by Becca Puglisi
“Conflict in Every Scene”
We’ve all heard this advice, and for good reason. Your protagonist has a goal—hopefully, an audacious and high-stakes goal that is difficult to achieve. “Difficult” is important. It’s one of the qualities of a highly engaging story because the harder the goal is to reach, the less certainty readers have that the protagonist will be ok. They’ll find themselves wondering: Will the hero win in the end? Can they overcome the odds? Will they be able to make the necessary internal growth for them to succeed?
To maintain this level of reader empathy and engagement, the conflict has to come hard and fast. There needs to be hardship in every single scene. Some of that strife will relate directly back to the story goal. This will be in the form of obstacles, adversaries, setbacks, and disappointments that push the character farther from their objective.
But not every conflict has to do with the overall goal. Some of it relates to an important subplot that’s impacting a key story player. And then you have inner conflict. This conflict exists solely within the character as they struggle with various aspects of personal evolution and internal growth.
As you’re drafting — as the story progresses and the protagonist’s difficulties compound — there’s always a risk of the central conflict getting muted or lost in the noise.
Too much conflict, or certain problems getting a disproportionate chunk of airtime, can lead to pacing issues and confused readers who aren’t sure what the character is working toward. Keeping the core plot and central conflict should be your main focus. That’s the best way to ensure that everything you add to the story is leading to that eventual climax.
How do we do that exactly?
KNOW YOUR STORY’S CENTRAL CONFLICT
The first step is to identify the main conflict for your story. A good place to start is with the six common literary forms of conflict:
- Character vs. Character: In this scenario, the protagonist goes head-to-head with another character in a battle of wills. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Die Hard, The Princess Bride)
- Character vs. Society: These stories feature a character who faces seemingly insurmountable challenges when taking on society or a powerful agency within their world. (The Hunger Games, Schindler’s List, Erin Brockovich)
- Character vs. Nature: In this case, the character goes up against nature. (The Perfect Storm, Wild, The Revenant)
- Character vs. Technology: This conflict will pit a character against technology or a machine. (The Terminator, The Matrix, WarGames)
- Character vs. Supernatural: This form of conflict involves a character facing opposition that exists (at least partially) outside their understanding. ( Sleep, Ghost Rider, Percy Jackson and the Olympians)
- Character vs. Self: Of all the conflict forms, this is the most personal (and often the most compelling) because the friction arises from within the character’s belief system or personal identity. (The Bourne Identity, Dexter, A Beautiful Mind)
Which of the six central conflicts is your story built around? Identifying it will help you keep it front-of-mind and in the spotlight. This knowledge can also help you choose the right conflict scenarios—the problems and friction-inducing situations that will test your character’s commitment, reveal characterization, and force them to reflect on how to become stronger so they can achieve their goal.
Once you’ve zeroed in on the main conflict for your story, you can keep an eagle eye on the other hardships that, if you’re not careful, can become larger-than-life and overpower your main plotline.
CHARACTER ARC CONFLICT
When a character resolves their main internal struggle, their heart and mind become aligned, which is usually necessary for them to achieve their goal. It’s no surprise then that inner conflict tied to the character’s arc will be prominent. However, just because it’s crucial to your story doesn’t mean internal tug-of-wars should overwhelm everything else, including your plot.
In this case, balancing internal and external conflict is all about proportion: including enough internal struggle to show the character’s gradual journey toward change without bogging down the external plot and related conflict. This is handled quite well in the first book of the Harry Potter series.
As Rowling introduces readers to Harry and his world in the opening pages, she focuses largely on external conflict: the Dursleys belittle Harry, lock him in a cupboard, withhold his mail, and motor him off to an isolated island to keep him from getting his Hogwarts letter. Then Hagrid appears and turns his world upside down.
Inner vs External Conflict
Here’s where we see the first real internal conflict from Harry. It’s fitting, because one thing he’s learned from living with the Dursleys is to keep his head down and avoid attention. So he rolls with the punches, taking whatever’s thrown at him. But Harry learns that he’s a powerful non-Muggle who defeated the most formidable wizard that ever lived. He’s shell-shocked and struggles to fit this new information into what he’s always believed to be true.
