I've got a whole manuscript, and just now come to the realization that I don't have an overarching conflict. There's a protagonist who appears at the beginning, disappears while a new minor protag comes in, and then returns at the end--but that ends up creating more questions than answering them. Any suggestions? (I know I didn't give very much detail, sorry ): )
I think you’ve prompted a great topic anon :)
The Overarching Conflict
You talk about a lack of an overarching conflict. Let’s break that down to what that actually means. When we say a story has an overarching conflict, we’re talking about a conflict that is present throughout the whole story and contains all of the “plot stuff.” The plot stuff includes all your characters’ actions (protagonist, antagonist, and any and all minor characters), and any plot events. All of this “stuff” should be happening within your story’s main conflict.
Our anon is suggesting that their story breaks in the middle so that the overarching conflict is split momentarily, before it continues on down to the end, so that it looks like this:
The black rectangle is this interruption from the overarching conflict. It’s divergent plot information that leaves the main conflict and goes off somewhere else to create a brand new arc. Imagine if the black line disrupting our arc here goes straight up and then expands to become the bottom of a new arc. So you basically have a story that branches off into another story and may come back or may not come back.
This is what the anon thinks is going on, and yeah it’s not a great situation. But this may not be where you’re at, at all. Because there’s a difference between an interruption to your plot and an interruption to your conflict. So I’m suggesting that perhaps the anon is dealing with the situation in the graphic below. And if not, this is what they should strive to get to.
You can go off on as many tangents in your plot as you want, so long as it still is contained inside your conflict. What does that look like? Here’s an example.
In the Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet, the book begins from Watson’s perspective, as we usually expect. This is the first novel, so he meets Holmes and they begin investigating a case together. But about halfway through, the story suddenly flashes back 30 years to a setting we’ve yet to see with characters we’ve never met. It seems tangential, unrelated, and distant to the plot at hand. And yet, by the time this diversion comes back around to the present day, we now understand the context and motive of the story’s murder. The “tangent” worked because it was contributing to the conflict - the murder that Holmes and Watson were investigating.
It’s okay to switch points of view halfway through, and it’s okay to delve off into plot points that seem to go off on tangents, and it’s okay to completely turn your story on its head to pursue something unexpected. The key is keeping it within your story’s defined conflict. For all of these black rectangles that try to disrupt your plot, don’t let them break through the conflict boundary. They might form new mini-conflicts, and they might run amok inside the smaller circle under the arc, but as long as they stay inside that blue area in my graphic, you should be okay.
Cleaning up a Messy Ending
As for your concern that you’re raising too many new issues without resolving old ones, that’s just a matter of problem solving. As you’re heading into the downturn of your story’s overarching conflict (around the climax area), list everything that you see as unresolved. Don’t be afraid of how long this list is. A long list doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s a mess. It just means it’ll take a little more thought to bring it all together. And you can bring it together!
For each item on your list of unresolved issues, think about a specific solution for each problem. Your goal is to develop solutions for each issue individually. Break it down piece by piece. Hells yes it’s overwhelming to plot an ending when you’ve got so many loose strings tangled up together. So isolate them. Try to untangle each string one at a time.
Then, once you’ve figured out how to tie up each loose end by itself, you can start to look at the bigger picture. And at this point, you might be able to see points where you can tie up two ends with one knot. Two unanswered questions may be resolved in one idea.
It’s a lot of work, so be patient with yourself. Immerse yourself in the process, and enjoy it! Working through these problems can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding.