Scene conflict is what keeps your story running, chapter after chapter, page after page. Conflict is the heart of each scene, and each of those scenes is one of the dozens of tiny engines keeping your plot moving forward—and your readers glued to the page.
It’s helpful to think of scene conflict as not so much an altercation, but rather an obstacle. It’s something that gets in the way of your protagonist’s scene goal and either full-on prevents him from gaining that goal or pushes him sideways to create consequences. (All of which, of course, prompts another scene goal for the scene after that and the scene after that and the scene after that.)
That’s the essence of scene structure, and the essence of a good scene.
But it’s not enough.
To create truly compelling scenes that defy your readers’ expectations in all the right ways, you’ve got to take it up yet another notch by creating not just scene conflict, but complicated scene conflict.
What Successful Scene Conflict Complications Look Like
In order for your scene structure to work properly, the scene conflict must arise directly from the character’s scene goal to create an organic outcome. Goal, conflict, and outcome must be all be related.
The good news is this will help you create a beautiful sense of unity and cohesion within each scene.
The bad news is it can also result in predictable scene conflict.
Readers instinctively understand the character’s goal is what sets the stage for the conflict to come—which means, they will usually have a pretty good sense of what obstacles might arise to create any given scene’s conflict. While this isn’t always a negative, it does mean, at the least, that you have a fabulous opportunity for upping the stakes, pulling some plot twists, and surprising readers in all the best ways.
Consider, Anthony Ryan’s fantasy Blood Song, about a young boy who is apprenticed to a Templar-like order of religious warriors. In an early scene, he is sent out on a routine survival test, in which he is dropped off in the woods and forced to make his own way home.
In itself, this scenario presents conflict enough. The character’s goal is to get back home. The obstacle/conflict is the rigors of the wilderness, which might slow him down or even kill him at any point. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
But Ryan did an excellent job of notching everything up. Instead of settling for his scene’s acceptable but predictable course, he added the unforeseen and decidedly more interesting complication of having previously-unknown assassins hunt his young protagonist for mysterious reasons.
Not only was his scene conflict complicated in an entertaining way, this new scenario neatly turned the plot and deepened the story’s subtextual undercurrents.
5 Steps to Help You Complicate Your Scene Conflict
Consider some of your recent scenes.
1. First off, make sure they do indeed possess scene conflict, and that this conflict is a logical and consistent obstruction of your character’s scene goal.
2. Take a step back and think about the progression of this conflict. Is it exactly what readers would expect to obstruct your characters’ goal? Is it the most likely and obvious obstruction?
3. If so, how can you change things up? Think about whether you can switch out the current conflict/obstacle entirely, in favor of something more original. Then ask yourself if you can add yet another unexpected element.
4. Make sure the complications are not random. They can’t be just more conflict for the sake of more conflict. They must be paid off at some point in your story, whether immediately or many chapters down the road.
5. You also don’t want to add so many complications you create chaos within your story. Creating a scene in which complexity and simplicity can live side by side requires attention and skill.
When you pull it off, you’ll delight readers and pull them ever deeper into the spell of your story.