Conflict: Ramp up Drama
Last week I talked about beginnings of stories and this week I’m taking on the dreaded…sagging middle of a story…aka Act II…and the part where all the drama and plot happens in a story. And as much as I want to believe authors celebrate and acknowledge this section of the story, the fact is a lack of true conflict in stories happens too frequently and too many plots are easily resolved with one question.
Act One, the beginning, is exciting to write because you’re inventing people, places, and problems. The end or Act III is easy because it’s a culmination of tension and the reveal of either love or death or a moment that changes everything—a black moment.
But it’s the stuff in the middle of those two that takes a lot of work.
Sometimes combining action, dialogue, setting, and so much more into words comes naturally–I’d say about 1.945% of the time for 1.982% of the writers. But the other 98.008% of us writers have to think about how to make a story sing and keep readers interested…and more. Because if we don’t, we can end up writing a story where no drama, no events, no problems, and no progress ever exists.
And it’s a fact…
Readers want drama.
Readers want problems. Readers want to see characters mixed up and torn down and drug through the mud before they figure their lives out. Readers do not want a blasé, so-so, emotionally bereft story with characters who never progress from the first chapter and remain exactly the same. But planning the drama can take energy and is always a hard examination of what your character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts really are.
So “sagging middles” happen when characters in a story are just living their ho-hum lives. Sagging middles of stories occur when characters aren’t faced with major hurdles to lead to changes in both their external lives and their internal emotions. And boring–ahem, I mean sagging–middles continue when characters don’t face problems head on in a timely manner.
Imagine reading a book where the author tells you the brand of toothpaste a character loves? Why does it matter? Normally that kind of information doesn’t. BUT…if he’s self-conscious about his teeth cause he stopped smoking three years ago after a long bout of lung cancer and the stains remind him of how close he came to mortality, knowing why he thinks about what kind of toothpaste he chooses could be the beginning of a conflict which could propel a reader forward.
It’s examining what conflict is needed to show the themes and will resonate toward a solution most effectively.
My writing friend, Cheryl St. John relays that in romance, the central conflict usually revolves around “Why can’t he love her?” and “Why can’t she love him?”. What is it keeping the two lovers apart?
This conflict usually involves two sides: an internal component (emotional/past event/himself) and an external component (man/nature/inanimate object).
A cowboy/ rancher sets his sights on the mayor’s daughter who moved back to town after her husband died in an accident, but in the process of wooing her, he not only to find out the mayor is coming for his land to create a new state park but that the object of his affection remains loyal to her father.
So in the example, we have good conflict, but it’s always about ratcheting up the conflict that helps to make a story go from interesting to great. Hurdles for the character to overcome are those conflicts.
I’ve heard of an exercise when trying to figure out the conflicts of an Act II. Take your main conflict and write it on a 3×5 notecard. Then start dreaming up other conflicts that could happen. Fill out a new card for each, starting it with “but” or “but then”. And then other conflicts.
In our example, ratcheting and advancing might include:
But his brother wants to sell out to use the money to follow his own dream.
But then the house catches on fire on the property and our cowboy/rancher has to live in the barn.
But the property has been in his family for 200 years, he feels an obligation.
But he’s had a crush on this girl since high school when he was a geek and she was the shy girl who never spoke to anyone.
But back then he was a geek, but not anymore, he’s matured in all the right ways.
But she won’t call him back and when he sees her in town she ignores him.
But the mayor has a heart attack and his love is upset.
But she has never rebelled against her father.
After a writer has 15-20 cards with conflicts, then they can decide which ones seem most likely and write the meat of the story off of those conflicts. When determining conflict take a look at each card trying to see if there is dilemma, denial or decision to be written out…and how much drama is there to be explored. Which ones lead to great dialogue? Which conflicts can’t be handled quickly? Do any of these hinder his ability to get his goal?
What we need to keep in mind is that drama is between two people—not one sided. If the hero and heroine aren’t actually clashing or coming to heads about something important to both of them, it’s a lost battle from the beginning and the reader won’t care. In every scene, one character wants something from another character.
There you have it–Conflict–ratchet up the drama writers! Bring on the emotional issues, the people who want to keep them apart, and the storms to drown readers on an excitement roller coaster.
Next week I’ll be talking about the end of a story.
Until then–have a great week!