The Secret to Story Magic

Want to know how to create story magic?

Having trouble at critique group? Something not sitting well with your novel, but you aren’t quite sure what it is? Do you find yourself having to do more explaining than you would like when it comes to this one simple question: So what’s your book about? Want to know the secret to crafting stories a reader cannot put down? Fear not. Whether you are writing a short story, novella, screenplay, or a novel, there is one solid ingredient that can turn any plot into an un-put-down-able masterpiece.

Add this one ingredient (liberally), and you will be shocked how much your writing will improve. It can turn the mundane into magical. What is this super ingredient with such power that would make people turn off the television and send their children to bed early? What is the one pivotal component with the ability to make readers willingly and happily give up their precious sleep?


Conflict Drives the Story

There. I said it. Conflict. Nothing else. Sorry. I love description and narrative and good dialogue, but they do not MAKE a story, and they do not DRIVE the story. Whether the story is character-driven or plot-driven, the fuel is the same…conflict, conflict, conflict!

Three pages describing a tree was great for a century ago. Steinbeck did it well. But today’s readers have a lot more choices when it comes to how they spend their free time. As an author, your work is competing against FaceBook, Twitter, movies, sporting events, the Internet, cable TV, carpools, etc. The modern reader has a far shorter attention span. Agents appreciate this reality, and so should you.

Let’s debunk one common myth (excuse) for breaking the “Conflict drives all stories rule.”

I love it when I hear this, “Oh, but my piece is literary fiction.”

Um…likely not.

And I do believe that a lot of new writers simply do not understand fundamental rules, and thus are lulled into believing their work is the exception. Do exceptions exist? Sure. Are they common? Not really.

One of the most common excuses I hear from new writers is that their work is literary and that is why there is no clear inciting incident or clear antagonist or even a clear goal. So let’s take a minute to clear this up.

Literary Fiction is Driven by Conflict

Most of the time when I hear a new writer announce that his piece is “literary fiction,” that is a short-hand cue for me to expect no structure, lots of similes, metaphors, self-indulgent flashbacks and no overall conflict other than a main character’s really pretentious angst. Most of the time, it smacks of self-therapy thinly guised as a story.

Sorry. Hate to break the news. Therapy is not interesting (unless you are Tony Soprano).

Am I picking on literary fiction? NO! But I do believe that a lot of authors really do not understand what it is.

Literary fiction is more serious and generally harder to pigeon-hole into a particular genre, but conflict still drives the story. In literary fiction, the story is more character-driven than plot-driven, much like movies categorized as “drama.”

This past weekend I watched Steel Magnolias. A fantastic example. There was no murder or explosion or stolen money to kick off the action. There was a wedding. A turn in life that would change all the characters forever, deeply and profoundly.

I repeat. Even literary fiction (drama) must be driven by conflict.

In literary fiction, the conflict is generally for the purpose of driving character arcs. Let’s use Steel Magnolias to elucidate. Movies make for easier examples.

In the very beginning Jackson (the groom) gives the audience the pivotal decision that will affect all six of the women featured in the movie—Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 Diabetes. This is the inciting incident that causes everything to change.

I will go over three of the arcs for the sake of brevity.

Truvy (Friend of Shelby and her Mother M’Lynn)

Beginning—Truvy is estranged from the men in her life (husband and son). No matter how she tries to connect, she only seems to drift farther away from them, a reality that causes her great pain.

Ending—Shelby’s death due to kidney failure gives a sobering wake-up call to Truvy’s husband and son. They are convicted of how they have taken Truvy for granted and the emotional chasm closes.

Shelby (Daughter)

Beginning—Young, carefree, and in many ways very selfish. She is more concerned with the color of her nail polish than the risk she plans to take by getting pregnant against medical advice. Although bubbly and likable, it is clear that not only does she fail to value her mother, but she resents her mother’s efforts to look out for her well-being.

Ending—As Shelby’s arc closes, we see she is more sobered by life’s events and comes to value her mother’s sacrifices (now a mother, herself).

M’Lynn (Mother)

M’Lynn is a very static character who serves to drive the arcs of the others.

Beginning—Her only daughter is getting married. M’Lynn is keeping everything running and is there to fix the broken things (fragile champagne glasses). We see her fussing over the flowers and tending the details as she prepares for a joyous event.

