Monday, May 08, 2023

The Power of Small Problems: Elevate Your Plot with Little Conflicts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Little problems can be just as devastating to your characters' plans as full-blown issues.

I'm prone to migraines and when one hits, I'm pretty much down for the day (or longer if it's bad). As you can imagine, that puts a bit of a crimp in my day. It's hard to get much writing done when you can't stare at a screen without pain. Annoying little issues are things we deal with every day, so why not make sure our characters also have to deal with them?

When you're creating your characters and their lives, don't forget to add in the little things that can cause them trouble, even if it's not earth-shattering trouble. 

Think about the bad days you've had, where nothing went right, and how that escalated into you snapping and yelling at someone who didn't deserve it. Or caused you to do something you wouldn't have ordinarily done had you not already been stressed by stupid little things.
In other words, pile on the problems.

In The Shifter, finding food and work is one of those annoying things my protagonist has to do every day. It's not a major event in the book, but it does cause her extra trouble, and it does start her down the path that becomes the major conflict of the story. It's also something that can add a layer of difficulty to everything she does. Life is hard for her, even the simple everyday things. A hard life makes everything more difficult.

Places to look for conflict:
  • World building: What inherent problems occur in this character's world?
  • Work: What problem issues can come up on the job?
  • Family: Are there any family issues that can throw a wrench in the protag's plan?
  • Friends: Can a friend come to them for help at a bad time? 
  • Health: Is there a medical issue that can cause recurring trouble?
Sometimes in our stories, we need our characters to act in ways contrary to what someone would do. Take a chance, make a bad choice, be reckless or mean. 

A bad day can go a long way toward shoving someone in the right direction.

Adding conflicts:
  • Small conflicts can help raise the tension, so look at the major turning points in your story. Find those moments and then go back a few scenes (or even chapters) and look for places where the protagonist's day/goal/problem would be worse if one more thing got heaped onto their To-Do List.
  • Slow scenes can benefit from adding small problems, so check any spots that drag and look for ways to make things a little more difficult.
  • Emotional situations or turning points can be more powerful by a small issue or conflict that underlines or further illustrates that emotion. Or is completely contrary to it. For example, have you ever had to fake being happy when you wanted to curl up and cry? It’s not easy and makes you feel even worse.
Potential snags:

Be wary of tossing in a small issue just to add a small issue though. Empty problems will read like empty problems and make the book feel full of "stuff" but no real plot or story.

When you add a small issue, make sure it connects to the character and story in some way. It might:
  • Put stress on an existing problem
  • Add a ticking clock
  • Push an emotional button
  • Take advantage of a character flaw and bring it to light
  • Undermine the character so they're in bad shape for the next problem
  • Raise the stakes
  • Provide an opportunity for the protag to fail
  • Provide an opportunity for the protag to learn a skill they'll need later
Things happen in our lives all the time, so it makes sense to let our characters experience that same chaos and uncertainty.

Does your protagonist have small, day to day issues or do they only deal with the major plot points?

*Originally published March 2012. Last updated May 2023.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Ooo! Small problems! Too bad I don't really have any examples.

  2. My protag has small problems like doing repairs on his father's farm, trying to find a renter for their farmland, making time for his job while he now must commute an hour+ each way, take care of his father's dog, and go to a neighbors funeral only hours after his father's barn burned dow.

    How'm I doin'? :-)


  3. My protag sprained her ankle. It's hard to sneak around with crutches.

    My boys suffered from migraines until their doctor suggested I cut nitrates from their diets. It worked. Nitrates are found in processed meats like lunch meats and hot dogs. My oldest son thinks the loss of corn dogs in his life is a bigger problem than migraines. It's all about perspective.

  4. Elizabeth Dunn3/01/2012 4:13 PM

    A little off subject but I know how debilitating migraines can be; I have a friend who suffers from them. It makes me wonder how you keep up, Janice. If you lose a day of writing do you double it the next? Do you have a daily word count to stick to? How long should the average middle grade/YA book take to write? I suppose you get better at portioning out research,writing and editing chunks. I'd be interested in how you keep up with all your obligations and deadlines. Or is it just too stressful to think about?!

  5. Small problems lead to big catastrophes but you're right a problem for problem's sake just doesn't fit the belt.

  6. Nice! Really cool idea there. I can't help thinking these are also really good ways to spice up a dull scene, or throw a twist into a plot you're having trouble with.

  7. CO, no worries :) Maybe after this you'll find some to make your novel even better.

    Chris, sounds good to me. That's a lot to handle, which is bound to make the core conflict even tougher.

    Janice, interesting, thanks. I'll have to pay attention on my next one and see what I ate right before. Caffeine is one of my triggers for sure. And the quality of light for some reason. Love the corn dog comment :)

    Elizabeth D, if I lose a day I just pick back up the next day. I used to try to double up, but found that just made it harder. Too much pressure to get it all done, then I'd get less done than usual. I use weekly goals, because they're more flexible. I aim for three chapters a week (about 7500 words for me), over the five-day work week (Saturdays are for the blog, Sundays I take off). There's no average time to write anything really, just your time. Some folks can write 100K in a month, others take two years. So whatever your process is is your process, and don't worry about what others do. (it just makes you feel like you're failing when you're really not)

    It can be stressful to keep up with it all :) But when it gets crazy, I just prioritize. For example, I had a conference this past weekend, so I didn't get my blog posts for the week done. So I just ran older posts and updated them for this week. It's stuff new readers haven't seen, and I don't get behind trying to play catch up.

    I also try VERY hard (and I learned this the hard way) to set a doable schedule that doesn't overwhelm me, and then stick with it. For three years I tried to hard to do too much and me and my work suffered for it. It's important to find a way to fit writing into your life so you still have a life to enjoy. If it's ALL about the writing ALL the time you get burned out too fast.

    Traci, exactly. And I love when that tiny problem turns out to be the lynchpin to disaster.

    Lauren, they are indeed. A lot of plotting is about thinking outside the box. We often focus on getting from A to Z, but there are all kinds of places we can veer off to.

  8. This is a great post. Thanks for the food for thought. :)

  9. Great post once again Janice. Gonna file this one away. On a different/more personal note I would like to ask you a few questions about your migraines. Can I email you?

  10. Sure Marti. I'm no expert or anything, but feel free.

  11. hmm... lots of things seem to go up in flame...

  12. Janice...

    Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. For some reason my computer is not working well with the outlook program. Can you email me and I'll email you back?


  13. Today is definitely my lucky day. I have come upon some of the best best best posts today. This is among them. ANother one that I will be printing and keeping in a file for future reference. Thanks a ton. to add in a sinus infection and aching teeth!

  14. Nice! I'm revising a novel to add more conflict now, and this was an excellent source of tips on how to do this.

  15. What a great post. I don't think I have any minor problems in my current WIP. I must think of some for him.

    1. Thanks! I like to start with looking at the inherent conflict in the world/setting and pull from there. There's usually a lot of areas where things are just harder or difficult there.