It took me an embarassingly long time to work this out: conflict is everything.

Do you know what happened to the first story I wrote once I worked it out? When I first focused on deliberately working it into every paragraph? It won WotF.

If you only ever take one piece of advice from me, take this: you need more conflict.


Okay, so some caveats to this series of posts: I am not an authority on writing in any way, shape or form. I mean, I'm pretty good at the alphabet these days, but I'm still learning my craft. These posts are not intended as a "how to write" course, and definitely not as a "one true path to WotF victory" course, but more to demonstrate the level of craft I had to achieve before I got anywhere. Winging it and hoping the stories were good by accident doesn't--didn't--work. You have to work with intent.

It should also go without saying that these posts are going to be rich with spoilers for Squalor & Sympathy. You can read it in full in Writers of the Future vol 32, on this site or listen to it (for free!) on Podcastle.


Micro Conflicts

You need conflict at the macro level of the overarching plot, of course. Hopefully that much is obvious--there needs to be an antagonist of some description whom the protagonist struggles against. I'll cover plot structure another time.

But just as important--and probably more so--are the micro conflicts. These are the paragraph level conflicts that pull you through the prose and don't let you look away. These are the conflicts you use like bricks, overlapping them to build a wall. These are the conflicts you use from the very first word to hook your reader, before they know what your main plot is.

Examples time! I'm mostly going to work from the start of the story, which you can read here.


Squalor and Sympathy

Yup. The title. Because those two words, even before you know their story-specific meaning, are at odds with each other. Squalor is dank and dirty; Sympathy is soft and fluffy. But both suggest something has gone wrong, so even when they agree, they suggest conflict.

Anna concentrated on the cold, on the freezing water around her feet and the bruising sensation in her toes.

That's the first line. Why has Anna got her feet in cold water? It's obviously discomfiting her (the bruising sensation) yet she's doing it on purpose (Anna concentrated on the cold). This is sentence-level conflict: the tension of a statement that doesn't quite make sense.

It's also a plot mystery, which is conflict of its own kind--the reader vs. ignorance. People want to understand.

The constant clacking of looms that filled the factory changed tempo, quieted slightly. Anna glanced to her right, where Sally White worked.

Second paragraph, and the first active conflict--that is, something actively going wrong. This is what I'll call paragraph-level conflict, the brick you use to build your story. It's what I needed to learn to start crafting good stories--at every possible turn, make something go wrong to add another brick to the wall.

We'll come back to this line. Some more examples of paragraph-level conflict first:

[Anna] was about to step onto the plush rug before the desk, eager to feel its softness between her toes, when the noise of the factory cut out and Sir John's voice said, quiet and dismissive, "Please remain on the floorboards. The water from your feet would damage the carpet."

This moment doesn't need to be in the story. The rug isn't relevant to anything, and it's never even mentioned again. But by adding the brick of conflict in here it keeps tension high, even as it pulls double-duty in setting the scene (and doing so with senses other than sight) and emphasising the relationship of power here (Shuttleworth need only speak to command her, where she is stood barefooted, physically vulnerable as well as socially vulnerable).

She ducked inside the door at the end [of the hallway], heart pounding, eyes closed, throat clenched. As the seconds passed with no sound of alarum, she slid to the floor and breathed again.

The rushing in her ears subsided, and she opened her eyes.

Sir John was in the room, crouching over something in the flickering candlelight.

This is from nearer the end, where I'm deliberately ratcheting tension. In my original notes, Anna was going to step into the room next to Sir John and Queen Victoria, and Sir John would step in later. But as I came to write it, I asked myself how could this be as bad as possible? If Sir John is already in the room, of course.

Homer tries to make breakfast for Mr Burns

The Simpsons, as always, has the perfect example of all this. Everything going wrong, all the time.

Layering Conflict

Back to that second paragraph, 100 words (~1%) in:

The constant clacking of looms that filled the factory changed tempo, quieted slightly. Anna glanced to her right, where Sally White worked.