Ending—Her only daughter has died. M’Lynn is keeping everything running, tending the details, fixing the broken things (a grieving husband and two sons who are emotionally crippled by loss [earlier symbolized and foreshadowed by broken champagne glasses]). She is once more fussing over flowers, only now the flowers will adorn a coffin and a grave site. She is the rock of the family, which we will see crack in a highly emotional scene after her daughter is lowered into the ground.

As is clear to see, there is plenty of conflict to drive the story.

For All Stories…

Conflict is the fuel that drives the arcs—character arc, scene arc, and ultimately the plot arc.

If you do not have conflict, you do not have a story. You may have a beautiful scene with lots of pretty metaphors and symbolism, but if there is not an overall problem to be solved, then what you have is dead weight.

In novels (and movies) there is always one large problem to be solved. Each scene is a step toward your protagonist’s problem being resolved. Each scene must have a smaller problem that HAS to be resolved before the hero can continue.

Since we have discussed literary fiction, let’s now look at a plot-driven story.

Plot-Driven Fiction is Driven by Conflict

The movie Labyrinth is a wonderful example. It begins with a kidnapping.

Our protagonist Sarah’s goal is to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King. In order to do this, she must make it to the center of the labyrinth in thirteen hours. Yet, along the way, she must overcome a series of challenges that lead her ever closer to her outer goal—finding the way into the labyrinth, escaping the oubliette, running from the chopping blades of the Cleaners, escaping the Bog of Eternal Stench, and on and on. Each scene peels back a layer of Sarah’s character and serves to drive her emotional arc (inner goal) as it simultaneously drives the plot arc.

Through events (things happening—not internal dialogue or flashbacks or Sarah talking out loud or conveniently writing in a journal), Sarah is made painfully aware of the ugly aspects of her character. She MUST CHANGE if she hopes to save her brother.

The Sarah of the beginning is doomed to failure. In fact, when pitted against her adversary in the beginning, Sarah fails horribly. Because of her childishness and self-centeredness she pays a horrible price—she loses her brother.

Fortunately for our heroine, the Goblin King underestimates Sarah and he generously offers her a chance at redemption (the catalyst). Judging her by who she is in that initial scene, the King fully expects her to give up. Yet, what the King fails to understand is that the very labyrinth he believes will break Sarah, will be his undoing.

Each challenge within the labyrinth serves a two-fold purpose—1) Get Sarah closer to the center. Literal forward progression. 2. Fire away Sarah’s character impurities and forge a heroine who can triumph at the end when pitted against the Goblin King. Symbolic/emotional forward progression.

Conflict continually places Sarah in danger. Will she learn the lesson required to continue the journey? Conflict reminds us that something large is at stake and the clock is ticking. Conflict makes us care.

Whatever story you choose to write, think of it as a machine…like a car. Description, narrative, dialogue, characters all represent your vehicle’s moving parts. Without conflict (fuel) the parts fail to serve their purpose. What good is a strong chassis, a padded steering wheel, and the best Perelli tires if the car has no gas?

I challenge you to inspect each and every scene and ask three questions:

  1. What purpose does this scene serve?
  2. Does this scene propel figurative and literal forward momentum…toward the one large end goal?
  3. If I remove this scene, will it fundamentally change my story? If not…KILL it.

Add good doses of conflict, and I guarantee that readers will lose sleep reading your book or staying up to finish your movie.

Good luck and happy writing.

Until next time…

Want to learn how to become a master at conflict? As always I recommend learning from one of the best. Bob Mayer’s workshops

Also, I highly recommend Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.


1 ping

Skip to comment form

    • Terrell Mims on March 25, 2010 at 7:13 pm
    • Reply

    Good stuff. Since, I never seen Steel Magnolias, I will put it on my viewing list. Going through and self examining each scene is like take an honest look at your life. This part of me is good, this part sucks and I need help. Many times a pretty scene is like certain friends. They are fun, but not helping you grow in life and must be cut off.

  1. Yes, conflict is the fuel of the story. Jennifer Crusie told me that although I kind of knew since I was always killing a lot of people in my books before then. But she had four huge white boards with every scene in Don’t Look Down listed. She labeled each scene by Character vs Character. If we didn’t have a vs we had no scene.

  2. Yep, I think a big problem with literary fiction is that it’s all good writing but no story. That’s why I loved The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz–it won the Pulitzer, but it was also an interesting, fast-paced work of fiction.

