Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Your Conflict Is Solved Will Make Or Break Your Story

Managing the conflict in our stories can often be a difficult challenge. In many ways, the situation is like those waiters that are carrying in their hands a ton of plates on trays, or in our case here, a lot of great summer drinks. Somehow, they have to get those trays, through the busy restaurant to our table. If they make it, we
enjoy (if we ordered well). If, on the other hand, something gets in their way, we lose out. And, we do remember that in many cases, when that waiter does end up spilling our food, it s often not due to what he did, but something that happened externally.

Now I do understand there are a lot of different types of conflict out there, but today, I want to focus primarily on that main driving conflict of the story. This is the one the entire story arc is built around.

As a reader, we entered your story with the characters. We have seen how the characters that you created, and hopefully we have really gotten connected with, work through the problems and the conflicts in front of them. Writers often use the term "journey" here and it really is. This is a tough journey to travel, but, as readers again, we know the final destination will be well worth it. You know that feeling you have when you finish a book and just sit there for a few minutes enjoying the trip? We get that feeling because we have worked long and hard, with the character to get through that huge conflict in the story.

But, for far too many authors, they take the wrong approach to solving the conflict. Instead of the character solving the conflict, they bring in some outside force to fix it for them. Sure the problem is solved, but the satisfaction we get as a reader of knowing that the character was able to fix the problem, on their own (OK with our help), is simply not there. We wanted to see those characters use all of the skills and traits you have shown us up until this point to get though the challenge and then, you have someone else do it for them. Come on! What was the point in that?

Think of this example. I do like a lot of things about this story, but I think it demonstrates a twist of this pretty well. In Disney's Princess and the Frog, we see the life Tiana has grown up in. She really had a tough life, but her dad always kept telling her through hard work and a belief you could do it, she would succeed. But here is the twist that really brings it down. How does she end up with the restaurant she started the movie working so hard for? The money of someone else. Naveen buys it for her. Now, before you start getting all worked up, I know there are other messages here. I am a Disney fan and I get it, but, in terms of solving a conflict, this is what I meant. We really see the same thing in the new movie PLANES by Pixar. Dusty does nothing to win the game. Everyone else just jumped in and saved him.

Now let's look at some characters who are better examples and once again, we return to Disney. Consider Belle and Mulan. Both know what they want and individually, they go out and fix the problem. They use their skills, their talents and the knowledge from their own back story to work through the conflict that stands in front of them. And, when they succeed, the sense of satisfaction of a "job well done" shines through.

For writers, they often bring in those external solutions for one of two reasons. The first is they are simply getting tired of writing. They see the end and simply want to get there. It is like those stories we wrote in the 7th grade (or that one season of Dallas). We had to write 2 pages, we were getting to the end of that last page and really didn't want to pull out another piece of paper so we ended it with, "and then he woke up and it was all a dream." Bad ending.

The second reason, and I do believe this is the one more authors fall into, is the simple fact that they didn't plan ahead. There wasn't enough initial planning and the conflict they chose simply couldn't be solved (or it wasn't significant enough). They have worked long and hard and ended up with a situation that could only be solved by external intervention. Also a bad ending.

As an agent, this is often one of those things that I end up finding as a reason for passing on a story. Sure the initial three to five chapters are great, but when I look at that synopsis and find that the author brought in that external intervention to fix it for them... well, you get the idea.

So how are  you solving the central conflict. Are you letting your characters do it? Or, are you fixing it for them. Remember, if you do it for them, they don't learn anything!


  1. Resolving the central conflict is often what I struggle with most. Getting my characters to fix things for themselves is sometimes difficult for me to wrap my head around.

    Oh and Planes is also a Disney movie, not Pixar.

  2. Good advice. Definitely worth more thought. Oh, and if I'm not mistaken, Disney bought Pixar 6 or 7 years ago. So, technically he's right.

  3. Yes, Disney does own Pixar. That makes every Pixar movie also a Disney movie. It does not make every Disney movie a Pixar movie.