Welcome to Part 3 of Fiction Fundamentals. In Part 1, I discussed character goals. In Part 2, I covered a character’s Motivation…the “why” of what they want to do in your story. Last time, in the first of a two-parter, I talked about the Big Enchilada that ties it all together and makes for a good read: Conflict.
This week, I’m delving a bit deeper. I’ll discuss scene- vs. story-level conflict, the difference between conflict and trouble, and those pesky “misunderstandings.”
Scene-Level (or “Mini”) Conflict
Let’s be clear about one thing: conflict must be in each scene in your book. Every. Single. One. However, that doesn’t mean the conflict had to be between your protag and antag relative to their goals, nor does it have to be massive, big-stakes stuff. It can be smaller. Call it mini-conflict, or that which does not directly affect your character’s goals. Said another way:
The conflict in each scene doesn’t have to be directly related to the protag or antag’s stated goal.
Here’s why: your characters have overarching goals that determine the trajectory of your book. Each of their goals is important to them, and when one character’s actions block another character’s goals, you get conflict.
But the action and counteraction related to their goals doesn’t need to be in every scene. In fact, if it were, it would probably make the book a fast-paced, high-wire act that makes it difficult for the reader to draw a breath and process everything they’re reading.
Mini-conflict is vital to your story because it allows you to:
- Develop nuanced, complex characters
- Enhance romantic or sexual tension
- Reveal aspects of a character’s behavior or nature
- Slow the pace of your story
- Show, don’t tell
Let’s go through these one by one, using my Regency romance WIP as an example.
My two main characters, Susannah and Nate, each have their own goals:
- Susannah wants to finalize her inheritance and rescue her sister from a nasty marriage.
- Nate must prove Susannah’s uncle is guilty of treason and needs her help to do it.
So that each may achieve their goal, they arrange a fake marriage. Note that neither is the antagonist of the other (the antagonist is someone else). They’re working together, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t mini-conflict between them.
A favorite scene shows Nate and Susannah on their “wedding” night (remember, their marriage is fake, so there’s no consummating the union). She insists he has to sleep on the floor for propriety’s sake; he insists he will sleep in the same bed as her and keep his hands to himself. After all, they’re at his home and it’s his bed. Their argument progresses to a small shouting match, which results in inflamed passion and a bit of heavy necking. Just when you think they’re both going make their fake marriage real, Nate puts a stop to their kissing, disentangles himself from Susannah, grabs a pillow and blanket off the bed, and makes a pallet on the floor.
It’s clear that the conflict in this scene doesn’t relate to each character’s main goals, so it’s mini-conflict. But what does it reveal?
Your characters are not cardboard cut-outs. They’re not static. They are complex individuals with opportunities for personal growth. In my WIP, this scene reveals Susannah’s trust issue. She doesn’t trust men and she certainly doesn’t trust Nate, especially coming into this scene (he’s already misled her a few times), but when he makes his bed on the floor, her trust in him increases. For Nate, we learn he is, for once, not in control. Susannah gets under his skin as no one else has.
Enhance Romance/Sexual Tension/Mystery
Often, the romance in a story is secondary to the main plot, but it’s important that the love story escalate. The fight over where they each sleep results in a passionate interlude that reveals to the characters and the reader their growing attraction to each other.
In other genres like mystery/suspense, mini-conflict can increase the mystery, throwing the reader off with other clues or circumstances that leave them guessing what is really happening. Or it can ramp up the fear or freak-out factor in a suspense or thriller.
Reveal Aspects of a Character’s Nature
How someone reacts to an event indicates who they really are. When Nate suddenly stops kissing Susannah, grabs the pillow, and makes a bed on the floor, we see that he knows his limits. He thought he could lie next to Susannah all night and not be affected by her, but he’s learned he cannot. He’s capitulated and has backed down.
Slow the Pace
Prior to this scene, I had dropped a huge plot bomb related to each character’s main goals that had Susannah literally running for her life with two men on her tail: her uncle (the antagonist), and Nate. It was a very tense, fast-paced couple of scenes leading up to the wedding night scene. The small, seemingly innocuous fight over where someone sleeps is a definite slow-down in the story and lets the reader catch their breath.
