Traditional story is a battle, a struggle that builds and ends in a climax. That struggle is called conflict, and it’s the engine for your plot, so it’s important to know what the main conflict is and how to identify or construct the one in your book.
I’m pretty pleased with the Conflict posts we put up fourteen years ago. Turns out the basic theories of fiction don’t change that much (hello, Aristotle). So, I’d rather talk about how identifying that central conflict can be a tool to focus a story.
My novels are contracted for 100,000 words, with the understanding that I have 10% leeway either way, 90,000 to 110,000 words. The novel I’m working on now ended up being 146,000 words in the semi-final draft. That’s way too many, but they were all brilliant words, full of wit and energy.
Yeah, too damn bad, I was going to have to cut 46,000 of them.
To do that, I was going to have to focus on exactly what the book was about, find where the juice was, and ruthlessly excise all those enticing bypaths I’d wandered down that weren’t directly tied to the central question (Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?)
It was time for a Conflict Box.
My problem, I realized as soon as I tried to fill in one of the damn things, was that while I had a strong protagonist I liked, I had two main plots and therefore two antagonists, and I’d been lurching back and forth between them without making one the main plot and the other a subplot. And then I’d added a bunch of terrific scenes that didn’t really have anything to do with either of the plots. Everything was focused on my protagonist, but my protagonist had a busy life multi-tasking at different jobs and a wide circle of acquaintances, so she was all over the place and so was my story.
I needed one, one plot to rule them all. I had to pick a lane.
That came down to two things:
Which plot was I most interested in, the political plot or the love story?
That was easy, the love story.
Which plot had the better conflict box?
The Conflict Box is supposed to illustrate the way your conflict works by showing that one character’s actions to achieve their goal crosses and blocks the other character’s actions to achieve their goal thereby becoming that character’s conflict. Or to look at a it another way, the actions creating one character’s conflict stem from the other character’s attempt to get their goal. Since they’re creating each other’s conflicts in their attempts to get the things they must have, that cross creates a conflict lock that neither can escape from, meaning they must fight to the finish (climax).
But the two boxes above showed that neither conflict worked. (There’s a reason I’ve been working on this sucker for five years.)
The Political Conflict looks pretty good until you realize that Nita is completely uninterested in the political conflict in Hell until she attaches to Nick, which is about 35,000 words into the story. The Political Conflict, while essential to the narrative, is Nick’s conflict, it’s the reason he’s on Earth. And Nick is not the protagonist of the novel. So if the political plot belongs to Nick. Hello, subplot.
If I put Nick in as protagonist and focus the action on that, I get a much tighter conflict box and a conflict lock.
Which left the romance plot. At this point, Bob weighed in on the whole deal and we did 1200 words on “Jenny and Bob Brainstorm the Romance Conflict in The Devil in Nita Dodd,” and we got pretty far into the weeds and derailed the discussion. This post is already long, so I cut that part.
To sum up, the conflict box gives you the focused analysis that you need to write a strong Central Question: Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?
The conflict box is not a good way to design a conflict, so don’t start with it, but it’s a great way to analyze and focus the central conflict that’s already (please, please, let it be) there.
Bob: I think the Central Question and Conflict Box are excellent tools. I like using the Conflict Box when I teach. Often my antagonist is behind the scenes, but present in action.
Something I want to do with this update is use real examples so you can understand my process which might help you uncover yours. We’ve skipped over Situational Vs Character Ideas from the original blog but let me tie that into the Central Question.
Years ago, I said I usually started with plot. That’s not true any longer. For my newest series, the Will Kane, Green Beret books, I sat down and thought about what I wanted to write next. I wanted to go back to suspense after spending a lot of time in science fiction with Time Patrol.
Nightstalkers, Area 51, Aliens, UFOs, the mind experiments I underwent, probes, yada yada.
