the day.

The elevator pinged, and Colonel Wagner stepped out and hailed her. “Terrible about what Admiral Walkure is cooking up out there in the Rheingold Wastes, isn’t it?”

Brunhilde clutched her files closer to her chest. “Terrible. And to think he was my step-father.”

“What did you learn in this morning’s meeting?”

“The hover-carriers are getting closer every day.”

“What does General Sieglinde want us to do about it?”

“Just wait for now. What else can we do?”

The colonel’s face tightened. “True. But war is coming, make no doubt.”

Sounds kinda tense, right? It’s true there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scene–as long as Brunhilde and the colonel enter that briefing room and receive orders to immediately charge out there to sabotage the admiral’s fearsome hover-carrier by midnight tonight.

But what if the briefing drones on, telling readers more about the evil admiral and his evil plans? What if, after the briefing, Bundhilde heads off to the lunch room, where she and her aide Siegfried pull long faces and mourn the news of the admiral’s atrocities? What if they then head down to the training room to hone their already long-honed skills so they’ll be ready when the admiral finally attacks?

Bored yet? I’m bored just writing that severely condensed paragraph. There’s no story conflict there. There’s just characters talking about the potential for conflict.

Whatever that is, it ain’t plot.

How to Electrify Readers With Powerful Story Conflict

Now picture this. What if, instead of rambling around Ft. Nibelung, mulling on the awfulness of having an evil admiral for a stepfather, Brunhilde, Colonel Wagner, and Siegfried get their acts together and decide on a plan of action?

If ending the war is their main story goal, then every single scene goal should be related to that goal in some way. What can Brunhilde want in this scene that will be the first step toward defeating the admiral and accomplishing her story goal? What obstacle will prevent her from easily or entirely gaining that goal? What new goal will that inspire? Every scene should lead her–hard-fought step by hard-fought step–closer to her ultimate goal of taking down Step-Daddy.

Consider:

Brunhilde stalked down the hall at Ft. Nibelung, headed for her third briefing of the day.

The elevator pinged, and Colonel Wagner stepped out and hailed her. “Terrible about what Admiral Walkure is cooking up out there in the Rheingold Wastes, isn’t it?”

Brunhilde clutched her files closer to her chest. “Nobody’s doing anything about it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say our good General Sieglinde is taking orders from the admiral.”

The colonel grabbed her arm and stopped her. “What did you learn in this morning’s meeting?”

“The hover-carriers are getting closer every day.”

“What does the general want us to do about it?”

“Just wait for now. What else can we do?”

The colonel’s face tightened. “What if I told you I’m looking for volunteers for a top-secret mission?”

An emotion somewhere between fear and hope sprang up in Brunhilde’s chest. “Well, sir–then I’d tell you, you just found your first volunteer.”

Can you spot the single greatest difference between the two versions of this scene?

This is it in a nutshell: the second example moves the plot. The characters are in a totally different place at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. Contrast that to the first example. What changed there? Say it with me: nada.

4 Questions to Refine Your Story Conflict

Here’s a challenge for you: go through your latest story, scene by scene and ask yourself the following questions.

1. Can you identify your character’s scene-specific goal in each scene?

2. Does that goal tie into the overall story goal?

3. Is that goal met by conflict that will inspire a new goal in the next scene?

4. Does the nature your story change in each scene?

If you find a scene in which the characters and the conflict are both in essentially the same place at the end as they were at the beginning, then it’s a pretty sure bet you’re looking at some stagnant story conflict. Root it out ruthlessly by creating dynamic conflict–and readers will stay glued to the page.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How does the story conflict in your latest scene change the story? Tell me in the comments!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s