I'm feeling a little under the weather this week, so here's a Golden Oldie on conflict. Enjoy!
Sometimes I notice my protagonist is following along with the plot and doing what she needs to do, one step at a time, but even though things are problematic, there's no sense that there's really anything in the way trying to stop them. Sure, it's hard, but she just needs to fight through it to the next step. Stuff's in the way, but it's not opposing her. It's the literary equivalent of a big action sequence in a movie. It's fun to watch, but it's all surface problems.
This is when I know I need to add more conflict. Not the "put random obstacles in the way" conflict, but the deeper, more interesting, "make the choices harder" type conflict.
The external conflicts are pretty easy to pile on, but the really heart-wrenching stuff, the conflicts that keep readers glued to the pages, are more often than not the internal conflicts. Because heroes tend to win. We all know the protagonist isn't going to die, and getting locked away but the villain is only temporary, because she has to break out and save they day. As much as we love the exciting external conflicts, they only carry so much oompf.
The internal ones can be anything and affect anything. We don't know what a character might do when faced with an impossible choice, but we can see that that choice is going to have a strong consequence.
(More on building internal vs external conflicts here)
When my protagonist is plowing along, doing what she does, I try to find ways to force her to do what she doesn't want to do. I ask myself:
How can I force her to go against her morals or belief system?
This plays off the inner conflicts. If she needs to steal a car to save the girl, how can I make stealing that car involve a choice that would eat at her?
How can I force her to make a choice she really doesn't want to make?
Maybe there's been something floating around in the story, a theme, a bit of backstory, some foreshadowing. Or maybe there's a way to showcase a flaw, or a trait that will matter later.
(More on making tough choices here)
How can I force her to make a bad choice?
This is one of my favorites, since mistakes are great fodder for plot. Protagonists can act, and that action causes more trouble than they were trying to prevent in the first place. This works even better if they make the wrong choice because they're try avoid violating one of their belief systems.
How can I force her to fail?
This one can be dangerous, so be wary of putting your characters in situations that stop the story. But sometimes failing is an unexpected and compelling path to take. It's not a setback, it's real failure with real consequences. If those consequences play off an inner conflict, so much the better.
How can I force her to do something she'll regret?
This works well if what she does early on affects the plot later. A choice she makes trying to avoid one thing, that directly makes things impossible down the road. (Like she takes the easy way out, and that bites her later and turns hard into downright impossible) Maybe she can see this coming and has no choice but to do it anyway. Maybe she has no clue what problems she's about to bring down on herself. Or better still, she doesn't, but the reader does.
(More on using choices to craft better plots)
It's easy to throw more "stuff" in the way of your protagonists, but also look at your scenes and see what mental obstacles you can toss into their path. Not only can that help deepen your plot, but deepen your characterization and themes as well.
How many conflicts in your novel are tough obstacles vs hard choices? Which do you find more compelling?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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