I got a new supporter of my amazeballs Patreon campaign, and so, as promised, here is installment number deux about conflict in fiction! For more writing advice, won’t you please go to my campaign page and support my nine-novel marathon? When someone does, I will release my lesson on Indirection and Subtext — two techniques that make your fiction much more than just what is seen on the page.
ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOHOADE. Or maybe THE HOADENOTOAD. Or perhaps it’s, um … ah hell, do i really have to hypnotize you? Could you just go and support my project, please?
Conflict on the scene level: Resolutions that don’t help the protagonist
Last time, I discussed how the definition of a scene in dramatic fiction is that a character has a definite goal that s/he strives toward against some kind of external opposition. Somebody trying to keep their umbrella from inverting in a strong wind would fit this category, but a more telling example is something like a person trying to walk to work and a mysterious person keeps standing right in front of him, blocking the way. This creates conflict not only in the immediate sense, shown here: GOAL: Walk to work on time. CONFLICT: This person keeps standing in the way, obviously purposefully. RESOLUTION: ? I put an question mark there because there are several potential resolutions to this immediate conflict. One, the viewpoint character may just push through the person to get past him. And two, he could turn around and go the other way, not engaging the person. These are the two outcomes, really: Fight against the conflict, or avoid it by abandoning the original goal. As the Honorable Jack Bickham describes it in his very useful book, Scene and Structure, there are actually four possible resolutions to any scene’s conflict. Let’s go through them, shall we? (We shall.) Each has its own shorthand:
- “Yes.” This means that the character just straight-out achieves the goal. A woman wants to buy a marble rye at the bakery. The conflict is that there is only one marble rye left and there are three people ahead of her. Fortunately for her, none of those people orders it and so she is able to purchase it. So the “yes” here is “yes, she achieves her goal.” This is the most boring of the four resolutions and should be avoided like the proverbial robot monster.
All he really wanted was love. Also a matching head would have been nice.
- “No.” This is the other flat resolution which sometimes needs to be used, but only very sparingly because it–while slightly less boring than “yes”–is very flat and snoozeworthy. A woman goes into the bakery to get the marble rye, but one of the customers ahead of her buys the last one. Disappointed, the woman buys something else or just leaves. Zzzzzzz.
- “Yes, BUT.” This is where your plotting gets interesting. In this resolution, the character does technically achieve the goal that was sought, but it comes with a price in addition to whatever what might have been expected. A woman goes into the bakery for a marble rye and is able to buy it, but then a person behind her in line who also wanted the marble rye starts screaming at her and steals the bread. Or let’s say a nebbish asks out the prom queen. His goal is obviously that she would agree to go on a date–and she does! Goal accomplished! Well, that’s the “yes” part. The “BUT” part is that her incredibly jealous ex-boyfriend is now planning to beat our heroic nerd to a pulp. Unintended consequences give resolutions zip and the worsening of the dramatic situation that really compelling fiction needs.
- “No, AND FURTHERMORE.” This is the resolution that makes me giddy as a reader and a writer of fiction. In this, not only does the character fail to achieve the goal, but now s/he suffers from even seeking it in the first place. The nebbish asks out the prom queen, but she says no AND FURTHERMORE her ex-boyfriend wants to beat him up just for asking. A woman in the bakery not only doesn’t get the marble rye AND FURTHERMORE ends up buying a different kind of bread that the hostess of the party is violently allergic to. The Millennium Falcon‘s Han Solo doesn’t achieve the goal of delivering his passengers to Alderaan AND FURTHERMORE ends up getting sucked into the Death Star by a tractor beam. This ratchets up the stakes big-time in each of these situations, setting up new scenes with new goals … which then can also go horribly wrong whether the goal is technically achieved or not.
This cat knows what I’m talkin’ bout.
This all explains how to put conflict in your fiction through scene resolutions, but the title said “why.” Well?
Astute observation, me! Why you need this in your fiction is that very little than anyone could write about is inherently interesting. A bus crash is a terrible thing, but unless the writer portraying the scene shows some struggle, some conflict, it’s just informational. Description is wonderful, clever plays on words are delightful, but to get your auidence sucked in and kept reading, conflict at this level is absolutely essential FROM PAGE, PARAGRAPH, EVEN SENTENCE NUMBER ONE.
And the point of writing fiction is to have people read it and get a memorable, visceral experience out of it (whether that’s joy, vicarious dread, a good cathartic cry, or whatever). Still, we have but scratched the surface of conflict. Part 3 will be on Indirection and Subtext, which sounds all graduate-English-class difficult but is something we use and see every single day of our lives that we interact with anything or anyone in the outside world.
I will be posting Part 3 as soon as I get one new supporter for my glorious Patreon campaign to get these here nine novels written! Fantastic rewards — including all of the books, signed for you — await! It’s not expensive. Won’t you take a look? (As mentioned in my last blog post, the incentives have been made cooler even than what I mention in the video.