Thursday, August 23, 2012

Simple Plot Advice: Conflict

I got to thinking about plot today and thought about the simplified breakdown of man vs. man, or man vs. time, or this or that and etc.  And I thought about something I learned in screenplay writing.  First of all (and this should be something most of us already know): conflict creates plot, conflict drives plot, conflict is plot.  How do we get conflict?  That's the fun part.  You figure out what your character wants (short term or long term or both, or even what he wants right this moment) and then you prevent him from getting it.  This works for drama, comedy, supernatural, horror... anything.  It's like tequila.  It just works.

This is Bob.
This is what Bob wants.
In this chapter, Bob, a divorced construction worker, wants a pack of cigarettes.  So now you have point A and point B and the most important thing is to add obstacles (external and internal) between those points.  Some examples of external obstacles would be: no mode of transport to the gas station, no money to buy them, forgot ID at home, gets hit/run over by car, walks in wet cement and gets stuck... you get the idea.  Some examples of internal obstacles could be: is agoraphobic, has to quit smoking or his new girlfriend will dump him, he can go to the store but he has to call his ex to give him a ride and he loathes her... stuff like that.  The best obstacles are part internal and part external.  Observe: his ex shows up and drops off their child because she's going away on a romantic vacation with his construction buddy, he gets kidnapped by a group of radicals on the way to the gas station, he comes across a suffering animal and has to choose to leave it there to die or turn around and take it home.   This is all very basic stuff (but if anime has taught me anything, it's that you have to go back to your basics if you want to move forward!) and so now we've totally screwed up Bob's chances of getting his cigarettes.  Does he ever get them?  If he doesn't, what is his larger goal?  If he does, then what happens to him, and, more importantly, what happens to the cigarettes?  What choices does he make to overcome obstacles?  Those choices are what make for character development.  

This stands between Bob and his nicotine.  Poor Bob.
Another visual, simpler even, is the man climbing a mountain.  You are the evil god (the author) who decides to pick on Tom (the character).  He climbs a little; you make it rain.  He finds a dry spot to hide in; you put a bear in there waking up from hibernation.  He waits till the sun comes out; you have made sure he has mud to climb on.  He is close to the top; you break his leg.  He is about to give up; you show him a glorious rainbow.  He stands and continues climbing; you present him with a crevice too far to jump over.  Now you watch and wait and see what he does.  You might let him reach the top because you are an evil god, but not without mercy and, honestly, you have a real soft spot for guys like Tom.  That's why you made him to begin with, right?

The thing is: even if all your character wants is for the cute boy in class to notice them, you have to make each and every obstacle as important as a life and death decision.  And deliver the conflict in interesting ways that propel the character and the audience deeper into the story.  That will create excellent conflict and excellent plot.  I've always found that the squishy pleasant stuff takes care of itself - that the characters will make up, make love, make merry well enough on their own without you having to plan it too much - so rather than focus on giving them leeway, focus on messing up their lives and do it in ways appropriate to the genre, style, and setting of your story.  Then sit back and watch your characters grow.  Now I just need to take my own advice.

Amanda LaFantasie (Skoora) © 2012

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