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Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 52: Stagnant Story Conflict

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 52: Stagnant Story ConflictWhat’s so hard about story conflict? You throw your protagonist and your antagonist onto the page–insta-conflict! Right? Actually, not so fast. Turns out creating a fascinating story world in which dwells a fascinating hero and an evil villain is not enough, in itself, to create integral and interesting story conflict.

I’ve read quite a few unfortunate stories in which the protagonist spent the majority of the book pacing around his base thinking about that dirty antagonist and all his dirty deeds. The protag shakes his fist at the sky, curses the antag, and promises to make him pay. Then he resumes pacing. Finally, the Climax rolls around, the protag and antag meet, they fight, the protag wins.

Of course, the author is lucky if I’ve actually stuck around long enough to read his fascinating Climax, since all that pacing on the protagonist’s part slipped me the Mickey chapters and chapters ago.

The dangerous part of all this is that it’s super easy for authors to fall into this mistake without even realizing it. But never fear! There is an easy precautionary measure you can take to make sure your conflict is alive and well throughout your entire story.

Do You Understand the True Nature of Story Conflict?

Where many authors go wrong with their conflict is simply in failing to understand what story conflict really is.

Is story conflict…

  • A protagonist and an antagonist on opposite sides of a war?
  • Two characters arguing?
  • Two characters duking it out?
  • Two characters nuking it out?
  • An evil antagonist making your protagonist’s life miserable?
  • An evil antagonist giving your protagonist an opportunity to look awesome?
  • Good stomping all over evil on its way to ultimate triumph?

Short answer: no.

All of these are often manifested aspects of story conflict. But they are not, in themselves, conflict.

What this means, of course, is that you can create all of the above in your story and still not have a story. Without organic conflict, the above elements will only ever be flimsy window dressing.

Powerful Story Conflict in 2 Steps

Conflict-as-plot is about much more than simply characters who nominally oppose one another. Fundamentally, conflict is about two things:

1. Goal.

2. Obstacle.

Your protagonist and your antagonist each want something, and they’re each getting in each other’s way. As a result, they must each keep readjusting their tactics in an attempt to outmaneuver the other. (Find how more about how the antagonist’s goal powers the conflict in this recent post.)

This is what drives your story conflict on the macro level of your entire plot, and it does that by, first, powering your story in a seamless line of cause and effect throughout every single scene. Remember scene structure?

Proper scene structure looks like this:

Scene (Action)

1. Goal (Character wants a smaller something that will help him gain his overall story goal.)

2. Conflict (Obstacle prevents character from gaining his goal.)

3. Disaster (The obstruction leads to a whole new set of problems.)

Sequel (Reaction)

1. Reaction (Character must reflect on his new setback.)

2. Dilemma (Character must face the new set of problems created by the disaster.)

3. Decision (Character comes up with a plan for a new scene goal to help him gain his overall story goal.)

When all your scenes are focused on a specific mini-goal designed to help your character gain his overall story goal–and that goal is then met with a specific obstacle related to or empowered by the antagonist in some way–then your story conflict will never stagnate. It will be organic and powerful. Your characters will never need to spend their time pacing the room and thinking about the conflict, because they will always be driving it forward.

How to Write Your Story Conflict That Isn’t Really Conflict

Here’s the problem. Too many authors write story conflict that isn’t conflict so much as a delaying tactic to fill up their books until they can actually get around to the Climax. The characters have to do something, right? And if they meet up with the antagonist too soon–and defeat him–well, then, the story is over right then and there, isn’t it?

So what can you do to fill all those intervening chapters? Maybe something like this…

Brunhilde walked down the hall at Ft. Nibelung, headed for her third briefing of the day.

The elevator pinged, and Colonel Wagner stepped out and hailed her. “Terrible about what Admiral Walkure is cooking up out there in the Rheingold Wastes, isn’t it?”

Brunhilde clutched her files closer to her chest. “Terrible. And to think he was my step-father.”

“What did you learn in this morning’s meeting?”

“The hover-carriers are getting closer every day.”

“What does General Sieglinde want us to do about it?”

“Just wait for now. What else can we do?”

