One of the greatest challenges I currently face writing is how to integrate more conflict into my stories. It isn’t conflict itself that I struggle with. I feel comfortable with the main points of conflict between my characters and have developed some confidence in demonstrating internal conflict. Where I struggle is deciding when to present that conflict within my story arc and how to demonstrate that conflict to the reader. Sometimes I get lost in writing the story and forget that the reader doesn’t know everything that I know. When that happens I have to remind myself that I’m introducing them to my world and if I want to keep them as readers I need to help them invest in the trials of my characters.
My writing references tell me that I should (whenever possible) have internal and external conflict in every scene. That is a lot of conflict to keep in my head at once. To help myself identify and become intimate with the conflict in each scene I’m writing a detailed outline of my story (chapter by laborious chapter). The backbone of the outline will be the plot, the hero’s journey for my protagonist. Wrapped around this backbone I plan to detail each type of conflict that is taking place in my novel and trace the arc of that conflict as the timeline of my story progresses. I’ve used visual exercises in the past as a brainstorming tools and I find that a visual reference is sometimes just what I need to draw my attention to a missing plot point or in the case identify places where conflict my be lacking.
The conflict map.
Pull out a long (legal size or larger) piece of paper and several colored pencils. Turn the paper lengthwise to give yourself as much room as possible to detail the linear path of your plot. Begin by drawing a straight line and mark it at regular intervals with the major plot points of your story. (The example below shows a very simple plot of Little Red Riding Hood.) Once you have your plot laid out identify the main conflict in your story and assign it a colour. In your story is the main conflict man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself or man vs. god? Place a coloured dot on the line where this conflict is first revealed to the reader. Then mark each point of escalation of this conflict until the final resolution and draw your arc. The main conflict in Little Red Riding Hood is the encounter with Wolf, marked below in Red. Then repeat the above exercise for each type of conflict you can find in the story. Is there conflict at each point in your plot? What does your conflict map reveal about your story?