Ladies and Gentlemen — in this corner we have Dancing Dan, the meanest, the leanest, the cleanest boxing machine ever to enter the ring.
And over here, in the opposite corner we have his challenger, the … uh … the no show. Folks, the contestant has forfeited the match.
Ladies and Gentlemen — I proclaim Dancing Dan the winner, the new reigning welterweight champion of the world!
Several years ago, I scraped up more money than I could afford and bought a ticket to see Jimmy Connors play a tennis match. At the last minute, Mr. Connors withdrew due to a thumb injury, and the tournament offered instead a match between players I’d never heard of. Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed, partially because I’d spent too much money to watch a substitute player and partially because I’d wanted to see a world-class champion at the top of his game.
No one who follows sports wants to see the game forfeited. What we want is a contest. Player pitted against player. Defending champion against newcomer wannabe who might just surprise us. We want to watch the battle, see the maneuvers and tactics, marvel at the strength, skill, training, talent, guts, and perserverance necessary to claim victory.
Naturally the outcome is important, but it’s the process we want to experience.
Same thing goes for fiction. A story is built upon a contest between protagonist and antagonist and the conflict that occurs between them. If there is no antagonist, the story will fail. If the antagonist doesn’t act against the protagonist, the story will fail.
In my experience, more scenes collapse due to insufficient conflict than for any other reason. Lack of conflict is a near-fatal writing mistake.
Conflict should comprise 95% of the scene’s content. That means at the start of the scene you should have a sentence or short paragraph presenting the protagonist’s scene goal, and at the end of the scene a sentence or short paragraph delivering the setback. Everything in the middle should be conflict, delivered in a quick give-and-take exchange between the two opposing characters.
Don’t clutter up a scene with a lot of description and too many characters. Extraneous story people aren’t content to stand in the background. Pretty soon, they’re butting in and getting the scene off track. They have their own goals and agendas, don’t they? Make them be quiet and stick to your protagonist’s scene goal. Set up one scene antagonist to work against. Sure, there can be a dozen zombies present, but they don’t get to do anything but loom and look mean. Only one gets to represent them. Only one gets to be the scene antagonist. If you can’t control the others, make them leave.
During the scene’s progression, don’t stop for a lot of introspection. Don’t have the protagonist analyzing how his own dialogue sounds. Just wade into the conflict and keep it going until the setback is hammered in place.
All the oratorical dialogue, lyrical description, beautiful diction, and authentically researched settings won’t make up for lack of plot. And lack of plot comes from lack of conflict in scenes.
Without conflict that’s tight, fast, focused, compelling, and filled with a few surprises, you will bore readers.
When evaluating your plot idea or even pages of your copy, always check to be sure you have enough conflict. Perhaps there’s a little. Could you inject more? What if Daisy says no on page 4 instead of agreeing with her scheming sister? Could you develop the scene a bit more from that point?
Weak or insufficient conflict makes writing scenes a slog. Give yourself a break and improve your technique. You’ll find that scenes start to almost write themselves. Certainly they’re a great deal more fun to type as you go along.
When I’m teaching, I’m always amazed by how hard some of my writing students work to avoid putting conflict into their stories. Oh, they’ll concoct weird settings. They’ll throw plot twists at their hapless character like grenades. But sooner or later, the culminating effect of all these special effects and substitutions is blah writing. The story becomes grossly implausible or reaches a dead end.
“I’m stuck!” the student wails. Well, what does she expect?
I don’t want to read lame copy like that. No one’s going to pay money for it. The student ends up frustrated and discouraged because writing is too hard. Seldom does this kind of student understand why her writing just doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
It can’t. Not without scene conflict.
We think of conflict as a resistant force holding our character back. And we don’t want our character to be hurt or unhappy. So we protect our character and smooth his path. After all, how will our protagonist Fearless Fred reach the story goal if there’s always Bothersome Bob thwarting him? How can that work?
Well, it does.
The more Bothersome Bob tricks and schemes and outsmarts Fearless Fred, the harder Fearless Fred will have to strive to attain the story’s objective. If that goal is worthwhile (and remember how I warned you against low stakes in a previous blog?), then Fearless Fred will start to get mad, frustrated, and more determined than ever to dig in and really go for it.
And as Fearless Fred takes progressively greater risks, we see what he’s truly made of. We cheer him on and gasp when he seems to falter. Bothersome Bob is likewise forced to strive harder to stop Fearless Fred.
And so the story goes, battling and struggling its way to a showdown finish.
And whether I wrap this writing principle in sophisticated terms or state it like something out of a silent film serial doesn’t matter: it works.