‘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.