One of the top suspense writers is Lee Child whom I’ve met several times. His Jack Reacher character is classic. Because Reacher’s fictional history mirrored my real history, I thought: Hey, I can write a Jack Reacher type character.
But when I really got down to it, I couldn’t. Why? Because Reacher doesn’t exist for me. Lee Child admits Reacher isn’t real—he’s a modern-day knight. I couldn’t write that person. But I could write what I call a “real” Reacher. Warts and all. Of course, business-wise writing someone who might be the antithesis of one of the most famous suspense characters in fiction isn’t smart. But I’ve never accused of that trait.
I also was getting turned off by the technology being overused in books and film. CGI fights are a big negative to me. Also, mysteries that rely on cell phones and computers and CCTV seems like they’re using a crutch. I wanted to go pre-all-that-stuff. When you actually had to drop a dime to call. When you left your house people couldn’t get in touch with you. Wasn’t that freeing?
I wanted to write about this unique guy and a unique time. Those two decisions led me to Will Kane. He’s a West Point graduate, except 15 years before me, class of 1966. The class that was most blooded by Vietnam. He’s former Infantry and Special Forces, like I am. I wanted to bring in some history, except add a fictional element, so I tied in an event in his past like the Green Beret Affair, where Special Forces were accused of murder in Vietnam. I gave him some tragedy in his life: both the death of best friend in combat and the loss of a child upon his return from Vietnam in disgrace. Added in some mystery: five missing years from 1970 to 1975. Where did he go? What did he do? I’m four books into this series and all you know is he apparently went to Southeast Asia, down a very deep rabbit hole, but he also studied a lot of martial arts. Beyond that, I haven’t said yet. Why? Sue Grafton (great person, RIP) said don’t tell the reader anything they don’t absolutely need to know and I agree. I’ve got a wealth of backstory there to play with when I need it. Also, a potential prequel.
Notice there’s no plot yet. This is definitely a character story/series. I picked setting: time and place. New York City, 1977. Why? A lot going on and I remember it. Son of Sam (shot a girl I went to school with), Studio 54 (never went there, though, and if I had I doubt they would have let me in although I did get into the Copacabana but it was prom night), the long hot summer, the Blackout. The last event started locking me down to time. I wanted the climactic scene to occur during the Blackout, 13 July 1977. Interestingly, I had grand visions of gun battles in the darkened streets but what I ended up with when I wrote the book was very different—that climactic scene was technically the most difficult I’ve ever written. This is where my process has changed. I don’t outline. I frame character and setting. Set my character on a journey and throw obstacles in the way.
I started inventing supporting characters. A waitress named Morticia, who dressed like the character from the Addams Family in the diner he frequents every morning. I figured out his family. His friends. His enemies. As best I could.
Here’s the thing: I knew my protagonist. Will Kane. Who was the antagonist though? What was Kane’s goal? What was the antagonist’s? Those two are key to the Conflict Box.
I knew what I wanted Kane’s arc to be: a man with a violent past who is forced, against his will, to use his violence once more. Essentially the arc is: who protects the sheep from the wolves? Most people say the shepherd. Kane’s answer is: another, bigger, badder wolf. Because there is evil in the world and shepherds get eaten by evil wolves because they don’t run away. This is what he’s been trying to leave behind. He’s not a born killer. He’s a made killer. He shouldn’t be what he is. But here he is. With all this experience and skills. And he gets pushed.
But I didn’t know who the antagonist was. Why? Because Kane didn’t. Writing the first book, New York Minute, was an eye-opening experience. For antagonist, I just figured there’s some bad guys doing bad things and Kane is going to have to kill them during the Blackout to make that arc.
Here’s a real important thing though: when I finally realized who the true antagonist was, it was the same time Kane did. A surprise to both of us!!! Therefore, I’m not over-foreshadowing, which is a crime I used to commit.
What I’m getting at, in order for you to understand my posts in this new blog, is that I write very differently now than I did in HWSW, but I had to write like I did in HWSW in order to learn the craft of writing. I’d like to think I’m much better now. That my characters are deeper. My stories more intense.
