Tuesday, May 22, 2012


As we all know, conflict is a part of every story. It's what pulls the plot along, if not comprises the entire plot. Some will tell you there should be conflict in every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph, but that sounds exhausting to read. I think a boring scene can be spiced up by adding in conflict, and the most fun I have while writing is when two characters are butting heads, but I do like to give it a rest, every once in a while.

But where does that conflict come from in the first place? On the most basic level, you should have a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. What puts them into those neat boxes in the first place is that they have opposing goals, and they can't both get what they want. There's only one MacGuffin (link goes to Wikipedia), the love interest is strictly monogamous, someone has to die to fulfill the prophecy who Our Hero has vowed to keep alive. You also look at internal conflict: a philosophical clash, a need the protagonist has that the antagonist thwarts, taking the antagonist down a peg.

The best stories are the ones that have several levels of conflict: internal, external, character's own personal demons, time constraints, interpersonal between the protagonist and his or her allies, and priorities, for a few examples. The more conflicts that can come to a head at the climax of the story, the stronger the impact of that ending. Apparently that's called a Hollywood Formula, which I learned from the Writing Excuses podcast (outside link).

But I'm a pantster, and I'm assuming, if you read my blog, that you, too have pantster tendencies. Who has time to plot out all the various conflicts and make them come to a head when there's a draft to get down in words? I rarely start with the knowledge of what the antagonist wants, or how my protagonist is clashing with whoever my bad guy is.

No, I start far simpler than that. I figure out, as I flesh out my character in my pre-writing phase, what that character values. What's important to him/her? What does the character take for granted?

Then, I take it away.

I'll give you an example. In my trilogy, my character starts by rushing around preparing for college graduation. She has a list of what she has to do that day all mapped out in her head. She has people who are going to help her out once she's out on her own.

And then, I take it away. I shatter her conception that she understands all the dangers of a world outside academia. I destroy her most valued friendship. And I show her she's not as safe as she thinks she is.

The epic fantasy I've been mulling over starts with a character who's powerful and assured and tied very closely to her home base. Then, in steps something stronger than she is, who uproots her and sends her wandering into a world she doesn't understand. (I don't know a lot beyond that, but I do know where the story begins.)

So, if you're having trouble getting into the head of your antagonist, and your story is meandering along without a conflict, take something away from your protagonist. It needs to be something important, something that character will miss.

See if that doesn't help your word count.

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