Conflict – Scene/Sequel, No(and)/Yes(but), Internal/External

I’m adding a new area to the blog – I wanted someplace to keep track of writing techniques/craft that I have ideas about or that I learn. A quick-hits list, to remind me of things I need to watch out for or that I need to remember when I get bogged down.

So, first up is a thought I had this morning after a very successful writing session last night. I was really able to get into flow and the words came so easily. And it all had to do with a character vignette that I thought of on the spot dealing with conflict. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the character and it added a HUGE change to the way I perceive this character. But what I am most proud of is how I dealt with conflict – I had an external conflict trigger an internal one in the character which then got externalized with my main character. It just worked so nicely. But as I got thinking about it, the experience in isolation is not as powerful. I wanted to find a way to make sure I could reproduce this kind of flow in the future, rather than waiting on a moment of well-timed inspiration.

As I to thinking about the ways that I have heard conflict expressed and how it is used in story telling, I keep coming back to some things that I have heard on the podcast in the past. Mary Robinette Kowal’s approach of No(and)/Yes(but) has always appealed to me because it provides a very easy way to know if you are pushing the characters and yourself as a writer towards the meaty stuff. I also gravitate to Howard Taylor’s “scene”/”sequel” idea which pushes things into an action/reaction cycle. Then there is the advice that they’ve given in the past about internal vs. external conflict. Internal conflict is sometimes hard to see/identify because by nature, it is internal; so in story telling, anytime you can get a situation where an external event triggers the internal conflict to come out and be externalized, the moment is stronger, more emotional. That was what made last nights session so fulfilling for me – that’s exactly what I did, but I stumbled into is rather than plan is out.

My thought this morning was of a way to combine all of that into a simple idea – conflict in every scene. Now that’s not a new idea, but I had never figured out how to make it really work in practice. So this is what I plan to do. Every scene has to have conflict. Period. I’m not allowed to write something that doesn’t have an element of conflict in it. But I want to make sure that I get the right amount and right type of conflict. If you spend too much time on external conflicts, the characters can often appear flat and emotionless, hard for the reader to identify with. If yo have too much internal conflict, the action slows and the pace drops off, which can make the read bored. So to get the balance right, I think its a balance of methods.

Here’s how it would work – I’m planning a scene.

  1. Is this “scene” or “sequel”(from the Howard approach, i.e action/reaction)? Do the opposite of the previous scene.
  2. What type of conflict (internal/external) was the previous? Do the opposite of the previous scene.
  3. Use the No (and)/Yes (but) methodology to develop the action/conflict.
  4. If is the first scene (beginning of book/part), you starting point should probably be “scene”, external as a way to engage the reader rapidly.

So, an example. If I just wrote a scene with external conflict (character gets into fight with family member) and that was caused by a reaction to something in the plot did (“sequel”). The next scene (the one I’m planning) then needs to be internal conflict, “scene” – the opposites of the previous. The “scene” means it has to be a new conflict, something only tangentially related to the fight. Each “scene” contains a new conflict that we haven’t seen yet (or revisits one from earlier) while each “sequel” contains the reaction to that new conflict. If the conflict was external in the “scene” the “sequel” needs to contain an internal conflict. And visa versa.

This can be scaled up from working at the scene level to the chapter, part, book, series level. Say I have several chapters that cover the same external conflict (an ongoing battle), the scenes within that chapter still need to bounce, but within the overarching framework of the larger conflict. This is part of how TV/Cable series that have been successful use the episode conflict/season conflict to great effect.

I think this will work because it forces me as a writer to shift things around. The reader is kept engaged by being moved from external to internal to external; the get the chance for reflection with the scene/sequel format; and it is much easier to up the stakes using the No(and)/Yes(but) approach.

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