The colonel’s face tightened. “True. But war is coming, make no doubt.”

Sounds kinda tense, right? It’s true there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scene–as long as Brunhilde and the colonel enter that briefing room and receive orders to immediately charge out there to sabotage the admiral’s fearsome hover-carrier by midnight tonight.

But what if the briefing drones on, telling readers more about the evil admiral and his evil plans? What if, after the briefing, Bundhilde heads off to the lunch room, where she and her aide Siegfried pull long faces and mourn the news of the admiral’s atrocities? What if they then head down to the training room to hone their already long-honed skills so they’ll be ready when the admiral finally attacks?

Bored yet? I’m bored just writing that severely condensed paragraph. There’s no story conflict there. There’s just characters talking about the potential for conflict.

Whatever that is, it ain’t plot.

How to Electrify Readers With Powerful Story Conflict

Now picture this. What if, instead of rambling around Ft. Nibelung, mulling on the awfulness of having an evil admiral for a stepfather, Brunhilde, Colonel Wagner, and Siegfried get their acts together and decide on a plan of action?

If ending the war is their main story goal, then every single scene goal should be related to that goal in some way. What can Brunhilde want in this scene that will be the first step toward defeating the admiral and accomplishing her story goal? What obstacle will prevent her from easily or entirely gaining that goal? What new goal will that inspire? Every scene should lead her–hard-fought step by hard-fought step–closer to her ultimate goal of taking down Step-Daddy.

Consider:

Brunhilde stalked down the hall at Ft. Nibelung, headed for her third briefing of the day.

The elevator pinged, and Colonel Wagner stepped out and hailed her. “Terrible about what Admiral Walkure is cooking up out there in the Rheingold Wastes, isn’t it?”

Brunhilde clutched her files closer to her chest. “Nobody’s doing anything about it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say our good General Sieglinde is taking orders from the admiral.”

The colonel grabbed her arm and stopped her. “What did you learn in this morning’s meeting?”

“The hover-carriers are getting closer every day.”

“What does the general want us to do about it?”

“Just wait for now. What else can we do?”

The colonel’s face tightened. “What if I told you I’m looking for volunteers for a top-secret mission?”

An emotion somewhere between fear and hope sprang up in Brunhilde’s chest. “Well, sir–then I’d tell you, you just found your first volunteer.”

Can you spot the single greatest difference between the two versions of this scene?

This is it in a nutshell: the second example moves the plot. The characters are in a totally different place at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. Contrast that to the first example. What changed there? Say it with me: nada.

4 Questions to Refine Your Story Conflict

Here’s a challenge for you: go through your latest story, scene by scene and ask yourself the following questions.

1. Can you identify your character’s scene-specific goal in each scene?

2. Does that goal tie into the overall story goal?

3. Is that goal met by conflict that will inspire a new goal in the next scene?

4. Does the nature your story change in each scene?

If you find a scene in which the characters and the conflict are both in essentially the same place at the end as they were at the beginning, then it’s a pretty sure bet you’re looking at some stagnant story conflict. Root it out ruthlessly by creating dynamic conflict–and readers will stay glued to the page.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How does the story conflict in your latest scene change the story? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Way to make a scene!

    Good stuff here. I love this matter of story conflict and breaking it down scene by scene. I think something finally clicked in my brain this time reading about scene structure. I don’t remember this, but are the action and reaction part of the same scene or separate?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, so you have the overall Scene (what I call capital “S” Scene), which is broken down into the two halves: scene and sequel. (The terminology originates with Dwight V. Swain and is admittedly a little confusing.)

  2. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    What this seems like to me is a lack of depth and valid content. I understand the post completely, but it boggles my mind in a sense because I have a hard time personally relating to the problem. I encounter the opposite oftentimes : too much!

    At any rate, this goes hand in hand with a lot of your recent content, Katie. An example would be your post on plotting the antagonist. That would help this problem immensely right off the bat.

    Awesome as always, thanks 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think this is very true: stagnant/nonexistent conflict is almost always a side effect of poor plotting from the get-go. If the author doesn’t know what he’s writing about–and is trying to figure it out as he goes–this sort of boring filler is almost inevitably the result. That’s not *necessarily* a problem, as long as the author then weeds out the junk in the editing once he’s figured out where the story needs to go.