Jenny: You really have changed your process.
Bob: My reactions to Jenny’s post. I agree– the conflict box doesn’t work for some stories. Although I teach, it’s more an exercise to do a couple of things: lock down who the protagonist and antagonist are. Surprisingly, a number of writers don’t know. It’s extra hard for romance because usually you don’t want the conflict between hero and heroine. So even if they’re fighting all the time, you still need an external something to hang the plot on.
Jenny: I think the conflict box works for the central conflict in all linear stories, it’s just more difficult for romance because we tend to emphasize emotion and psychology instead of hitting things and blowing things up.
But if there’s no central conflict, there’s no story, so even romances have to be a struggle. If they meet and everything is peachy, no story. Fortunately, romance is never all peachy. There are usually worms. It’s the way people work out conflicts that make relationships strong.
Bob: I always use the example of Woman of the Year, because you can’t go wrong with Hepburn and Tracey. The conflict is between them, but because of her job. How do you represent the job? The poor assistant. Because I focus on the last scene when she comes back to him and the assistant show up with a bottle of champagne to tell her she is due to christen the new battleship and Tracey punched him out– saving the champagne, of course.
Jenny: This is where I confess I never saw that movie.
Bob: The conflict box is also tough for suspense, because you’re not as involved with the problem being solved as the fate of the characters. Thrillers, it’s definitely easier.
Jenny: But still you need CONFLICT. Protagonist vs. antagonist with goals that cross each other. I don’t think the genre matters, I think the struggle is always the key to the story.
(I feel an argument coming up.)
I think you always need a conflict box.
Bob: Sure. I agree. There must be a core conflict and conflict lock.
Jenny: Wait, why am I arguing with the adventure guy about the importance of conflict?
Did we switch brains?
Bob: Not sure I have one any more. Typed THE END today on Hell of a Town, then realized I need one last scene.
Jenny: I have books that have been out a decade that need one last scene. Be glad you caught it now.
Bob: It’s the resolution; just an extension of the scene that’s already there.
Jenny: The sigh space at the end. That’s important.
Bob: Exactly. I have to have the girl who we followed, whose life was in peril, be able to finally feel safe.
Jenny: Tie up all the threads. Nothing left to worry about.
Which is the reason I hate cliffhangers.
Bob: The reason I realized I needed to add something at the end of Hell of a Town is even though we know the girl is safe, I have to show what that means to her. She’s been rescued, so she’s safe. But besides one of the good guys baking bread for her (a good memory from her childhood), she has to have a sense of home.
Jenny: Explain please. You have to show it from her PoV?
Bob: Not her PoV. I just have to show it.
Jenny: The rescue makes her physically safe, the bread et al makes her emotionally safe?
Bob: Yes. Show, don’t tell.
Jenny: So you do the conflict box after the first draft?
Bob: The conflict box evolves as I write. I know I have a big bad with minions. My protagonist is trying to stop evil– yes, it has to be a concrete thing. The big bad is doing the evil. Conflict lock.
Jenny: So basically, after all these years, we agree on conflict and the conflict box.
Bob: I always agreed on that.
Jenny: So you need a resolution scene and I have to focus the romance conflict. Back to work.
Next up is Discovery, which is your outlining, collage, all that stuff.
Bob: Sounds good. Gus is barking at me. I think he wants to go out. He’s turning into an irritable old man.
Jenny: Well, you are his role model.
Bob: Yeah. We’re mirror images.
Jenny: He wants to be just like you when he grows up.
Bob: He’s far beyond me.
Jenny: He’s a dog. Dogs are always better than humans.
Bob: Or he was barking to get the bone away from Scout. Hard to tell.
Jenny: All that matters is that he knows. Tell him Milton says hi.
Bob: I will.
Jenny: Goodnight, Bob. And thanks for the help on Nita.