Creating Conflict

Or, as I call it, causing ~drama~

The key that keeps readers interested in your story is conflict. If nothing is at stake, then there is not much to see. So, here are a few general tips to cause some ripples in the ponds of your characters’ lives.

“Prioritizing”: Your character has two main motives that they have been working towards, but they end up in a situation where they have to sacrifice one to save the other. Depending on how easy or hard the choice is, this range from “disappointing” to “devastating” in the sacrifice. 

Character Flaws: As I talked about in my cornerstones post, every character should have a flaw. Flaws are flaws and not strengths for a reason- they get in the way. Have your character have a moment of weakness, where they lose their values and give in to temptation or get carried away.

 In addition: Even without their key flaws, characters can sometimes just… be wrong. Maybe they miscalculated. Maybe they misunderstood. Maybe they made the wrong guess. They did what everyone does: They Done Messed Up, and now they have to deal with the result.

Liar, Liar: Someone is lying, or even keeping secrets, and now, it’s causing problems. They can’t go forward without the truth, or worse, they are making mistakes due to a warped perception of the situation.

Draw backs: Let the good things come at a cost. One key rule for worlds with magic or superpowers is that all power should come at cost- equal to or greater than the power itself. 

“Because I Said So”: Don’t forget, there are other characters in your story, and even if they are on the protagonist’s own side, they are not always going to just merrily go along with whatever the protagonist said. Maybe they disagree. Maybe they are powerful enough to get in the protagonist’s way, and maybe it’s that important to them that they try. If fighting an enemy is hard, fighting a friend is harder.

Take It Back: Your character makes a decision that seems right at the time. Maybe it was the obvious choice, or maybe it was taking a risk. But uh-oh…now there are unforeseen consequences. 

Or, the opposite…

Decisions, Decisions: Maybe your character has to make a decision where there is not an immediately obvious choice. Make sure that both/all the options have both positive and negative possible or certain outcomes. There is no obvious right or wrong choice. Bonus, it’s funny to watch the fandom debate it later. 

Strip Them Down: Remove your character’s greatest strength. For whatever reason, your character’s most valuable asset is not available, and now, they have to live without it. Bonus mode- it would be really, really helpful if they had it right now!

Or, do the opposite…

Boss Fight: Maybe, instead of your protagonist getting weaker, it’s your antagonist that gets stronger. Strengthen the opposition and see if your characters can adapt to survive, or if they lack what it takes. 

Change of Plan: The rules of the game have changed. This can mean different things depending on your story. They could be literal rules, or more general. Think Hunger Games- did I say two tributes? I meant one, after all. Fight to the death now, please.

Amplify the Emotions: … And the results that come with. People do crazy things in the heat of the moment. You can’t think straight when all you can do is feel. Blinded by anger, sadness, or even joy, your character makes a bad choice. 

*Pile It On: You know what a full plate needs? Even more stuff. Your character is already juggling, trying to balance a variety of responsibilities. So add one more ball. Do they crash and burn immediately? Does it take a while? Do they succeed?  Any which way, the stress is high.

*Note: this one can be difficult on the author, too. Make sure that with all these plot lines, you’re not losing track, yourself.

“Murphy’s Law”: Simply stated, this is a plot tool that says, “whatever can go wrong, will.” I’m just going to say right away… be careful with this one. It’s really frustrating for your audience to watch the characters fail or lose or face misfortune over and over and over again. It makes it feel like nothing will ever come out of rooting for them, so you may as well give up now. Murphy’s Law can be great in the proper proportions, please, let your characters have some victories, or there’s no point to it.

And hey, don’t forget about your inner conflicts. You never know when those are going to have the opportunity to cause trouble. 

Give ‘em hell, kids!*

***disclaimer: you do not have to be a kid to give them hell.

~Penemue

A Midnight Ritual if You Cannot Sleep Because You Are Worrying About a Confrontation or Crisis in the Morning

You will need:

  • A dark-blue candle
  • A small bowl of salt
  • Paper and a pen
  • A bowl of soil
  • A small, lidded plastic container
  • A blue pen

Timing:

Midnight, called the time of the dark sun, indoors or in the garden.

The spell:

Light the candle and, looking into the flame, say: “The dark sun across the word does shine, but let all be peaceful in this place of mine.”

Sprinkle a few grains of salty into the flame, saying: “The sun will rise again at dawn, ‘til then I consign all fear ‘till morn.”

On the paper, write over and over again the fears and the worries that are troubling you. Tear off just a corner and singe it in the candle flame. (Have a bowl of soil ready in case it catches fire.)

