“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” – Thomas Paine
Conflict — the stuff good fiction is made of. A story without it is like a sugar-free donut. You only end up with a bland, fried bagel still sitting in the pink cardboard box at the end of the day.
Not too many people care about someone who’s had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Not only they are boring, but you begin to resent them.
No, as a story audience, we’re fascinated by the folks who have overcome adversity to get what they want. The man or woman who was clever enough to fight the status quo and destroy stereotypes, making his or her mark in the world. That’s a person we’re willing to turn the pages for.
So we know conflict is important. The question is, “How do we best present it in our writing?”
Scenes and Sequels
“A story is a chain of scene and sequels.”
Scenes and sequels are Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) on a macro level. Basically, we can think of scenes as stimulus and sequels as reaction.
Scenes are where the action happens. They give a story forward motion. It’s the scene that provides a blow-by-blow account of a character trying to achieve something. It’s here where change is most often triggered by conflict.
Now if a novel was composed entirely of scenes, it would probably take thousands of pages to tell the story. The two readers who happened to make it to the end would feel like they’d been mauled by a clowder of rabid cats. As in real life, there needs to be a break in the action. This is where sequels come in.
Sequels provide moments of reflection. They’re the aftermath of the scene, the gut reaction to what just happened. If we need to summarize, this is where we do it. When a character’s hand has been forced by conflict, he has plenty to think about. He needs to figure out what it all means and how this changes the game.
Let’s take a closer look at these ideas.
A scene is composed of three parts:
Every character should want something. Otherwise, they’re kind of floating around the vacuum that your story has become. At best, if we’re good at putting words together, we’re merely painting pretty pictures without any meaning. Sugary candy, but not enough to keep a reader satisfied before they end up with a stomach ache.
Goals come in many flavors. They don’t always have to be a desire to possess something. The goal could be to seek relief from a feeling or imposition. It could also be to seek revenge.
Certainly, the goal must be concrete and immediate enough to take some sort of action towards reaching it. A scene where a character wants to achieve world peace is going to be awfully hard to write and keep interesting. Instead, let’s say our character, Steve, has worked up the courage to ask out Claire, a girl he works with. It’s something he’s been dawdling over for months. That’s a solid goal and one we can easily dramatize.
As I highlighted at the beginning, conflict is a must in order to keep the reader interested. It drives tension. It’s the catalyst for change. Whether through a simple disagreement or a full-blown gunfight, conflict is pretty much a requirement when crafting your scenes.
Looking at Steve’s goal of asking out Claire, what type of conflict could we introduce? All sorts. A fellow employee that he’s confided in is trying to dissuade him, and it could be because he thinks it would be bad for the work environment. Or maybe this guy is jealous and had plans of his own to ask Claire out.
Each conflict should have a winner and a loser. This is what propels your story. By drafting these tug-of-war scenarios, you’re generating future scenes because they all build off one another.
If I could have one wish fulfilled, it’s that Swain would have chosen a word other than “disaster.” Maybe it really is the right one for the job, but it’s easy to take its connotation to the extreme — earthquakes, death, war, etc. These can all work, but a good disaster can also be as simple as someone not showing up for lunch or a flat tire.
For your focal character, the disaster is a roadblock that keeps him from achieving his scene goal. Or he may actually get what he wants, but now a new setback arrives as he strives for his larger story goal.
There are two important things to remember for a good disaster: It should make sense and be pertinent to what’s happening in the scene. It should also serve as your hook to keep the reader reading, raising an intriguing question about the future.
Back to Steve. Just as he comes by Claire’s cubicle to catch her before she leaves for the day, he finds her coworkers are throwing her a celebration. She’s been promoted and is moving to the corporate office on the other side of the country.
Like scenes, sequels are composed of three parts.
A setback has occurred. What happens first? Gut reaction. Steve’s stomach drops and his heart palpitates. Raw, visceral emotions boil up to the surface.
This is how we all operate and our characters shouldn’t be any different.
So Claire is leaving. Does Steve still ask her out? Tell her how he feels? Find an open position in corporate and follow her there? These are all things that your character tries to work out in a sequel. What are the options?
Show your character running through each alternative, trying to rationalize them.
Maybe Steve is mentally unstable and decides to stalk her all the way. The beauty of writing fiction is that it’s your story. Make it go where you want it to go.
So what has Steve’s decision done for us?
Interestingly enough, it’s given us a goal for the next scene: Steve will try to find a position in the corporate office. And now you can use his newly-revealed mental issues as fodder for new conflict.
Where the Twain Shall Meet
The pattern becomes obvious. Scene leads to sequel leads to scene leads to sequel, ad infinitum. Well, not ad infinitum. The ride has to end sometime, but you get the point.
As with learning any new concepts, it’s easy to apply them incorrectly or treat them like straitjackets. The beauty of the scene and sequel concept is that it’s flexible. You’re not going to be haunted by Swain’s ghost because you didn’t write a long enough sequel, or because you didn’t state the obvious goal at the beginning of your scene.
One of the coolest things I’ve gained from studying this concept is understanding how to control the pace of your story through manipulation of scenes and sequels. Is the action becoming too breakneck? Expand your sequels and slow things down. Have the opposite problem? Shorten your sequels and stir things up.
You’re the writer. Do what feels right. If you receive feedback from multiple people saying the same thing — “I didn’t understand Bob’s motivation for stealing the bicycle.” — then review these fundamentals and see where they can help.