This pattern of blending external and internal conflict continues throughout the book, with Harry’s moments of personal struggle coming intermittently. And this is the right balance, considering Harry’s story. While he does experience some internal changes in book one, they’re secondary to the story goal: beating Voldemort. Achieving that objective is not only vital for book one but also sets up the central conflict for the rest of the series. A lot of external conflict is required to prepare Harry to keep Voldemort from acquiring the sorcerer’s stone and coming back to power, so that’s what Rowling gives us.
For stories with less action, you may have to experiment to find the right balance between internal and external conflict. Some characters may have more internal hurdles than others, and of course, if your story has a character vs. self plotline, the internal struggle is the core story, so it will require more focus. In A Beautiful Mind, for instance, John Nash’s battle is with his mental illness, so a lot of airtime is given to him fighting his schizophrenia and the personalities it conjures.
NON-CENTRAL CONFLICT: SUBPLOTS
While a good portion of conflict happens in the main plotline, subplots will contain their own obstacles and challenges—many of which will also take a good portion of the story to resolve. It takes some effort to keep them from shoving their way to the forefront and taking over.
For an example of how to maintain the proper proportion, let’s continue with our Harry Potter theme. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the main plot and conflict are as follows:
Story Goal: Keep Voldemort from finding the stone and returning to power
Central Conflict: Harry vs. Voldemort (character vs. character)
And while there are many subplots, here are a few of the more obvious ones:
#1 Subplot : Harry, Ron, and Hermione becoming friends
#2 Subplot : Harry’s growing adversarial relationship with Malfoy
#3 Subplot : Snape as an antagonist for Harry
Each subplot should have its own story arc, and while it will be simpler and shorter than a main plotline, it will have a clear beginning, middle, and end with its own ups and downs. Each one should also push the story forward and, in some way, influence the main plot.
Each Subplot Must Influence the Central Conflict
For instance, Harry’s friendship with Ron and Hermione is key to him defeating Voldemort in the first book. In the climax alone, Hermione’s knowledge about Devil’s Snare and Ron’s experience and self-sacrifice in the game of Wizard’s Chess make it possible for Harry to get to that final confrontation. So while it’s great for Harry to have friends, this subplot is integral to him achieving his main goal (while also providing valuable opportunities for characterization).
The Malfoy subplot is important because Voldemort doesn’t make a physical appearance until the third act, so Malfoy acts as a stand-in, providing a physical antagonist for Harry to battle. He also plays a part in many scene-level conflict scenarios that draw Harry closer to fulfilling the overall goal.
The third subplot, though, is the most interesting—as anything to do with Snape tends to be. Like Malfoy, Snape is a sparring partner for Harry. And the scenes with Snape often involve the race for the sorcerer’s stone, so they support the main plotline, as required. The fascinating thing about this subplot is that we realize at the end of the book that most of those scenes with Snape involved red herrings, meant to throw Harry and the readers off. And as any true fan knows, Snape as a red herring is an ongoing theme. So not only does his subplot contribute to the first book’s storyline, it also is foundational to the series as a whole.
Subplots with “Wow” factor
The conflicts in these subplots have a lot of wow factor, and they could have easily run away with the story. But they didn’t because they were built to do only what they needed to do: provide Harry and his friends with the knowledge and experience they needed to face bigger battles. As a result, his fight to prevent Voldemort from returning to power remained center stage.
In conclusion, balancing the various conflicts in your story — especially the ongoing ones — can be a bit of a juggling act. But maintaining the right proportion is important.
These tips should help you keep the main conflict where it needs to be: smack in the center stage of your story.
Want your conflict to go further?
Check out The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2). It explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character into conflict. They must navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more!
by Becca Puglisi (@BeccaPuglisi) September 11, 2022
What about you, scriveners? Do you know the central conflict of your WIP? Does a subplot tend to take you off on a dark road away from the central conflict?
About Becca Puglisi
Becca is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages. They are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. S
he is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers — a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.
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