Extinguish the candle, and put the folded paper and the singed corner, burned or not, into a small plastic container in the freezer.

Dispose of the plastic container and its contents the next morning.


- “1001 Spells: The Complete Book of Spells for Every Purpose,” by Cassandra Eason

All About Writing Fight Scenes

@galaxies-are-my-ink asked,

“Do you have any advice on writing fight scenes? The type of scene I’m writing is mostly hand to hand combat between two experts. I’m definitely not an expert so when I try to write it, the scene ends up sounding repetitive and dull.”

Fore note: This post is coauthored by myself and one of my amazing critique partners, Barik S. Smith, who both writes fantastic fight scenes and teaches mixed martial arts, various artistic martial arts, and weapons classes.

I (Bryn) will tell you a secret: I trained MMA for seven years, and when I write authentic hand to hand fight scenes, they sound dull too. 

The problem with fight scenes in books is that trying to describe each punch and kick and movement (especially if it’s the only thing you’re describing) creates a fight that feels like it’s in slow motion. 

I write…

Lowering her center of gravity, she held her right hand tight to her face and threw a jab towards his chin. He shifted his weight, ducking under her punch. His hair brushed against her fist, and he stepped forward, launching a shovel hook into her exposed side.

But your brain can only read so fast. In real life that series of events would take an instant, but I needed a full eight seconds to read and comprehend it, which gave it an inherent lethargic feel. 

So, we have two primary problems:

  1. How do we describe this fight in a way the reader can understand and keep track of? 
  2. How do we maintain a fast paced, interesting fight once we’ve broken down the fight far enough for readers to understand it? 

(We will get back to these, I promise.) But for now, let’s look at…

Different types of “fight scenes:”

Keep reading

Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

—  Ursula K. Le Guin

The need to be right, to diminish another person in order to gain a greater sense of self, is a subtle kind of violence. If we gain our sense of identity from this process, we will perpetually be looking for conflict and enemies, subconsciously surrounding ourselves with negativity, compulsively bringing pain to ourselves and those around us. We’ll always be looking for the next problem, the next argument. To define ourselves through conflict in this way is to forever deny ourselves peace.

Tired of Good Vs Evil?

I have other type of conflicts for you:

Order Vs Chaos

Tradition vs Progress

Discipline Vs Harmony

Selflessness Vs Egoism

Bacon Vs Tie      

Safety Vs Freedom

Individuality vs Community

Emotions Vs Stoicism

Romanticism Vs Enlightenment 

Nature Vs Nurture   

Life Vs Death

Bacon Vs Broccoli

 Pacifism Vs Self-Arming

Chance Vs Purpose

Talent Vs Hard work

 Passivity Vs Action      

Performance Vs Technique

Law Vs Good

Order Vs Harmony

Science Vs Nature

Human morality Vs Non-human morality (especially if both sides are “good”)

UPD: Added new ones

Also old three-way picture. Just in case if anyone might need it.

Deepening Social and Political Conflict in your Fiction

In many speculative fiction works, war or civil unrest is common, sometimes it’s a given. And yet so often, these grand, world-shattering wars are shallow when looked at straight-on. If you think about the history of the conflict or the spark that sent the nations to war, you can come up kind of dry. A lot of readers are tired of “WAR” being the default backdrop of a story, especially when it’s used as a prop rather than handled with the care it should be.

So how do you make sure that your social and political conflicts don’t just provide a canvas to your story, but help deepen and strengthen the world and the characters therein? Simple! Just do a little thinking! 

General Questions

  • What are they fighting over/why are they fighting?
    • Land
    • Pettiness
    • Resources
    • Religion
    • Safety/Peace-of-mind
    • Debt
    • Misconceptions or misunderstanding
    • Political or social ideologies
    • Power
    • Lies
    • Something stupid
    • Freedom (revolution)
  • Who is the root of the conflict between?
    • Nation & Nation
    • Government & People
    • Two factions of people
    • Parts of the same government
    • Government & Church/Religious group
    • Church & People
    • Government & Private institution
    • Or does it span numerous groups?
    • How has it spread?
  • How long has this conflict been going on?
  • What was the origin point of this disagreement?
  • How quickly have things escalated? 
  • How has magic or technology figured into the conflict as it is and as it’s developed?
  • What has motivated the continuation of this fighting?
  • What level of devastation have the people dealt with?
  • What is the military structure of the two sides?
  • How much do your characters know and understand about the history or reasons surrounding the war? How does that influence their feelings toward it?
  • Are there outside influences that are escalating the situation by getting involved? Perhaps manipulating or aiding one side?