Show, Don’t Tell
As the author, I could tell you Nate is falling for Susannah (and vice versa), or I could show you (the kissing interlude). I could tell you Susannah doesn’t trust Nate, or I could show you (“sleep on the floor!”). I could tell you Nate now knows he can’t trust himself to be near Susannah, or I could show you (making a bed on the floor).
Identify the Mini-Conflict
Before you sit down to write your next scene (if you’re a pantser) or when you’re outlining (if you’re a plotter), think briefly about what the conflict is in the scene. It doesn’t have to relate directly to the character’s main goals, but there has to be something. And not trouble or a misunderstanding.
Circumstance vs. Trouble vs. Misunderstandings
There’s a big difference between circumstance, trouble, and misunderstandings, and not having them sorted out in your mind before you start working through your conflict can either create non-existent conflict, or something fuzzy related to it that does nothing but frustrate your readers.
Conflict vs. Circumstance
Some writers and story consultants feel that conflict can’t be against a thing or a circumstance, but I disagree. The Martian is a perfect example of this. No person or living antagonist is blocking Mark Watney from achieving his goal of getting off Mars, but he sure is falling victim to his circumstances (spoiler alert!).
- He’s got a hole in his space suit and has to get back to the base station.
- He can’t get in touch with Houston.
- He doesn’t have enough food to last until a rescue mission can reach him.
- When he does try to make “rain,” he nearly blows himself up.
- After he gets the garden going, the wall comes off, freezing his plants and rendering his garden useless.
- He must figure out how to get to the rendezvous spaceship and launch it.
- He has to put himself on a trajectory to meet up with is fellow astronauts while floating around deep space.
- All the while, he has to stay alive as he fights illness and starvation.
Each time Mark is presented with a new challenge, he can either rise up to meet it, or can give in and let his goal go.
So while starvation or lack of water aren’t things that are actively working to block Mark, they are circumstances that he must overcome, and each time he does so, the audience does a little cheer for him, and at the same time, wonders what will happen next?
Conflict vs. Trouble
Trouble is something else that often gets mistaken for conflict. Trouble is when something happens that puts your protag or antag in a rough spot. A good example is in Cinderella:
- Cinderella getting a tear in her dress as she stumbles down the stairs is trouble.
- Cinderella’s stepmother tearing her dress is conflict.
You’re probably wondering what the difference is between trouble and circumstance…I’m sure someone has a great answer for that, but the way I think of it is when there is no living, active antagonist (i.e., in The Martian), circumstance is your conflict. However, if you do have an active antagonist (like in Cinderella), then anything that happens to Cindy that wasn’t caused directly by the antagonist is trouble.
Conflict vs. Misunderstandings
The last little bit of conflict confusion centers around misunderstandings. These come in two flavors: bickering and misunderstandings. Regardless, they’re both a lazy cop-out for not having real conflict in your story (yes, I’m being harsh. I feel strongly about this. Debra Dixon in Goal, Motivation, and Conflict does, too, as you’ll see below).
Dixon makes it quite clear: Your readers are smart people. Your characters should be smart, too. Having them go in circles with each other over something asinine or because one character is being deliberately obtuse is a surefire way to alienate your readers.
Bickering is when your characters are engaged in verbal disagreements. It’s okay to have a little bickering, but it can’t drag on for more than a scene or your reader will become frustrated, not to mention that it distracts the reader — and the character — from the real conflict that’s happening. So when your characters are hurling verbal salvos at each other, look at what they’re arguing about and how long that argument lasts. Would they actually solve a problem by having a discussion? Or does the argument keep going from chapter to chapter as the book drags on?
You must be especially careful of this in romance, romantic suspense, or romantic comedy. Yes, we want tension between the characters, but petty arguments aren’t how to go about it. Find something tangible for them to be at odds about.
Misunderstandings (also known as The Big Misunderstanding, misconceptions, or misinterpretations) are also NOT conflict. Anything that can be explained away (fingerprints on a gun, lipstick on a collar) is not conflict. Misunderstandings can be useful to open up a bigger can of worms or to take the conflict in a new direction, but if you feed too many misunderstandings to the reader, they’ll get bored quickly.
The only time misunderstandings can work is a comedy of errors. But again, be careful. Use it to augment good, strong conflict, not stand in place of it.
I hope this installment has been helpful in clearing up what conflict is and is not. Next time in Fiction Fundamentals, I’ll be discussing Characters…including how to make them unique, memorable, and true to their nature.