Conflict and Plot

I found this article by Dennis Foely to be excellent in summing up the basics of plot and conflict. It is only the tip of his article and I highly recommend you search him out. Read on….

Lest I create some confusion, what follows applies to each plot in your novel. They are each stories. But for this assignment we’ll only be concerned with your main plot.

Many new novelists are baffled by the constant reference to the need for goals and conflict in their manuscripts. They hear it at writers’ conferences, in fiction writing courses and from other writers. And they even find mention of goals/conflict in article after article in how-to magazines for writers.

And these same novelists might often ask why we need both goals and conflict. The answer comes in the end product that your reader expects to find. What he expects is a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. Let me repeat an often used definition of a novel. It’s the story of a character who wants (or needs) something badly, but there are problems.

Okay, fine. That seems like a given, doesn’t it? You would think so. But way too often the same novelists are unaware of the difference between story and episodic experiences buckled together in a serial manner.

We live our days episodically. These are events, mostly initiated by others, that occur one after another. We even try to put things in the order of first things first or organize them so that handling events in our path are reduced to the least amount of effort or cost in time. In real life obstacles are often situational or static. Or they are simply a combination of unrelated hindrances that make the job or task at hand more difficult. Only occasionally do you find someone out to cause you to fail at achieving some goal. Still, it happens. You want to become a cheerleader. There are only five spots of the squad. There are eight candidates. One of them is determined to block you from being selected so that she may get a slot and starts a vicious rumor campaign that she believes will kill your chances. We move from one goal to the next. Our lives follow a sine wave of ups (obstacles) and downs (successes) that make our path look like a porpoise’s.

In a novel we want to start our character out at some point in his fictional life, quickly give him a reason to want to do something, get him on his feet to pursue it only to find someone or something making this pursuit either quite difficult or nearly impossible and let him put his head down and wade into the struggle.

Remember that conflict is the essential element of drama. That same requirement does not go away when writing a memoir or even humorous novel. If a manuscript is absent conflict it is, in effect, absent effort and failure. It means that you have a story where failure to accomplish something, become something, achieve something, acquire something, or escape something is not foremost in the mind of your character — thus he has no goal.

Your character’s main goal (not always the one he starts the novel with) is what generates the motion of your story. Fiction is what comes of goal and obstacle — protagonist who wants/needs something and antagonist bent on keeping it from happening. Your character’s goal must move him to action.

A story without a primary driving goal is a story which has no inherent direction.


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