Nancy: Choose Your Battles

Protagonist vs Antagonist Face-to-Face

‘Choose your battles’ isn’t only advice for the parents of teenagers. It can also be useful for writers. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know I’m a big fan of Robert McKee’s Story. In Story, McKee writes, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”

McKee and many other writers contend that scenes are, by definition, units of conflict. Approaching scenes with this in mind has helped me cut through a lot of crap in my own WIP. When I did the first revision, I marked every scene where there was no conflict, defining conflict as one character having a goal and another (either intentionally or unintentionally) blocking that goal. My litmus test for every scene was whether it moved the story or one or more characters forward. And hearkening back to McKee, without conflict, there was no forward momentum. So no conflict, no dice – the scene was cut.

If the idea of putting conflict into Every. Single. Scene. freaks you out, try thinking about conflict differently. Conflict does not mean battle, despite the name of this blog post; ergo, every scene need not read like a knock-down, drag-out fight. Conflict is about one character having a goal and another character blocking it, often because that second character has his or her own goal.

There is a scene in Act IV of my WIP My Girls that I labeled Sarah versus Jack. These two have no beef with each other. They are friends, and in fact, in this scene, Sarah and Jack share a goal – for her to get vital information to him that might help him save another friend. But in a previous scene, Sarah sustained a head injury. Now Sarah would like nothing better than to close her eyes and rest. Jack needs to block Sarah’s goal by keeping her awake (because concussion + sleep = bad news) while they wait for medical help to arrive. In the beginning of the scene, Sarah is scared for her friend’s life. Because Jack keeps her awake by pulling information out of her, by the end of the scene she feels confident they can save her friend’s life.

For those of you immersed in NaNo right now, using the conflict litmus test to make each scene earn its keep might sound like a task for December or sometime in 2015, and that just might be the case. If you’re humming along and staying inspired and churning out words every day, rock on! But if you find yourself stalling or not knowing what to write next or how to keep the words coming, consider thinking about your next scene as a conflict. Give one of the characters a goal, brainstorm a list of ways another character can block that goal, and challenge yourself to work as many of those ideas into your scene as you possibly can. Not only might you get more words on the page, you might even become a conflict convert like I am.

10 thoughts on “Nancy: Choose Your Battles

  1. Sounds like you’re doing a great job working conflict into every scene. Congratulations! I’ve been busy whacking away at one of my manuscripts, too, and now I’m afraid to apply the conflict litmus test. I might wind up with a novella out of this thing.

    • That made me laugh Kay. Great post Nancy – I’m also becoming a convert to the conflict thing, though it’s startling how easy it is to discover you’ve completely omitted it in a scene.

  2. I’m getting closer with the ‘units of conflict’ and showing them driving character changes (btw – I didn’t include Sarah’s major change in my example scene because it’s too spoiler-y). As with everything else in this gig, it’s a process!

    I would love to hear more about the mss you’ve been pruning. Is it a romance? Is there a blurb you can share with us?

    • I think of it as a romance, but an agent told me it wasn’t. But it is, I tell you, it is! I self-published it a while ago, and I decided this summer I would get a new cover for it and also make it available in print. This brought about the re-editing, which seems never to end. The editing is improving it, but, still, it’s not without problems. Like anyone’s problem child, I love it anyway. But the blurb is:

      Lucy O’Halloran always picks the wrong guys—men she can’t love, who don’t love her back. Jonas Holliday is a cop out to make a fresh start—if his ex-wife will just leave him alone.

      Lucy’s interested in the new cop who seems to mean what he says. Jonas likes Lucy, too, and his new job in Berkeley, California—even the nutty aspects of it. But when he learns that Lucy’s grandmother is a modern-day Robin Hood—and Lucy’s okay with it—that’s a roadblock he can’t get around. And Lucy can’t accept a man who doesn’t accept her family. Now Jonas looks like just another Wrong Guy and Lucy like just one more nut case.

      But Jonas figures out how to go the extra mile, and Lucy finds the courage to go the distance. Together they find the path to true love.

      Even though that grandmother puts plenty of bumps in the road.

  3. I really need more help with this whole conflict thing. What exactly counts? I love the idea of want to pass out/want to keep awake as a conflict that helps move the story forward while giving the reader much-needed information.

    I tend to go for the bish-bash style of conflict. War of words, pounding on desks, food fights . . . . So, I’m not sure if my scenes without conflict are really without conflict, or if I’m just not seeing the conflict (but it’s there).

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