Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 4: Options for Conflict in a Scene

Once you’ve established your character’s scene* goal, the fun begins in earnest! Conflict is what story is all about. Without it, the character would achieve his goal in minutes, all the loose ends would instantly be tied off with a pretty red bow, and the story would be happily ever over. That may be nice for the folks in your story, but it’s going to bore readers into rigor mortis.

Enter the opposition, stage left.

Here’s your character, merrily skipping along toward his goal of contributing to the annual Christmas Children’s Charity, when bammo! bandits swarm the road, block off access to the goal, and demand the character hand over all his money. Ta-da! Instantly, your scene becomes more interesting. Readers are breathless to discover if your character will escape the bandits and deliver his charity donation to the poor little orphans.

Conflict keeps your story moving forward. We say “no conflict, no story” because without conflict, the story comes to an end. When the character’s initial goal is stymied by conflict, it causes him to react with a new goal, which is stymied by further conflict, which causes him to again modify his goal—and on and on, until finally he reaches the goal and the story ends.

Surprisingly, authors sometimes experience difficulties in injecting enough conflict into their stories. Their characters mosey through life, getting along with everyone and doing nothing of great importance. Or, if they do have an altercation with someone or accomplish something important, the ramifications are resolved so quickly and seamlessly, that they end up being neither crucial nor entertaining.

Don’t be afraid of socking it to your characters. Without conflict and its associated suffering, characters have no reason to exist. Analyze your scenes to ensure each one erects obstacles between your character and his goal.

Options for Scene Conflict

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryLike scene goals, scene conflict offers endless possibilities. Conflict can come in a variety of flavors, but most can be sorted into the following categories:

1. Direct opposition (another character, weather, etc., which interferes and prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal).

2. Inner opposition (the character learns something that changes his mind about his goal).

3. Circumstantial difficulties (no flour to bake a cake, no partners to dance with, etc.).

4. Active conflict (argument, fight, etc.).

5. Passive conflict (being ignored, being kept in the dark, being avoided, etc.).

These generalities can include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

1. Physical altercation.

2. Verbal altercation.

3. Physical obstacle (weather, roadblock, personal injury, etc.).

4. Mental obstacle (fear, amnesia, etc.).

5. Physical lack (no flour to bake a cake).

6. Mental lack (no information).

7. Passive aggression (intentional or unintentional).

8. Indirect interference (long-distance or unintentional opposition by another character).

Is Your Conflict Integral?

As if we don’t have enough to keep us busy just in dreaming up a good altercation, we also have to limit our conflict to only what is integral to each specific scene. In the words of Dwight V. Swain, “conflict for conflict’s sake” isn’t good enough.

If the charitable character in our original illustration loses his donation money to bandits, that’s probably a good conflict. It directly interferes with his goal of giving the money to the orphans. But if the bandits never show up again in the story—if they appeared solely for the sake of stealing the money—they’re not going to represent integral conflict.

Even worse is when the conflict has nothing to do with the goal. If Allie is walking down the street, intent on getting to her hair appointment before her debut performance on Broadway, a random argument about the worth and importance of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade just ain’t gonna cut it.

Instead, we have to ensure each scene’s conflict is a direct result of an earlier occurrence in the plot (maybe our protagonist infuriated the bandit leader by throwing a snowball in his face) and a direct obstacle between the protagonist and his goal (maybe the Macy’s parade is preventing Allie from reaching her hair appointment).

Questions to Ask About Your Scene Conflict

Once you’ve identified your scene’s conflict, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the opposition to the character’s goal matter to him? (If not, he doesn’t want the goal badly enough in the first place.)

2. Does the conflict organically evolve from the goal?

3. Is the opposition’s motivation logical within the overall story?

4. Does the conflict lead to a logical outcome (resolution or disaster)?

5. Does the conflict directly interfere with or threaten the protagonist’s goal?

Scene Conflict in Action

How does effective scene conflict manifest in successful stories? Let’s take another look at our chosen books and movies:

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: In the first chapter, Mrs. Bennet’s goal is to get her husband to call upon Mr. Bingley, so their daughters may later be introduced to this eligible young man. Her goal is impeded by Mr. Bennet’s passive resistance to her nagging. The conflict takes the form of a verbal altercation. Even though it’s not an outright argument, and
certainly isn’t violent or even aggressive, it still offers conflict simply because the two characters are obviously at odds. If Mr. Bennet were to immediately give in to Mrs. Bennet’s desires (“Why, certainly, blossom, I’d be overjoyed to visit Mr. Bingley since you’re so keen on it!”), the scene would be instantly (and yawn-inducingly) over.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The opening scene’s conflict comes in the form of the angel Clarence’s incompetence. The goal of Joseph, his superior angel, is to send Clarence down to earth to save George Bailey. But not only is Clarence late and worrisome in his ineptitude, he’s also unable to see Joseph’s narration of George’s past. This is a very
minor conflict (and one that’s overcome, at least partially, with ease, since all Joseph has to do is help Clarence see the past), but it serves not only to spice up the scene, but also to demonstrate key facets of Clarence’s character.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: In the first chapter, Ender’s goal is simple enough: he just wants to get to the school bus and go home. But conflict immediately arises in the form of Stilson and other bullies who try to impede Ender’s progress. The conflict arises naturally from the characters and from the plot, since the bullies are taunting Ender about the loss of his monitor. But it goes far beyond conflict for conflict’s sake. This first altercation not only aptly demonstrates important character qualities within the protagonist, it also leads into a disaster that will figure prominently throughout the book—and ultimately foreshadow the climax.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: Conflict arises in the first scene when the midshipman Mr. Hollom wavers in his decisiveness about whether or not he’s spotted the enemy ship Acheron. This opening scene is primarily confined to Hollom’s inner conflict, which is illustrated through a terse exchange of words between him and another midshipman. The conflict neatly dramatizes important facets of shipboard life, sets up the overall conflict of Surprise vs. Acheron, and foreshadows Hollom’s character arc.

