Monday, April 5, 2010

Scene Structure Part IX – Conflict

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.


railtracks (Me talking about) Conflict is inevitable. Conflict is what drives stories. Conflict is especially important in scenes. If my last post described how to make scenes boring, this post describes how to make them exciting. Let’s start with a definition.

Conflict is when a character is faced with multiple choices and desires a particular outcome.

For example:

The black train rumbled down the track, smoke billowing from the stack. A toot blasted from its horn.

Okay, can you spot the conflict? No? Good. There isn’t any. You might wonder why it tooted, but all trains toot four times before crossing a road, so it could be anything.

Compare to:

The black train rumbled down the track, smoke billowing from the stack. A toot blasted from its horn. Susan pulled on her foot, hopelessly stuck in the switch point where the track split.

Now then, we have sense of conflict. We see a character who wants to get out of the way of the train. She has choices here. She can let the train hit her and kill her, she can lay down and maybe only lose the foot, or keep working on the problem.

Conflict occurs when a character’s needs are not immediately met.

Now how does this apply to scenes?

Every scene must contain conflict. Otherwise it’s just a description of a train running down the track. Not only that, but to keep readers involved in the story, every page should contain conflict. You heard me. Every page.

I read a lot of first pages in the recent First Page Blogfest. Most were brilliantly written, but the ones I enjoyed the best contained conflict from the very first sentence. The ones with no conflict made me think, “who cares? There’s nothing at stake here.”

Conflict Goals

  • Establish the Stakes. In the first example, what were the stakes? None. The first paragraph or two of every scene must establish the stakes of that particular scene. Then it becomes easier to throw in some nice scenery, a little backstory, and some other notes of importance, but don’t get away from the conflict of the scene for more than a paragraph or two. The stakes may change as the scene progresses, generally increasing.
  • Make the Conflict Matter. I have a whole post on this topic, but to summarize here, it’s much better in the long run if the character doesn’t achieve their primary goal in a scene. In the example above, a character dealing with the consequences of a severed foot are much more intriguing than if she escaped scot-free. But if she does escape, it must come at a cost. Otherwise, the train’s just a scary bit that doesn’t matter in the long run.
  • Provide an Antagonist. Perhaps there’s someone standing there, watching Susan’s predicament, unwilling to help until she gives him the information that might lead to a loved one’s death. Characters with conflicting goals are the spice of literature. It’s not a requirement, but it does intensify the conflict if there are characters in opposition in every scene.
  • Inner Vs Outer Conflict. Good scenes have both. Outer Conflict can be defined as a character’s goal facing external obstacles, whereas Inner Conflict can be defined as a character dealing with conflicting goals, where achieving one goal would prevent achieving the other. Susan wants to live, but she also wants self-respect, which she would lose if she acquiesced to the Antagonist’s demands.

Conflict Non-Goals

  • Don’t Keep it Level. Conflict must ebb and flow, reflecting the level of stakes involved. If someone is running late for a date, don’t make him run over pedestrians like a fleeing bank robber. Then again, your fleeing robber shouldn’t wait for the crosswalk to clear. Don’t create conflict for the sake of creating conflict, it must be meaningful and appropriate. Consider crossing the guy running late for a date with the fleeing bank robber… ;)
  • Don’t Leave Conflict Unresolved. Stories must progress. Create an outcome in your scene…hopefully a bad outcome which leads to greater conflict. It’s fine for an overarching goal to remain unresolved, but focus on what this particular scene is trying to achieve. You can only run late for a date for so long.
  • Characters Resolve Conflict. Not magic fairies or the Lottery. The main character of a scene (and only that character) acts to resolve the conflict. Other characters might act to increase or prolong the conflict. The train won’t miraculously jump the track or stop just in time. The man’s date won’t call and say she’s running late and he needn’t hurry. The bank robber won’t have the cops decide he’s not worth pursuing and he can keep the money. These people are in serious predicaments, and the world will not change to accommodate them.

How have you ensured that you have conflict in every scene? Or page?


  1. Interesting discussion.

    A few notes:
    Comedy can result when you break the rules you outline in goals and non-goals. Ideally, an author does this deliberately. Having your late date guy driving like a bank robber leads to humor through the tipping of the effort-to-stakes scale. Deflating a character's efforts to resolve a conflict with an external resolution can also be used (his date calls with apologies after he has raced across the city like a mad man.)

    Also, conflict can be set-up for the protagonists in scenes that do not involve them. Creating fear that a character is going to be unable to achieve their overall goal also drives reader interest. This is why scenes with the villains plotting their plans to foil the heroes exist. But, as with the "conflict per page" rule, getting in quick and then back out is a smart plan.

  2. I am going to have to go back and read all the entries for this! You are really detailed and thorough! I run a Writer's Academy and I think I might need to take a page from you here and get more thorough with the lessons! Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. @Todd: Good stuff there. My point was that he should be in a hurry, but he probably would not drive on sidewalks and jump curbs, because that impacts believability. But yes, conflict can be taken to extremes for comedic effect. And in the case where the date calls, that's not the resolution. He arrives, and she's not there. That's the resolution...then there's a twist...she's not there because she's running late. Check out my post on "Reversal" in this series, but you definitely hit the nail on the head with that one. If he finds out she's running late after all his effort, that's a perfect reversal and ties up the scene nicely.

    @Harley: Thanks! I'm here to help.

  4. @Todd: Forgot to address your 2nd para. In a scene where the Villain is the POV character, he then becomes the Protagonist, and the conflict must involve the difficulty he has achieving his incompetent henchmen and those poorly made Acme products. Or how to get rid of that stupid Hero.

  5. This is a great post. I love conflict. That's what it's all about. It's what keeps readers turning pages - not just the conflict in the entire novel - the tension on every page. If the reader wants to know what will happen in the next paragraph, not just the next chapter, you've scored!

  6. You mean winning the lottery won't resolve my crisis? Darn, and I had such hopes. No faeries either. You know, you take all the fun out of my delusitons.

    Come check out the new post on my blog {I think you may enjoy it}

    Your post was truly helpful and well-put together. {Once in a galaxy not too far away, I was a creative writing teacher in high school -- some of my former students have finally gotten proper treatment and are out of the asylum}

    Have a great week, Roland

  7. Where can I can an aviator cap with goggles like yours? You are my hero.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. And even more thanks for the critique. Adverbs stalk me. Honest. I have to use them or they sing "99 bottles of beer on the wall" until I do. Don't believe me? Didn't think so.

    It was worth a try. Have a happy tomorrow. Roland

  8. I should never write when I'm exhausted. Sorry about the "can" repeat instead of using "get" in the previous post. Fatique is hazardous to clarity. Roland

  9. Another fabulous post. I like the way you break down the different forms of conflict.

  10. I always learn something every time I visit your blog. Thanks. Have a great day!


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