June 15, 2014

Driving the Plot Through Conflict: Three Questions When You're Stuck

You're writing such a great story, or novel, chapter, tale, vignette, allegory and suddenly you think, crap, what comes next?

Well, you don't want to just continue haphazardly and risk it being completely bad, no matter what some artistic-types preach about just getting it out there on the page. Because well, let's face it, either you're drawing a complete blank or you're a perfectionist. At the same time you like the idea you had, and you really don't want to abandon it. What do you do? Where do you go next? How do you get unstuck? These are questions that bother a lot of writers.
The first thing you have to remember is that the central component to any good story is conflict. With that in mind, what are some ways you can get your story back on the track to a proper conclusion? Or spark interesting and valuable conflict? If you're all out of ideas here are some questions that have the potential to kickstart your story's heart (and hope it never stops):

1) What is the absolute worst thing that could happen? aka: "He he he."

Major conflict. Again with the conflict thing, pretty obvious, but there's a lot to say about the things to keep in mind while asking this question.

Now a Tornado hitting, or a monster eating the romantic interest in front of your main character's eyes is all well and good, but can easily borderline cliche. When I say worst thing that could happen I'm not necessarily talking about 9-11, Hitler, or Hiroshima. I'm talking about real conflict that needs to be resolved by the various characters of your story.

It's important when thinking about the train wrecks you're getting ready to throw in front of your characters try to and think about how overcoming these problems will shape the characters and the direction of the story. Having the little boy dreaming of adventure confront real danger will serve to reveal his true nature and either develop him as a hero or expose his cowardice. By the same token being able to rescue his dying mother (again as cliche as that example sounds) even change who he is and drive him to have certain reactions.

Remember that the purposes of these conflicts are yes, to tell a great story, but also, and more importantly, to invoke thoughts and emotions in our characters and reveal their souls to our readers. To let us look into their minds and hearts. To reveal their past and lay the foundation for their future.

The important thing, when thinking about the worst thing that could happen, is to not only to think about what the worst thing that could happen to this boy, man, village, or armadillo is, but also what would be the worst thing for this individual, or situation, right now. And choosing the most interesting individual, place, time and way for it to happen.

For some people having your only son taken could be worse than having Godzilla step on your car.

Which leads us to the next question:

2) What do your characters want? aka "Messing up people's lives continued."

Minor conflict. Sometimes this can be as simple as figuring out what a person or group of people want and taking it away.

The muscled guy in the tank top wants to look tough. Humiliate him. The father of a newborn just wants a good night's sleep. Wake him up with his deepest fear (or maybe just a big pet peeve). Your protagonist wants to remember who he/she is. Keep them isolated or give them a debilitating injury to drag out the discovery process.

These are surface problems, simple luxuries, pains, inconveniences of life. As I've heard it put, and often repeat: "First world problems." But the interesting part of this seemingly superficial device is in deciding where you want the story to go, ie: who you want to mess with and when in order to drive the story forward or develop the many facets of the world you're telling it in.

Sure it makes sense to focus on and continuously ruin the main character's day, but why not have the girl he loves contract AIDs and see how he reacts? Ok, not a minor conflict really, but the point is to put problems before other people in the story. Putting small problems before your two-dimensional characters will develop them into more interesting, three-dimensional parts of your story, and contribute overall to the feeling of a multifaceted, interesting tale. As well as show how your protagonist/main characters might react to it. The bigger, less surface, and closer to affecting your protagonist these problems are, the more like major conflicts they become. But don't let that fool you, they're not.

Having seemingly ordinary people around your main characters encounter problems like falling asleep at their post, not having any cash on them, spilling mayonnaise on their sweaters, getting thrown out of a bar or caught in a lie may seem small. But it provokes reactions and drives dialogue and events.

Beside filling pages this makes the story more interesting and more believable. It lends flavor that can say much more about an environment in a single action than a page-long description of what it looks like. And let's face it friends, this isn't a perfect world. The less little problems that exist around your characters, the less believable that world is.

3) What do your characters really want? aka "The whirlpool"

This is a question that, interestingly enough, focuses less on your characters and more on where you're taking them. The question that really drives the plot, and the part that yes, can cause conflict, but often removes it and tells you where the story is going next.

Some doors have to close so others can open. To know which ones to close and which ones to open as a writer you need to look at both what drives your characters and where you want them to end up. Even if you don't completely know where you want them to end up, look at what they want and who they are: their hopes, dreams, and fears. Developing who your main characters are what they want is where a character bio could come in handy, but honestly just considering and deciding who the various characters are and what they want most is sufficient in this case.

What drives them? What are their main goals, their dreams, their habits and what they want and like most. Once you know their desires, have them pursue them. Because the fact is everyone pursues what they want: love, a rewarding career, drugs, sex, fitness, safety, whiskey, status, comfort, and thrills, whatever.

If a kid in a washed up town really wants to get out, the next logical step is to force him out from under the things that are keeping him there, or have him struggle to overcome those obstacles. Removing obstacles can be as just as powerful in moving the plot forward as creating them.


But the thing is that EVERYONE wants something; the vendor serving your detective coffee, the mayor of the rundown town in the middle of nowhere, the guard on the cell block, the copy editor for your reporter, the dog in the neighbor's yard, the couple walking down the street. Think about what is driving every single character in the environment of your story, have them all go for it, and then focus on the parts that make for good storytelling. The ultimate goal of this question is to have this whirling pool of wants and desires collide over and over again to make the ending that you want to see.

So, the next time you're sitting in front of your keyboard with no idea how to get through to the next part of the story, where to go, what comes next, be sure to turn to these three questions for driving the plot.


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1 comment:

Yolanda Lindeque Strauss said...

Love it! Thanks for putting it so picturesque and picante! :)

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