What’s Driving Your Plot? by Janice Hardy

Hello, friends! Today I've got a special guest for you guise, Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars trilogy and several writing books, most recently Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means). Hope you enjoy!

Conflict encompasses a wide scope of problems and situations, and can be as varied and interesting as you want to make it. But no matter what type of conflict a character faces, it presents a challenge in how to resolve the conflict. That challenge leads to a choice on the best course of action, and that choice forces the character to act. And that’s good, since those challenges, choices, and actions create and drive the plot (the combination of internal and external conflicts). Without conflicts, the protagonist would have no problems at all, and there'd be no story.

On one side, we have the external conflicts. These are challenges the protagonist has to physically overcome to resolve the core conflict problem (and all the smaller problems along the way). They’re the actions she takes to fix the problems preventing her from getting her goal. They’re what make up most of the action in the plot, since this is what the protagonist does from scene to scene.

For example:

  • Protagonist wants to find her missing sister, but someone has stolen the security tapes covering the parking lot she was last seen in.
  • Protagonist wants to impress her date on their trail ride, but she has no idea how to ride a horse.
  • Protagonist wants to surprise his girlfriend with breakfast in bed, but he has to get her kids out of the house first.

External conflicts are based on how the protagonist uses her intelligence, skills, and resources (or lack thereof) to overcome an external challenge. The key thing to remember with external conflicts is that resolving them takes action—the protagonist does something. While she might take a moment (or longer) to come up with a plan to overcome the challenge, it’s what she does that resolves it.

Generally speaking, the scene will unfold like this: The protagonist will be trying to achieve a goal when she’s presented with a challenge (she’s trying to do something in a scene and something stops her—the conflict). She’ll either react on instinct and try to overcome that challenge, or take time to decide what to do (how much time is up to the writer). The difficulty of the challenge, the level and type of conflict, and the competence of the protagonist determine how that challenge is resolved. What happens at the end of the challenge leads to the next goal of the plot and the next challenge.

This is essentially plotting in conceptual form. Pursue a goal, face a challenge, outsmart or overpower it, proceed to the next challenge with a new goal.

Of course, just watching someone complete a series of tasks can get boring after a while. Most external challenges just require skill, strength, or intelligence to overcome, others will be much harder to resolve due to personal issues. To counter potential task boredom, another layer of conflict is often added to keep the story interesting. This is where the internal conflicts kick in.

Internal conflicts are the emotional, ethical, or mental struggles a character faces while trying to decide what to do about an external problem. The challenge isn’t a physical thing in the way, but a struggle within the protagonist to make the right choice. It’s the mental and emotional debate the protagonist needs to have in order to resolve an external problem.

For example:

  • Protagonist wants to save her missing sister, but doing so will reveal a secret she can’t afford to have known.
  • Protagonist wants to be loved, but her refusal to compromise keeps her alone.
  • Protagonist wants to romance his girlfriend, but he doesn’t want to risk making her kids mad and their not liking him.

An external task that’s easy to complete can be made difficult by adding an emotional roadblock. What needs to be done is clear, but the protagonist doesn’t want to resolve it that way for personal reasons. Either the right choice has consequences she doesn’t want to suffer, or there is no good choice—whatever she does has serious ramifications.

Internal conflicts are based on who the protagonist is and what has happened to her in her life, and this past makes it harder for her to make decisions and resolve her external challenges. They typically come from the morals and ethics of the character, and more often than not, choosing one side negates the other and the protagonist can’t have it both ways.

Internal conflicts are great opportunities to put the protagonist in the hot seat and force her to decide who she is and what she stands for. How far is she willing to go to help a friend? What will she risk? What does she value? Her struggles while making a decision shows readers who she really is as a person.

Mixing the two create a plot- and story-driving engine that keeps readers invested in what problems might be faced and where the emotional challenges will come from. It not only piques readers’ interest about what could happen, but it makes them wonder why, and anticipate how the protagonist will overcome the conflict.

So, what’s driving your plot?

Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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