Fiction is a tough gig. I often liken it to a performer spinning plates while balancing on a chair. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. Warrior Writer is about learning to keep things simple.
So for the sake of simplicity…
Two things drive a story—characters and conflict. Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support these two factors or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly bog down a story in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum.
When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient machine. With that said, how well do you think any machine would work with extra cogs randomly stuck in the mechanism? Cogs and belts and flywheels must have a purpose and work with all the other parts, drive the other parts. If they don’t, it is inevitable the machine either won’t work, or won’t work for very long.
Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc. Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.
Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.
The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down. Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.
All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?” If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s an extra cog.
Bob Mayer teaches an excellent tool for avoiding the doldrums. He calls it the conflict lock technique. Face it. Over the span of four hundred pages, it is easy to get lost. That’s why the conflict lock is such a pivotal part of Bob’s teaching. It helps the writer maintain focus, and the gives the fuel (conflict) that drives the plot. A novel should have one overall conflict, but then every scene that makes up the whole should also possess its own conflict, just on a smaller scale. It’s a tricky skill to learn and requires a lot of practice. I highly recommend getting a copy of Novel Writers Toolkit or signing up for one of Bob’s workshops to really understand this technique in depth.
Well. Pilots. Jenny Crusie taught me every scene had to have conflict. When we wrote Don’t Look Down, entirely by email over 7 months, we finished the first draft. Then I flew to Cincinnati, city of the burning river, and she had all 104 scenes in the book outlines on four white boards (four acts) and labeled every scene: character vs. character. ie every scene had conflict. No conflict= no scene.
You have to have the major conflict of conflict lock for protagonist and antagonist, and then the scene conflict.
Love your posts, as always, Kristen.
I had a misconception of “conflict lock” when I first thought about it, and, just to cut to the chase, it does NOT mean the characters are locked in conflict like a couple of pit buls whose jaws have gotten stuck together such that they can’t really do anything.
It means, in my mind at any rate, that whatever the protagonist is doing is primarily thwarted by what the antagonist is doing AND vice versa. It’s more like a conflict dance than a conflict lock. The way fencing is like dance. The way marriage is like dance. The way a fistfight is like dance.
While it’s easy to say the rule “each scene must have conflict,” not many take the time to break that down into something useful. You have. It’s handy for me as I am organizing my current novel scene by scene. Judging not only the presence of conflict but the level of it is a great standard to use. Thanks for posting this article.
I did the same thing Jenny Crusie did, I labeled each scene on butcher paper and then identified who was in the scene, and the conflict in that scene. It helped.
A writer needs to read each scene very closely, looking for what’s propelling the story forward. If the scene goes nowhere, either add conflict, or delete!
Excellent post as usual. Having been an actor, I learned that everything has to have purpose and conflict is the fuel to all stories. Without it, “crash and burn”.
I like the idea of the conflict dance. Until the climactic scene, when it’s all or nothing.