  3. Another wonderful and amazingly helpful post! Thank you, Katie!

  4. Thanks for this post. I take your point about making scenes *mean* something in terms of the overall plot and that the characters have to have changed somehow by the time the scene is over. With action thrillers (one of which I’m writing at the moment) there is a danger that scenes just become more action, without any apparent effect on the characters or the forward motion of the plot. So thanks for the timely reminder!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really good observation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that since something is *happening* in a scene, the plot is necessarily moving. But even the most action-packed of scenes can quickly turn into Groundhog Day.

  5. One of the only places I know that I can get a blend of James Cagney (slip ’em a mickey) and Wagner in one post.

    Have really been helped in recent posts, this one is no exception. I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why would this particular antagonist be against the protag? In the ordinary world, he wouldn’t even acknowledge him.’ But by breaking it down, as you suggest, the protag becomes seen as nothing more than a minor hindrance to the antag’s larger goal. And the current scene ups the stakes for the Jr Asst. antag assigned to deal with the hindrance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! I love it when story pieces all just start fitting into place. Love it almost as much as Die Walkure and Angels With Dirty Faces. 😉

  6. “If … the characters and the conflict are both in essentially the same place at the end as they were at the beginning, then it’s a pretty sure bet you’re looking at some stagnant story conflict…”
    Wise advice.
    You’ll make me reread each chapter to ensure my characters and situation have changed–improved or worsened, but never static.
    Thanks, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Mission accomplish. 😉 Honestly, as time intensive as that approach is, it’s the *only* way to make sure stagnant conflict isn’t slipping by you. It’s amazing how easy it is for an author to lose objectivity on whether or not scenes are really moving the plot.

  7. Thanks for a great post. I’ve read this kind of information before, but this time it was much clearer. You explained it in a way that made it “click” for me, without it being too complicated. Thanks again!

  8. Katie, thank you for the scene-goal for each chapter. That helps a lot, and gives me a better overall vision for my novel. 🙂 Several years ago, it wasn’t this adrenaline-heavy in each chapter, but with the race of techno, I guess our novels have to book it in each chapter. Ok. I can do that. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The important difference to understand about scenes and chapters is that chapter divisions can be arbitrary; scene divisions cannot.

      Chapter breaks are really just about breaking up the book at opportune moments to create a well-timed reading experience for readers.

      Scenes are about structure. For a scene to work, it must possess all of the parts talked about above in the article, to one degree or another. But you could stick in a chapter break at any moment. Personally, I find I often prefer to break my chapters right in the middle of the scene (after the disaster – which makes for a good chapter ending), then open the next chapter with the sequel/reaction and end it in the middle of the next scene.

  9. o_O Got even more to think about now . . . I’m pretty sure every time I read an article, my book goes in for close scrutiny and/or surgery. 🙂
    (I actually haven’t been recieving notifications on your replies either . . . :/)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for the heads up about the replies! Now that I know the problem isn’t isolated to one person, I’ll let the tech guys know and hopefully they’ll be able to sort it out.

  10. Oh Katie, you’re doing it on purpose? hitting exactely where I need to fix things. In the scene I’m working on at the moment the protagonist and his “impact character” are just chilling and bonding. While this was my intention there was something lacking; conflict.

    Oh and by the way; I think you forgot to include a fafnir n the example 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Let me note that it’s *fine* to have downtime scenes. These are the sequel half of the overall Scene. They’re not about conflict, but they always need to be about *tension,” which is, of course, the threat of conflict. Sequels are about characters reflecting on what just happened and figuring out what to do next.

  11. Max Woldhek says:

    “Looks through first and second books.” Hmm, I “think” I already have this covered to a degree, at least, but I’ll be extra-careful just in case during my next edit. Always nice to find writing advice one has partially grasped already; makes one feel less incompetent. The Goblin of Discouragement is being particularly persistent at the moment, and I’m having trouble elbowing him in the face. 😀

  12. A.P. Lambert says:

    I know I’ve been guilty of this mistake myself. It feels like things are progressing in the story even though nothing has actually changed and little has happened besides characters expressing their opinions. It’s like the way we get the emotional benefit of having accomplished something (like writing) just by talking about it. But talking sure ain’t doing.

