Monday, August 26, 2019

Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Novels need conflict, but not all conflicts are created equal.

Years ago, when I first started writing, I didn’t fully understand what conflict meant or how to use it in a novel. I’d read plenty of books on the subject, and understood that I needed to make things harder and put obstacles in my protagonist’s way, but that didn’t seem to make the books any better.

I studied some more, took some classes, attended a few conferences, and while I thought I was finally getting it, I was still running into the same issues.

Beta readers didn’t care about the story, because everything was too easy for my characters.

“Too easy?” I cried. “Look at all they have to go through to succeed!”

“Yes, but none of it matters,” they said. “It makes it harder, but not harder.”

On a gut level I knew what they meant, but even they couldn’t really explain why my conflicts were falling flat. It wasn’t until years later that it finally clicked for me.

Conflict isn’t about what’s physically in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal. It’s not about delay tactics that do nothing but make it take longer for the protagonist to accomplish what they were going to anyway. Conflict is about facing a challenge that forces the protagonist to make a choice about how to overcome that challenge.

A Good Conflict Is More Than Just Making Things Harder on the Protagonist

While there is benefit to making things as difficult as possible on the protagonist, if the heart of that conflict is weak, the entire scene will feel weak. For example:
  • If the person the protagonist needs to convince to help them is going to agree without a struggle, making it difficult to reach that person doesn’t make the conflict any stronger.
  • If the protagonist is going to stumble across the hidden panel and find the needed clue, fighting six ninjas in the house doesn’t make accidentally finding it any harder (even if throwing one of the ninjas into the wall and exposing the panel is what reveals that clue—then it just feels contrived).
  • If the protagonist is asked to do something they were going to do anyway, sending them through a gauntlet of deadly obstacles still doesn’t make that choice any tougher to make.

Harder is good, but only when it contributes to the overall conflict or goal of the scene.

Imagine a co-worker is stealing from you at work. You want them to stop, so you tell your boss, or human resources, or even call the police. They agree to step in, but only if you run up and down ten flights of stairs three times. Sure, you get what you want (the theft to stop), and it’s hard, but it has nothing to do with the problem at hand.

(Here’s more on What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

Something in the Way Isn’t the Same as Conflict

The two most common conflict mistakes I see are fights as conflict, and something in the way as conflict. I used to think the fighting type was the biggest offender, but I’m starting to change my mind. The “something in the way” type has gotten more prevalent in the manuscripts I read and the critiques I’ve done.

It’s easy to see how this happen, and I’ve made the same mistake plenty of times. It’s a natural reaction to the huge amount of writing advice that says, “Put obstacles in your protagonist’s path.” There’s a decent chance I’ve even written that here on Fiction University.

And it’s good advice, except when it’s not.

There’s a difference between throwing obstacles in the path, and creating difficult challenges for the protagonist to overcome. A good obstacle does more than just delay the time it takes the protagonist to achieve their goal. It might:
  • Teach the protagonist something they’ll need later in the story
  • Show a weakness or flaw that will cause trouble later
  • Prey upon a weakness or flaw that’s part of the character arc growth
  • Force the protagonist to make choices they don’t want to make, preparing them for the really hard choice later on
  • Test the protagonist’s beliefs or moral code
  • Force actions or events to shift in the antagonist’s favor
  • Create situations that will come back and haunt/trouble/shatter the protagonist in some way at the worst possible time
  • Show that the protagonist has a vital skill before they need it in the story
  • Change the character motivations for better or worse
Whatever it is, the obstacle isn’t just an obstacle. It serves the story in some way and deepens the conflict, stakes, world, or character. Sometimes all four, or any combination of the four.

A good test to double check yourself is to ask, if you took out that obstacle, would anything but the time to get to the final goal really change? If not, you probably have a cardboard conflict.

Quick note about obstacle delay: Sometimes we do want things in the way to delay the protagonist and speed up the ticking clock, and that’s okay. The trouble comes when we add delay after delay and use that to try to raise tensions and create more conflict.

Delay tactics work best when they’re delaying something the protagonist needs to do by a specific time. Getting to the goal by X time is what matters, and delays affect that. But use them sparingly, otherwise they tip over into melodrama and become cardboard conflicts.

(Here’s more on What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents)

Cardboard Conflicts Don’t Create Tension, They Weaken it

And that’s the real trouble with conflicts that aren’t really conflicts. They’re flimsy and easily crushed, and they don’t have the weight to keep the protagonist from what they want.

On first glance, cardboard conflicts look like they’re doing what they should. They cause trouble, they make things harder, they delay the protagonist, but when you look closer, nothing about the outcome of the scene actually changed because of them.

Overcoming the challenge didn’t affect how the protagonist views the goal. It didn’t change how they feel about what they’re doing. It didn’t hurt the protagonist (often it helps in a convenient or contrived way) or help the antagonist.

They also steal the tension from the story, because after enough of them, readers know the obstacles don’t matter. The protagonist is going to get their goal and none of the obstacles are going to hurt them in any significant way.

There’s a very good chance readers will start skimming those obstacle scenes to get back to the story. And that’s bad. If they skim enough, they might just skip to the end to see how it turns out—or worse—decide they no longer care and put the book down altogether.

Real conflict creates real tension. It makes readers anticipate what might happen and makes them worry about the consequences for failure.

(Here’s more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

Resolving the conflict is what makes a story a story, so give readers the strongest conflicts you can. Keep them guessing what will happen and make them worry the entire time, so they’re eager to keep turning the pages.

If they can tear right through your conflicts, they won’t have any reason to see what happens next.

Do you struggle with cardboard conflicts? Have you ever used them in your novel?

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. "A good test to double check yourself is to ask, if you took out that obstacle, would anything but the time to get to the final goal really change? If not, you probably have a cardboard conflict."

    Using this test has proven I need to do some more expanding of my scenes to include conflicts. I want to keep the obstacles as they are but I need to work on the challenges these obstacles create.

    1. You can try looking at how those obstacles affect the inner conflict of the character, or even see if you can have the obstacle be part of a tougher choice to make. Or even let the obstacle affect a weakness or fear in the character.

      Play around and brainstorm a bit and see what you can come up with. :)

  2. I'm running through the plotlines of a story I'm working on and thanks to this article realized that some of my conflicts are not really conflicts but just scenarios that are there to fatten up a weak plot. Glad to read this so I can fix that!

    Thanks, Janice! Glad I stumbled on your "Fiction University"!

    1. Most welcome, glad you found it helpful!


  3. Thanks for the post. I need to look closely at my plots to make sure my conflicts are real and not cardboard.

    1. You're welcome! It's a good thing to check on in every book. :) It's easy to do, especially with a first draft.

  4. Good advice before I start my next WIP.
    Thank you.

  5. Yes! I've been a bit blocked trying to think up 'conflicts/obstacles', now I realise why. Thank you so much for this post, so useful.

  6. Useful post, It’s best to learn from other’s mistakes than to feel the urge to commit one by oneself & then think of learning. I think we’ve all made some of these mistakes to some degree or another.

    1. Thanks! I know I have. It's all part of the learning process. There's a lot we need to just muddle through before we figure out what works and what doesn't.