This is the first time something goes wrong in the story, and is what kickstarts the plot. Arguably, this is the inciting incident--everything proceeds from Anna's decision to help Sally here.

Note, however, that it's not what the story is about, even though it starts it. The central plot isn't about Anna's grand quest to fix Sally's loom, fighting through wind and snow to get a new shuttle. That'd be a rubbish story.

The first conflict you introduce doesn't need to be your plot conflict. It probably shouldn't, in fact, because you want to settle readers into your world before you hit them with the plot train. Maybe your protagonist goes for a cigarette only to find the pack empty. Maybe their horse has lost a shoe. Maybe they're caught in the rain in their finest clothes. It's best if you can tie this opening conflict back in later, in the way that Sally's broken loom becomes important in the third section, but it just needs to be something to hook the reader, to endear them to the character (we love to see people overcoming struggle) and intrigue them about how things are going to work out.

James Bond films do this superbly, by the way. There's always a big explosive sequence before the credits sequence so the film hits the ground running. And the very best of those sequences are the ones that are self-contained but turn out to be part of the larger plot later on.

Our conflict here with the loom is resolved fairly quickly, and it's running again within a page. But by the time it is, the next brick is already in place, overlapping it:

"You can't, Anna. If Shuttleworth sees you've stopped work, there'll be hell to pay."

So we've escalated from the loom being broken to it being risky to help fix it. Once it's working, Anna is still at personal risk of getting in trouble (as, indeed, she does). By the end of that same paragraph, there's the physical risk of getting fingers caught in the loom, which doesn't happen this time but is still a threat, and so still a conflict and a source of tension. Just before the loom is fixed, we learn that Sally can't afford to get the shuttle replaced, which leads into conversation about the Luddites. This is the world conflict, the state of background tension that underlies the story and eventually comes to the forefront at the halfway mark with the factory fire.

So that first piece of simple conflict leads into three more conflicts before it's resolved: the personal conflict (the risk of getting into trouble), the physical conflict (the risk of getting hurt) and the world conflict (the poverty, the working conditions, the rebellious Luddites). All layered and overlapping like the bricks in a wall, supporting each other and lending the plot strength and sturdiness. Even if one conflict doesn't work for a reader, there's two more that hopefully do.

Not that these are archetypal conflicts you should have in every story, mind you--they're just the ones I happen to have here. There's probably a dozen you could work out if you sat down to list them, but that's not the point here. The point is to have multiple layers of conflict. Pile it all on. You need more conflict.


Which leads me to ways to do this. The most obvious is one I mentioned earlier--how could this moment be as bad as possible?--but there's another technique I love even more.

Mary Robinette Kowal talks about "yes, but / no, and" on Writing Excuses 7.37. In short, every time you get to a plot question--e.g. "does Anna fix the loom?"--answer it with a yes, but or a no, and construction that makes matters worse.

For example: does Anna fix the loom? Yes, but she gets in trouble with Shuttleworth for doing it. Or: No, and she breaks her fingers trying.

Again: does Anna find her brothers at the factory? Yes, but she gets taken by Shuttleworth as well. Or: No, and they've been taken by Shuttleworth to his home for who-knows-what.

Again: does Anna find her brothers in Gawthorpe Hall? Yes, but they're hooked up to some devilish device. Or: No, and she gets captured by the Queen's Guard and imprisoned.

There's no way of winning. Everything keeps getting worse. Even small victories are immediately undermined by another turn for the worse.

And you keep on, and you keep on, and you keep on, turning the screws on your main character until the climax of your plot, when you finally give them a Yes, and.

Not that the denouement is free of conflict, mind you--even after everything is resolved, Anna and Nelly still have an argument on the driveway of Gawthorpe Hall. But that's because the scene with Queen Victoria is the climax of plotline A, the external threat, where the denouement is the climax of plotline B, the internal conflict. But that's another post.



TAGS: Anatomy of a Golden Pen, wotf32