Long-Time War

  • What event triggered the initial conflict? The war (if they’re two separate things)?
  • Do the people remember what started the war, or has too much time passed?
  • How has the constant presence of war altered the society and culture? 
  • How much fear is present in the day-to-day life of the citizens?
  • How do parents handle the knowledge that their children will undoubtedly go off to war at X age?
  • How has the family structure changed with the constant absence of soldiers?
  • Does lineage play any part in how likely a child is to be recruited or what level they start at?
  • How hardened have people come to war and death?
  • When does soldier training start for children? Is there a gender divide on who fights and who doesn’t? How is “fitness” determined for combat?
  • Has there been any tries at peace between the warring factions? How were they handled? Why did they fail?
  • Have art, literature, music etc. survived the enduring war? How has the umbrella of unrest affected the arts?
  • What do the people believe this war is trying to accomplish? Or do they accept it as a part of life that will likely never go away?

Sudden War

  • How do people cope with the upheaval of their lives?
  • How are soldiers selected and trained?
  • How informed are the general citizens?
  • How in-danger are the non-combatant people?
  • Are emotions running rampant, or are they in check? Or is ignorance bliss for most people?
  • How quickly did the inciting incident lead to the full-on war?
  • How well- or ill-tempered are the leaders of the sides and how does that contribute to the way the delegations, exchanges, and treaties are handled?
  • Are the people of the general public on board with going to war, or are they angry about their leaders’ involvement?
  • How well-documented and reported are the goings-on at the front lines/in governmental offices?

Civil Unrest

  • Why are the people unhappy or unsettled?
  • What groups are trying to resolve the issues or help the needy during the fragile times?
  • What are the opposing sides/ideas trying to accomplish and how are they balanced over discontentment rather than heading straight to war?
  • How much pressure is there to start an uprising?
  • Has the disagreement between some groups brought unity to others?
  • Is the unrest more mental and political, or are there mobs rioting in the streets?
  • Are there rumors (true or not) circulating that are adding to the tension?
  • Is there a press involved? How are their reportings affecting the people? How are they viewed by the ones in power?
  • How long has this unrest been present? Do people think that it will eventually lead to a revolution or war…or are they just resigned to the way things are?

Happy writing!

Check out the rest of the Brainstorming Series!
Magic Systems, Part One
Magic Systems, Part Two
New Species
New Worlds
New Cultures
New Civilizations
Politics and Government
Map Making
Belief Systems & Religion
Guilds, Factions & Groups
Science & Technology

Growth and Failure

The longer the story, the more failures there should be and the greater the change that should occur.

This is the case for anything you write, but the more episodic the series is, the more this holds true. TV series, ongoing web series, and web comics are the most obvious examples of this.

Basically what this means is that your characters can’t succeed at everything they try to do. One thing about shows like Supernatural (the early seasons) is that you as the viewer know that, for the most part, by the end of every episode, the Monster of the Week will have been defeated and everyone you care about will still be alive and healthy. There are overarching plots, but they are tangential to most episodes and don’t affect much.

In Stargate SG-1, on the other hand, they spend eight season facing one major enemy (the Goa’uld), and they spend many of the episodes fighting the Goa’uld in some form or another. And sometimes they fail and the Goa’uld win, and sometimes they win and that later helps the Goa’uld win, and sometimes they don’t fight the Goa’uld at all, and those missions may be either successful or not to a lesser degree. Beyond that, there are lower level failures: they try to make a spaceship and it almost kills some of them, they try to make a new spaceship, it doesn’t work as hoped at a pivotal moment and they almost lose the entire planet, they build a giant spaceship and it gets stolen (briefly), they build more giant spaceships and one gets shot down over a planet and then later they need to get that spaceship home and it (temporarily) gets stuck in a giant sentient gas cloud. All of this means that sometimes they don’t have a spaceship that can do what they need even though they’ve been trying to build one for most of the show, but at the end of the show, they end up with spaceships whose capabilities and weaknesses play a pivotal role in the show.*

My point in recounting all of that (other than to get you all to watch Stargate) is to show that, especially when you have a long series where you want to show a great deal of growth (and I’ll explain why you need that in a second), you can’t just have them win every time they try to grow or every time they try to defeat an enemy. You have to have them fail, too, or there will be no stakes and it will be hard to suspend disbelief.

So…why do you need growth?

Basically, if you end up in the same place that you started, what was the point of your story?

Well, you cry, they defeated the major enemy. Isn’t that enough?

And to that I ask (because I like holding imaginary teaching sessions): If they could defeat the major enemy (or if they could get the girl/boy/non-binary person, or if they could get into the school they wanted, or if they could do whatever else they want to do) with the capabilities they had in the beginning, why didn’t they? There is no need for a story if your characters have everything they need to succeed when the story starts.