    In my current story, I’m working to cut out a lot of long talking scenes where nothing much is going on-the “in between” stuff. For me, it helps to remember that while there may be parts in the story where waiting is necessary and time passes, it doesn’t have to have a scene dedicated to it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your example of how we, in real life, get emotional fulfillment out of talking instead of doing is spot on. In essence, that’s exactly what our characters are doing in scenes like this.

  13. I am so excited! You have talked about moving the plot forward in each scene by cause and effect linked in with the goals of the characters, but I really didn’t KNOW how to do it or where to start. This made it so clear and concise.
    I think this is why I felt a need to change the beginning of my book. It was slow. Nothing happened. And when something DID happen, it created hundreds of plot holes.
    I can now go back and see where I can improve a scene and more importantly: write them correctly.
    In the beginning you said, “Too many authors write story conflict that isn’t conflict so much as a delaying tactic to fill up their books until they can actually get around to the Climax.” This made me feel a little better since I’m more focused on what happens between the beginning and the climax. I almost felt guilty before for not trying to figure out WHAT was going to go down. I see now that I want to first establish my characters’ goals before I get into how they’re going to overcome the main obstacle.
    So Thank You So Much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great to hear the article was useful! And, yes, once you know your characters’ goals, you’ll know where they’re going to end up, which means you basically know the story’s end–which means you can start implementing a plan of action for how to get there.

  14. Mark Sandel says:

    Brilliant post, thanks!

  15. Thanks for all these insights on the fiction writing process. I’m doing the final rewrite on my novel so this will help a lot. 🙂

  16. Thank for your advice, it’s making me rethink my scenes. I’ll keep the 4 points close to my laptop, to keep the conflict moving. I’m learning more about writing since I started the editing process.

  17. Sometimes, the characters don’t even have to be in the same room to create conflict. In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Khan are not even in the same room for the entire movie. The only time they talk to each other is over a video screen. Yet, the conflict is real.

  18. I am a little confused about scene goal and overall goal. My protag starts by rejecting what she needs to do to achieve story goal until about midpoint and then after hearing something realises she can’t run away from it but needs to discover the truth. Is this ok? Also this means each scene goal until midpoint is her trying to avoid the conflict and close her eyes to it. Is this ok also?

  19. Thank you so much Katie for your helpful reply. This is where I am struggling a little. Basically the protag was kidnapped as a child and has no memory of what happened. Her goal in the first half of the book (well up to the first pinch point) is to maintain her routine and new life she has made for herself because she believes this will keep her safe and secure (the lie) in her bubble but conflict keeps arising making it hard for her to ignore but she keeps trying. Once new info comes to light she realises the truth which is that she will never be fully safe and secure until she knows the truth. The only problem I have is trying to find scene goals up to the first pinch point that move her forward but without her realising it. I am doing this by creating conflict. Does this sound OK and what kind of early scene goals can i use to move the story forward. I was thinking of having another child taken perhaps and she wants to help etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My first instinct on this (which could be totally wrong, since I, obviously, know very little about the story and how you’re setting it up) is that you’ve started too early. It sounds to me like perhaps the Midpoint would be better positioned as the First Plot Point. Just something to think about.

  20. “But what if the briefing drones on, telling readers more about the evil admiral and his evil plans? What if, after the briefing, Bundhilde heads off to the lunch room, where she and her aide Siegfried pull long faces and mourn the news of the admiral’s atrocities? What if they then head down to the training room to hone their already long-honed skills so they’ll be ready when the admiral finally attacks? ”

    Even worse, what if the evil admiral drones on and on about his evil plans? That sounds like a James Bond movie. The villain goes on and about his plans. Brings the movie to a dead stop. The movie The Incredibles called this “monologuing.” There was a great scene where Syndrome, the villain, starts monologuing, and Mr Incredible picks up a log and throws it at him. Syndrome stops him and says, “You sly dog! You caught me monologuing!” That’s the only way around that.

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