Conflict is arguably one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts to write in any story. So long as you’ve properly set up the conflict within each scene, your story will chug along, almost under its own power.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Ending Scenes With Disaster.

Tell me your opinion: What is the conflict in your most recent scene? 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. Fantastic post with a lot of depth. This is one of my favorites among the many great ones. I especially like the five questions to ask ourselves about the type of conflict in the scene.

    Have a wonderful New Year!

  2. I’ll be refering back to your options for conflict in the future!

  3. A great example of forced conflict: We’ve been watching season 2 of Lost Girl on disc, and the writers keep contriving reasons for the MC to team up with her ex. It’s awkward because of their history and I think the writers did it to try to raise tension (will they get back together? etc) but the methods are so contrived that all it does is make us roll our eyes and say, “Here we go with that again”. The rest of the show is great so I’m putting up with it for now, but if this happened in a book I’d definitely be skipping around or giving up.

  4. @Martina: Glad you enjoyed it! I always find that having a list of questions to double check ourselves is useful.

  5. @Chihuahua: Thanks for stopping by!

  6. @Anjelica: TV shows often seem especially guilty of this. They need to drag their stories out as long as possible, which often leads to painful contrivances.

  7. Joe wants to move on with his life and forget about the accident, but everywhere he turns, reminders get thrown in his face. Today, his pastor’s sermon was on hidden sins.

  8. Nice subtext!

  9. Thanks! 🙂

  10. In my realistic young adult post apocalypse, believe it or not a lot of it is indirect interference with characters. The environmental conflict cues indirect character interference. Though it could be direct, or rather could view it that way if you the one being stolen from by mauruders.

  11. @Sarah: Weather is always a good source of conflict – as well as a mood and tone setter when used well.

  12. This is a wonderful post! So many useful ideas and suggestions. Thank you!

  13. Thanks again for such an informative post. Nice to have the laundry list of options 😀

  14. I’ve been scouring my draft for non-conflict scenes and eliminating them unless they truly impart info that is absolutely needed for the story to continue. I do think once in a while, people just need to talk, so the reader knows what they’re thinking with regards to their lives within the overall plot. That said, in my most recent scene, my main protagonist wants to save everyone they’ve been hiding with against the odds that it’s just not likely to happen. Being advised of the reality of that, she then makes a hasty vow she must try to live up to in the future.

  15. @Edith: So glad it’s useful to you!

  16. @Rich: I always find lists helpful myself.

  17. @Abby: The all-important “talking” scenes you’re referring to are sequels. We’ll be discussing them in more depth in a couple weeks.

  18. As they are some of my most favorite scenes to write, I look forward to that!

  19. They’re often some of my favorites as well. Lots of good stuff happens in seemingly inconsequential sequels.

  20. These are great (I’m writing them down)! My last scene had my mc trying to repair something within a set amount of time, lest the ship’s rapidly decaying orbit cause it to enter the atmosphere and burn up.

  21. Now, that’s high stakes!

  22. The conflict in the most recent scene I’ve written happens in space, involving a rather unusual use of an RPG. Definitely an active conflict. 😉

  23. Sounds cool!

  24. Is it possible for a conflict to be something that would otherwise be a possitive action but, because it goes against the main characters goal, is considered negative? For example, if the main character’s goal is to distance herself from everyone, but she is pratically ambushed with care and concerne could that be considered the scenes conflict?

    Your website has been a huge help to me as I’m polishing and writing. Thank you so much!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. The “disaster” that ends a scene’s conflict doesn’t have to be quantifiably “bad” in any way. It just has to be an obstruction of what the character *wanted* to have happen.

  25. Could some conflicts be random obstacles the protagonist encounters in life or should every scene conflict be tied with the antagonist? How could this be done if the protagonist and antagonist hardly meet?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All of the obstacles need to reflect upon the main conflict and the character’s main goal in that conflict (even if the actual goal in the scene is *directly* pertinent to a subplot goal). These obstacles don’t have to be directly caused by the antagonist, but there should be a chain of cause and effect: the protagonist moving and the antagonistic force moving in response.

Trackbacks

  1. […] of all, don’t make this easy for your protagonist. That’s conflict. That’s the heart of a story. The more valuable the information, the harder he should have to […]

  2. […] a full discussion of your options for conflict, take a look at this post on K.M. Weiland’s blog. Remember, whatever opposition you set up between your protagonist and the antagonistic forces they […]

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