And as for why you need failure? Here are three reasons.

One, failure is realistic. Things rarely work well on the first try, especially more than once, which means that the more things a character (or group, organization, etc.) is trying, the more they should fail. If you think about someone trying to learn a language, they basically never (without an eidetic memory) remember all words the first time they see/hear them, or use grammar perfectly on the first try, or pronounce every word correctly. They will get some, but they will rarely get all. The same should go for someone who is trying to learn how to fight, for example. Even if you get everything right the first time you are shown it (which may or may not happen), you’re not going to get it right every time. You might fail more at some things than at others, or fail at the same thing over and over. Sometimes it’s because you don’t understand how to do it, sometimes it’s because your brain and your body aren’t communicating well, and sometimes it’s because your muscles just aren’t strong enough or your body isn’t flexible enough for it to work. Those are all failures that can and do happen in real life.

Two, failure raises the stakes. If you know the main characters are going to succeed at everything they try, or that their failures aren’t going to have any consequences beyond that episode (or chapter, etc.), there are no stakes. There is no concern for whether the character will do well or whether they will be ready in time, because they always are. There is no risk, because there is no failure.

Three, failure is interesting. As we see in Stargate, entire episodes can be built around failures. Failures make for interesting storylines, and sometimes successes that turn into failures can turn into even more interesting storylines. You defeat the Big Bad only to have a Bigger Bad rise up because of it? That’s a great storyline, and shows what was ultimately a failure by the characters. You stop someone for personal reasons at the expense of stopping someone for strategic reasons? Great storyline, because it not only prolongs and changes the conflict, it also adds an opportunity for personal growth and/or conflict into the mix.

With that, failures can also cause really interesting interpersonal interactions. Let’s so all of the characters are counting on Bob to pull off one part of the plan, and despite trying his best, Bob fails. Now everyone blames Bob (or maybe some subset of them blame Bob, depending on their personalities) and it causes tension in the group. Maybe this tension ultimately leads to Bob leaving because he can’t take the blame anymore. Now you have a splintered group all from Bob’s one failure.

What types of growth and failure can you have?

(I’m glad you asked, me.)

Here are some examples (primarily for militaristic/adventure type stories, but there’s a mix)**:

  • Building an army (or a group of people)
    • Not be able to convince people to join
    • Have traitors in the midst
    • Have large numbers die/be killed
    • Have people defect
    • Have ideological/strategic differences with allies
  • Building a new form a transportation
    • Not have it ready in time
    • Have it not go far enough
    • Have it not go fast enough
    • Have it fail mid-journey
    • Have it explode mid-journey
  • Building a weapon
    • Not have it ready in time
    • Have it not work
    • Have it explode in testing
    • Have it fail during use
  • Learning to fight
    • Not be ready in time
    • Hurt self while training
    • Not have the strength
    • Not have the endurance
  • Learning magic
    • Lose control
    • Not have the magical capacity
    • Not understand the theory
    • Not perform key rituals
    • Perform key rituals wrong
    • Not have key materials
  • Learning a language
    • Forget vocabulary
    • Forget grammar
    • Not understand grammar
    • Be unable to pronounce words
    • Be unable to understand spoken words
    • Misunderstand nuances
  • Translating/decoding something
    • Misunderstand nuances
    • Mistranslate words
    • Know the wrong dialect
    • Have the wrong key
    • Looking for something
    • Follow misleading clues
    • Have someone else find it first
  • Taking territory
    • Not have sufficient forces
    • Not have sufficient ability to break walls
    • Lose too many forces
    • Be unable to hold territory
  • Getting a romantic partner
    • Cheat
    • Make bad decisions while intoxicated
    • Forget significant dates/events
    • Say inappropriate or mean things
    • Misunderstand what is being said
    • Miscommunicate
  • Getting a degree
    • Not having enough money
    • Not studying enough
    • Not getting good enough grades
    • Not having the time
    • Having other life issues that distract from it
  • Forming a government
    • Have ideological splits
    • Have political splits
    • Have factions form
    • Have coup attempts
    • Be unable to govern
    • Be unable to create a working organizational structure
    • Be unable to create adequate civil service (police, roads, etc.)

*Of course, Stargate has some of its own issues with this, like the fact that Daniel has been brought back to life more than once, so the viewers stop believing that Daniel is ever actually dead.

**When I use the term failure, I don’t mean that it is the fault of the character or organization (necessarily, though in some cases it might be). I just mean that it is not-success.