How We Write Wednesday: Conflict Box–Failing and Fixing

Jenni made one thing clear about Conflict Lock last week: the conflict box seems simple enough, but when you try to chart conflict without motivation, which is essential to drill to the core of what drives your external story, things can get tricky. Lets get right to some examples to illustrate what we mean (review  our posts from last week again here and here  if you need to catch up), then I’ll wrap things up at the end of the post and get back to talking about what’s MOST important…character ;o)

My first pass at the conflict box for my WIP was a fail:

conflict box mine fail

Pretty good, right?

But notice the amount of yadda yadda. Never a good sign in a chart that’s supposed to be very simple.

Where I get myself into trouble with something like this is my (wait for it) need to understand character before I conquer the  mechanics of what will drive the characters’ external conflict.There are two ways to come to story, either plot first or character first. And I’m not saying either one is better than the other (well, I AM actually saying it elsewhere in HoWW, but for the purposes of this plotting exercise I’m keeping things neutral, so please, in the comments, admire my restraint however you feel moved to).

The parts of the goal descriptions that begin with “so,” have to go. Why the hero and heroine are doing what they’re doing isn’t important at this point. Likewise, the mention of “until his fear…” and her “inability to trust” are equally internal reflections.

The key to working with conflict lock, remember, is to focus on the actions, not the meanings. Don’t complicate things. Don’t do any more than you need to to insure the story will move forward outwardly. Then you can come back and plug in the layers of character depth that will make the story tension you’ve crafted shine.

What we want to see in a conflict box is how one character’s goal drives the other’s conflict–NOT how everyone feels about what they are or are not able to do throughout the course of the story (though the feelings are SO the point, and I resent not being able to dive right into them from the very start…pout).

My second pass (after much grumbling and careful pruning) got me closer:

conflict box mine

Neater. More concise. No messy emotion to muck things up (though it’s still not as straight forward as what Jenni can do…I’m just not worthy…).

It’s not just the streamlined look at what each character’s facing individually that I get from this rewrite. Now that I’ve focused on conflict alone, I can start to see how my characters goals will be causing each other’s problems. 

Now, I can take the conflict box apart and look at how each character’s goal is locking the other into conflict.

hero's goal

heroin's goal

Looking at it this way, it sounds so simple it’s a wonder I don’t do this first off with all my stories.

Except the thing is, I failed several times before even arriving at the first box I included above. And that one was still a “fail.” It still needed to be fixed. In fact, the whole point of doing a conflict box (or working with my Character Plotting chart or any other technique) IS to fail at first, then to keep working and fixing and mining deeper into your plot, until you better understand the story you’re trying to write.

In the case of conflict lock, at least for me, I know too much about my characters right from the start. I’m too focused on them, to make this a simple exercise of plug and chug. I could have given up at any point and not made my way through to what’s as close to a concise conflict box as this wordy girl’s going to get. Instead, I kept working and finessing and drilling deeper in to my plot until I understood what I needed to about it, to make what I already knew about my characters work even better. What an amazing technique, right? Especially for a hard-headed character-driven writer like me.

Like I said, it’s an exercise. This is a plotting method for making sure my story won’t fall off its rails halfway through my draft, no matter how much my characters are feeling. No matter how many times I have to go back to the conflict box and refine and rework and fix, until I get an external dynamic that’s focused enough to work with as I draft. Now I can rest assured. These two people will be in direct conflict as long as I keep each of their actions moving in the directions of the above goals and driving each other crazy as a result, causing them no end of trouble.

That’s thing about character and plot. While they end up being the same thing in the end, it’s important to see them as their own things at the beginning. To fiddle with character emotion and how it will arc through the story without looking at plot, then to see plot development without letting internal motivation blind you to what may or may not be happening on the page while the characters are feeling.

Not so simple at all. Not an easy job, this novel writing thing. And that’s why we’re talking each week about How We Write. Jenni and I come at this from different perspectives, which makes for great work together when we critique and brainstorm. You can use the same techniques with your writing group, or even working with yourself, on your own stories. To dig deeper and plan better and rewrite with more purpose. That’s how our manuscripts get better. We assure you, putting in the same amount of work will help you. No secret handshakes. No quick fixes. Just lots of time and effort and love of the craft and willingness to understand what you’re doing deeply enough that the story flows onto the page and makes what you’ve done come alive for the reader.

Jenni’s got something brilliant to say about narrative structure next Wednesday, so don’t miss out. Ask questions below about the conflict chart, ’cause I think we’re moving on after my rather impressive attempt to get ‘er done this week, despite my aversion to plotting. Share your conflict boxes if you’re feeling brave and want extra gold stars. Share your journey through your story, so others can cheer you on and learn from your experience.

Just to recap, here’s March’s HoWW plot journey so far:

And the Character (and critique/brainstorming) posts we spotlighted in February:

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4 Responses to “How We Write Wednesday: Conflict Box–Failing and Fixing”

  1. And the plotting control freak wants to “condense” your conflict box!

    One of the reasons why Anna has so much yadda, yadda, yadda, as she pointed out is because of all that character knowledge. The reason my boxes generally have only one or two words in each box is because I don’t know my characters. If you come at it from character perspective, doing what Anna did by continuing to narrow the focus is a really good exercise in tightening the plot. I have to do the opposite. Once I have conflict lock, I have to go mining….

  2. Regan says:

    Awesome illustration!

    Fixing and revising is so vital, even – or maybe especially – with ‘plotting’. (you know it killed me to admit that) ;)

    I’m always too ‘chatty’ when I start out with charts, but as you said, it’s about ‘failing’ forward to give the reader the best experience.

    Thanks for these very helpful posts, Anna and Jenni!

  3. Mary Preston says:

    I enjoyed reading the conflicts more than the goals. It fascinating to see how hard the characters need to work.

  4. Loved this! I have a workable conflict box from last week but seeing how you mined yours down so much–and knowing I come from a character centered approach myself–I think I may dive back in to make sure it is as tight as possible. Thanks!

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