    • Jason on March 25, 2010 at 11:24 pm
    • Reply

    Good stuff, Kristen.
    I had this exact conversation with a person at the workshop last night. I told him “Your scene has no conflict, no tension. People are just walking around doing stuff.”
    He replied, “Well in the previous chapters…”
    I said, “A book is nothing more than a set of scenes. Each scene must propel the story forward, and have its own conflict. If a scene doesn’t propel the story forward and have conflict, either add the conflict or remove the scene.”

    Who was the protagonist in Steel Magnolias? Who was the antagonist?

    1. Okay…who is beginning to sound like Bob? LOL.
      And good question. I think the antagonists change scene to scene because they are all sandpaper shaping each other’s character, driving each other’s arc. I definitely think M’Lynn counts as the protagonist, and Shelby is the antagonist. It is her decision that dispupts everyone’s lives. Her choices affect all the others.

    • Nigel Blackwell on March 25, 2010 at 11:50 pm
    • Reply

    For me, it’s easier to write when you have an underlying conflict that’s big enough to drive a whole story. I don’t feel like I need keep creating a to-do list for the characters in order to fill up a book. Once you know why the characters want something, what they do is easier to envisage.
    I like the Labyrinth example because I liked the movie. When Sarah enters the Labyrinth she asks a creature which way should she go, right or left? The creature says right and off she goes. When she’s out of earshot the creatures mutters, “don’t want to go left, takes you straight to the castle that way.” Of course, that’s the way she would have chosen, if she had known, but as you say she’d have failed because of that choice.

    Your suggestion of Malice is another good example of escalating conflict without melodrama.

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! As a script editor/beta reader/”you’re an editor what do you think of this idea”-friend, I have this discussion constantly. In my 8 years as an audiobook director I came across many a published ‘literary’ novel that needed this particular medicine, too. Without conflict there is no story – period. I also find that when people are hunting for something to read, they are looking not only for a character with whom they can sympathize but with a conflict that they want to experience vicariously. It’s just so important!

    For anyone who suffers from Literary Syndrome I now recommend a book I read recently, written by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, called “How Not to Write a Novel” in which they describe, explain and give their own made-up examples of the kinds of over-writing, under-plotting mistakes they see in submission after submission. Their examples are laugh-out-loud funny and I’ve suggested to several friends that if, when reading, they find themselves not laughing at a particular example, or even arguing that there is nothing wrong with it, then that it’s probably the mistake they make themselves.

    OH and to Jason – the antognist in Steel Magnolias was Despair (doesn’t always have to be an actual person)

  4. This is a great post, but it brings to mind a question that’s been bugging me for a while – How do we explain the success of Twilight when there is so little conflict, just a lot of internal whining?

    1. I have yet to figure it out myself. But, the target audience “teens” do a lot of internal whining so likey resonates. I haven’t read the book, but I did see the movie…which I thought was two hours of teenage angst and a waste of time and money. They began with great antagonists that were then subsequently (and conveniently) forgotten for most of the movie. What little conflict there was felt forced and manufactured. But, then again. I am not 16. The movie offers a lot of dreamy, tortured adolescent sex symbols so I guess it doesn’t have to have a lot of plot.

      And like I stated at the beginning of the blog, there are always these weird exceptions. The greatest chance for success, though, is to follow the mythic structure as opposed to gambling that you will be the exception to the rule. Feel free to break all the rules later in your career once you are established, :D.

      Thanks for the compliment and for taking the time to comment.

        • Hannah on March 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm
        • Reply

        In my opinion, the conflict in Twilight is whether Bella will decide to become a vampire or not. That’s the main source of tension and the question that kept me reading the books. Twilight is basically a romance novel. The fact that Edward doesn’t want Bella to become a vampire is the conflict keeping them apart.

        1. That must have come across better in the books. I know that film often does not transate the story well…what is real conflict in a novel comes across as sappy and annoying on screen. And I think if you read the books, then you have a different context.

          I know I loved “Ya Ya Sisterhood.” One of the few novels I have reread. In the novel Vivi was a wonderful character who was likable and complex despite poor behavior. In the film she was just vile.

          I actually plan on reading “Twilight”, because I do get asked a lot of questions regarding this book, which I feel ill-prepared to answer.

          Thanks for your contribution. I will keep this in mind while reading. 😀

  5. Great blog, Kristen! I forwarded the link to my critique group.

  6. Nice; that was good read.

  1. […] The Secret to Story Magic […]

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.