The question every author has to answer: where’s the conflict in every scene? As we all know by now, without conflict there is no story. But what makes a thoroughly engaging story is some kind of conflict in every scene.
This doesn’t mean a full screaming argument, or a fight, or Jack Reacher blowing something up. It may be a conflict between multiple characters, or only one; a conflict of values, of conscience, of action. Choosing to do something or nothing is itself a conflict or choice. Let’s stay proactive and do something; is it the right thing or the wrong thing? There’s conflict.
Consider the opening scene of City of Vipers. It’s a flash-forward to the climax; two men in a room trying to kill each other. So far, so conventional; what we call external conflict.
Scene two is Jo, on a hill, staring down at the capitol city. She wants to go in and kill the Emperor. She also wants to run away from it all with her found family and hide. That’s the internal conflict of incompatible wants. Weighing up both, she has to decide.
Scene three sees the crew around a table, planning their entry into the city. Risto argues for cunning and disguise. Varla would rather they stealthily climb over the wall at night. Jo doesn’t relish the odds of either approach, but has the casting vote. There’s both external and internal conflict in the scene.
Scene nine sees Jo dragging her ex, Galyn, now a young constable, into her plot. Galyn took an oath to uphold the law. It’s in conflict with his loyalty to Jo. She fully exploits his loyalty to get his co-operation. It’s exactly the kind of manipulation she hates. Both of them have their internal conflicts of values beneath the external conflict of the plot where they are on opposing sides.
We’ve all had a drink…
Scene eighteen is a dialogue between Galyn and Varla. It’s essentially two blokes having a beer in a pub. Galyn’s a lightweight, getting drunk on his first beer. Varla never drinks to get drunk. One is a young constable who thinks he can fight. The other is older, a notorious rebel survivor from the civil war who resents authority. The constable carries a candle for Jo, currently in a relationship with the dangerous outlaw. There’s two, three, four levels of tension between the two men straight away, seething and bubbling.
But the constable wants to assert his masculinity. The beer has him making threats he can’t possibly act on. All it does is rile the outlaw in a way that goads the constable into harsher threats. Neither really wants to harm the other for spite, they’re two genuinely good men. Yet the conflict escalates.
But it’s still just two blokes having a beer in a pub. While they’re waiting for the girlfriend to appear.
Jo’s overheard the whole thing. And she’s not happy with either of them. Her internal conflict is what to do about the pair of them. She needs to re-assert her independence. They’re both wrong on multiple counts, for different reasons. She doesn’t want to take sides. Should she say something or say nothing? Adminish one, or both, or neither? She needs both of them on side for the mission.
Bridge over troubled water
Someone asked about bridging scenes as a way of getting from one scene to another; a mysterious ‘bit in the middle.’ To what end?
What they meant was the pairing of Action and Sequel scenes, to prevent two action scenes following one after the other. A sequel scene contains some reflection on what just happened in the action scene. What did it signify? Why was it important? What are the consequences about to befall? And what is the conclusion? A sequel scene ends with a realisation, or better, a decision to take forward. What are the stakes and the further consequences?
The action scene went well? What’s the next step forward in the plan? What’s the next action? If all is well with the world, can we bask in satisfaction and enjoy the blissful moment? If you believe ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’ then what consequence of that action is about to rebound on the protagonist? What unintended consequence is about to halt or obstruct their plan?
The action scene went badly? What are the immediate consequences? Here is a space for the protagonist’s suffering to unfold. And after, what’s the recovery action to mitigate this failure?
These are branches for the story to follow. The conflict lies in the decision the character has to make; do something or do nothing. Doing nothing makes for a dull protagonist. Preferably, they must choose one of several equally unappealing options, each of which carries personal costs and consequences which the reader needs to know. The pain of choosing should always be clear. There should be no easy options.
The conflict in every scene is a principle that applies in all good novels. Without some conflict, a scene is just so much filler. Internal reflection isn’t just thinking, it demands some realisation, some weighing of choices taken or yet to choose. Perhaps it’s stay in the hometown with family or leave go to college? Pursue a one’s own dream of becoming an artist or pursue someone else’s dream of becoming a lawyer? Whose happiness to sacrificed and at what cost? Where’s the Conflict in every scene?