A few days ago, I received a message, via Twitter, about a serious problem that writers often face. I decided to use this week’s blog post as an opportunity to answer it it. The message was as follows--
“I struggle with keeping a plot entertaining. I get a riveting idea for a story, but it seems like my stories are always between something. The moments of action are great and well received, but they don’t last long enough.”
It strikes me that this problem is less an issue with your plot ideas, and more an issue with the way you’re writing your individual scenes.
Take Lord of the Rings for example. The basic premise is actually quite simple. The Dark Lord, Sauron, desires a ring of great power. He cannot be allowed to get it. At the Council of Elrond, Frodo is given a daunting task - to destroy the ring in the only way it can be destroyed: by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom.
Most would agree that this plot has a lot of potential, but few realize how much work Tolkien did to keep things from becoming stagnant. Even using the very same premise, Frodo could have spent the vast majority of the book simply hiking through scenic landscapes and talking about how hard it was to carry the ring so great a distance. He could have snuck into Mordor and simply thrown the ring in the fire and been done with the whole damn thing! That version of the book could have had the exact same characters and a virtually identical plot, but it would never have had the success of the actual book. Why? Because the scenes that compose that story are lacking in conflict.
Now, you have the short solution to your problem: add conflict! Unfortunately, that, by itself, is a balancing act. Forcing conflict will make your story come across as melodrama - which is fine if you're writing a soap opera, but it is unsuitable for any other genre, including comedy. So, we're left with another question:
"How are we to naturally fill the 'between' moments with enough conflict to keep our story entertaining?"
Most of my writing guru colleagues, would probably point to Aristotle’s “Four Types of Conflict”:
Man versus Man
Man versus Nature
Man versus Society
Man versus Self
This might be helpful to some, but at its core, it is only a list of categories for already existing conflicts to be be shoved into. In my opinion, the ability to fill in the “between”, lies in a mode of thinking. Here are some key pieces of advice to help get yourself in the frame of mind to easily generate conflict--
Avoid a “Builder’s Mindset”
“This is going to be really good in a few chapters!”
“Once she finds out Brian’s secret, things will really pick up!”
“If I can just get her back into her lover’s arms somehow, I can continue with the story!”
If this kind of thinking sounds familiar, be very scared. You may be suffering from a Builder’s Mindset. Many writers build their stories like a Jenga tower - stacking one boring block after another until finally, KABOOM! It all comes crashing down!
Don't misunderstand. It’s fine to build a conflict, but you should always be searching for situations of CONSTANT CONFLICT.
For example, due to the nature of the ring, every step Frodo takes, is a step near someone who could try to rob him of it. This kind of conflict is what keeps readers turning the page. Any other conflict in the story must resolve itself - and when it does, you don’t want your characters to be stuck on Cloud 9 on a bright summer’s day… nothing is more boring than characters relieved of their burdens.
Look for Areas Where Your Character’s Goals Might Lead Them to Conflict
Let’s take a completely random goal. Let’s say your first person character wants to leave a forest with a freshly stolen pot of gold. Great. Wonderful. There are a lot of possible conflicts that could arise--
Man versus Leprechaun: The Leprechauns might have a use planned for that pot of gold. At the very least, it probably took them a long time to collect it. They don’t want to see it go.
Man versus Man: You’re stealing gold from cute little forest sprites… The guilt must be tremendous.
Man versus forest creatures: You’re destabilizing the economy for the whole forest. Tinker Bell was just approved for a loan so she could pay the mortgage on the hole in the tree behind the river. She and all her fairy friends now want to kick your ass.
Look for Areas Where Your Character’s Personality Might Lead Them to Conflict
This is typically the driving force of tragic plays. Hamlet’s inability to take action is what keeps him spiralling to his doom. Had he taken arms against his sea of troubles and killed his uncle/stepfather, Claudius, as he knelt in prayer, the play would have simply ended.
Constantly Ask Yourself, “What Could Go Wrong?”
Some of the world’s greatest authors constantly asked themselves this question. Tolkien was one of them. I can vividly imagine how the scene on the mountain Caradhras was brought about - Tolkien bent over his maps, muttering to himself: “Okay… So, I’m saving an orc attack, and the forces of Sauron and Saruman are both too far away… No, we can’t have a character slipping - that would be too melodramatic… No, it's too early for Boromir, and this kind of setting is too open... hm… ah! I bet Saruman could use his magic to force them off of the mountain, and into a place where the conflict is easier to control: the ruins of the Mines of Moria!”
Do this in your own story. Guide the conflict! Let’s say nothing has happened in your story for a while, and your character, Michael, is supposed to meet a super secret CIA contact. If all goes well, he will be able to get his identity, social security number and fingerprints placed back into the system… but what could go wrong?
His contact is not there.
He is there, but refuses to return his identity until Michael does something else.
He is assassinated before Michael can get what he needs.
He is there with a long sheet of taxes that he wasn’t paying the IRS during that comfortable time where he didn’t exist…
In asking yourself what can go wrong, you are, in essence, giving yourself a list of options. From there, choose the one that has the best balance of naturalness and intensity.
By using these modes of thought to keep your story in constant conflict, you cut out the “between”. If you focus on them as you write, your writing will never be the same.