I thought it was about time I addressed plotting and conflict. The plot is the pathway that winds through your story. It is the veins that carry the characters, the intrigue, the tension. So, it is pretty important.
A writer should spend time working on their plot. They should stand in the middle of the vast flatland of their story, until they see at least some semblance of pathway. It might be a straight road, a winding, twisting footpath or a spider-web of tracks that continually intersect.
What is Conflict?
Conflict is the flash points within a plot. You need conflict. Something must happen to your characters. Usually this is in the form of a challenge, the “try and fail” concept.
This is where the main character will attempt something (trying to save their family, trying to walk again or trying to return the ring to Mordor).
This is your “try”.
Next, they need to fail. Cruel I know, but if they were successful immediately it would be a pretty boring. We as readers want to see failure. We want to watch the hero fail.
This is your “fail”.
Okay so we have thrown our unsuspecting character into a horrible, stressful, heart shattering situation then we’ve ripped the rug from under them and watched as they fall, and fall damn hard!
Now, we must make them try again. Here is where you can fling in your own ideas.
- Does your character spit out a bloody tooth, mutter a plethora of curses and then push himself up to fight again?
- Does your hero shake in fear, cower back and slink to hide for half the book, change his name and try and forget?
Your character should try again. But it doesn’t have to be immediate. They can try and fail and try and fail and try and win!
They could try and fail and then walk away and only later get pushed back into trying again.
The best stories usually include several conflicts like this. Look at Lord of the Rings, the premise is “get the ring to Mordor” however the number of things that thwart that plan, and force change continues to steer the story, and test the resolution of the characters.
If there had just been one conflict, one try and fail, it may have been okay but it certainly wouldn’t have been the “wow” book it is now.
Now, at the same time we need to consider balance. Flinging crap at your characters from all sides is too much. Have some try and fail moments, have some regrouping moments and maybe have a little success. If your characters are in 100% peril all the time, that can get stale.
Also make sure your conflicts are believable (not in real terms, if your story is set on Mars or in a land with fire dragons, then it should be believable within its own setting).
Your character should not have to traverse a fire pit of lava sharks, while dodging swinging blades coated in venom all while carrying a sacred orb that must remain at a 90 degree angle. This is stupid and over the top.
Make the conflict believable to the story and don’t throw every conceivable obstacle in your heroes path.
Spice it up with variety
Next make sure your conflict is varied. For example, your character should not have to spend the entire book dealing with natural disasters.
While surviving an earthquake, volcano eruption and two avalanches may sound impressive, it’s really just boring. Throw in a battle, maybe some betrayal or a health issue or two. Mix it up.
Okay, so all the conflict I’ve mentioned so far has been external. Whether we are fighting giant killer bees or struggling to match the language of the elusive worm eaters. Now we need to move internally.
Almost all stories should have something going on inside. Think about that raft of emotion we all have, a varied spectrum of senses and feelings that rage. Make sure to throw some of that into the mix.
- Is your character struggling with guilt from a failure in their past?
- Did someone they try and help die so now they are finding it hard to help anyone else?
- Are they consumed with jealousy, wracked with paranoia, terrified of physical pain?
Either with an external or stand alone, there should be at least one internal conflict going on with your character.
- Are they doubting if they are strong enough to complete their challenge?
- Are they scared they will never see their loved ones again?
- Have they already lost someone they love and are struggling to give a damn about anyone else, even the fate of the world?
- Are they tired of the responsibility dropping on their shoulders?
Whether it’s facing a fear, overcoming a personal demon or battling past memories make sure you give time to your internal conflicts.
The plot of your story should flow smoothly, the conflicts (both internal and external) should get more intense and the stakes should get higher, the deeper into the story we get.
Think about a tipping point – one that will either see the character push through or turn back. Is there a point when they have suffered too much they are unable or unwilling to go on? Yet just that little further and they will crest the peak and move towards resolution.
Conflict is not always about moving the story. It can be used to develop a character. What if it left the character distrustful or dishonest?
Always remember your readers don’t know as much about your story and characters as you do. We all produce ideas and back stories that help us to define the world and the characters but don’t always make it into the novel. Anything pertinent should be added either as a scene or within the prose.
Conflict should not be hard to come up with. If there is any sort of journey in your story, you have the land to contend with.
- What is the lay of the land like?
- Who is your character and why are they travelling?
- What is the weather like?
- Do they have to pass through villages ravished by plague?
- Are there marauders?
For example: A young princess sent out with a retinue of guards to a neighbouring kingdom to marry their prince. She is traveling in a large carriage
- What if they come to water or a bridge that is destroyed?
- What about stony ground that can damage the wheels?
- Is there a forest that a carriage could not get through?
- Does she end up riding one of the horses and it panics and she separated from her guards?
Then you have other people:
For Example: The royal convoy will have to pass through areas of populace. How does this affect the story?
- Do they go through poor towns?
- How will these people feel about such wealth flaunted at them?
- Will they be awed or angered?
- Are there bandits and thieves or even assassins intent on stopping the two kingdoms joining?
The best way is to think about what your end goal is and how you want to get there. Watch movies or read books to see how other people build conflicts. How it is shown and developed.
A conflict can be as simple as not fitting in.
For example: You could have a character with a deformity, such as a humpback. They are taunted and ridiculed by those in the village
Suddenly a plague infects the village and suddenly people are viewing the young man’s humpback as some sort of curse. Blaming him for bringing the plague on them.
Now not only does the character have to deal with plague, losing loved ones but also the threat of violence for people he grew up with.
Often, conflict will come up naturally. Think about it when you write, keep in mind the try and fail concept so that you don’t end up turning a great conflict into a boring read by having everything work out perfectly.
Situations will generate ideas for new conflict, including in-fighting with a group of friends or loss and betrayal.
So, how do you develop conflict in your stories?
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