Scene Middles: Middle = Conflict, Part 2 (of 3)

We’re looking at conflict. Last week we looked at the Why and the What. Today it’s How and How much.

Here we go . . .

How much conflict?

“[Conflict . . . will make up 95 to 98% of the length of the scene,” says Jack M. Bickham.

“Most of your scene should be conflict,” say Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, “We recommend that a proactive scene [as opposed to a sequel/reflective scene] be about 80-90 percent conflict. That’s a lot. If you establish your goal early, then you can spend almost the entire scene throwing one obstacle after another at your POV character.”

“We say that the format of the scene is goal, conflict, and disaster, but this is not to imply they represent equal portions of a scene. Actually, the goal may be stated in a few words, then reiterated several times in only a few more. A great percentage of the scene is the conflict portion,” says Mr. Bickham. “Actually, it’s 95-98% of it.”

How do I add (more) conflict?

“It’s all well and good to set up a character and a goal–but if the character gets the goal too soon or too easily, your book [and scene–these are fractal tools] dies,” says Mr. Bickham, “The key to maintaining reader tension and interest is to delay the climax by putting obstacles between the character and attainment of the goal. How do you do that? . . . “

Frame your conflict

“Once the goal has been stated, someone has to come along at once and say, in effect, ‘Huh-huh. You’re not getting that, and I’m here to stop you,’ ” says Mr. Bickham, “This antagonist, too, is strongly motivated because he sees how this scene fits into his book-long struggle against the hero, how the outcomes of this confrontation fit into his game plan. And so a struggle starts.”

James N. Frey says, “In How to Write a Play (1983), Raymond Hull explains opposition in terms of a formula: ‘M + G + O = C. Main Character + his Goal + Opposition = Conflict. Good opposition requires that the antagonist counter each of the protagonist’s attempts to solve his problems with as much force and cunning as the protagonist exhibits.”

Brainstorm for conflict

To keep a scene from ending too quickly or easily, Dwight Swain says, “Bring in additional external difficulties related to the situation. Offer new developments: more hindrances, more obstacles, more complications. In a word, make it harder for your character to win his goal. Treat him rough. Throw roadbloacks at him.  How do you do this? Emphasize the strength of the opposition.  Build up the forces that block [the character].  This is another way of saying, let [Character] receive new and unanticipated information that makes his situation worse.  This information may be received verbally, or it may come visually, or via any of his other senses.”

Will Dunne says, “Think about the conflict possibilities you’ve explored for your scene.

  • What is the biggest hurdle that your [Character] must overcome to achieve the scenic objective?”
  • “What makes the central conflict of your scene a difficult problem that cannot be easily solved?”
  • “Why can’t this problem be avoided or put off until later?”

“What person, place, thing, or circumstance is keeping the POV character from gaining the objective?” adds James Scott Bell.

“Just as the word ‘because’ triggers a clause of motivation, the word ‘but’ triggers a clause of conflict,” says Debra Dixon.

Debra Dixon would say to fill in the blank: Character wants [goal], but he can’t (have it–or is having trouble getting it) because _____.

If you want to add more conflict, then: Character wants [goal], but he can’t (have it) because ____, ____, and ____.

“When we think of conflict, we may think of characters arguing: the bigger the argument, the more dramatic the scene. However, character objectives and motivations can turn anything into a problem,” says Mr. Dunne, “It is the objective that defines what the problem is and the motivation that determines how urgently it must be addressed.”

Some things to keep in mind as you’re brainstorming:

Know your core conflict

“[K]nowing your [main/macro] conflict allows you to focus, to toss out the scenes that don’t work and do nothing to advance the plot,” says Ms. Dixon, “Knowing your conflict allows you to convey the character’s emotions more clearly as the character experiences a setback or gains a small victory. Knowing your conflict allows you to create tense scenes because you know what’s at stake for the character. You know exactly how the character feels, how he will react to each obstacle you put in his path.”

Craft your core conflict

“Conflict isn’t something you can tack on later, once you’ve written half the book and realize it’s going nowhere. It’s not something you can generate as you write,” says Cheryl St.John. So before you write your scenes, make sure your main story goal and its main conflict are sufficient to carry a story scene by scene.

Know your characters

“Conflict is relative,” says Ms. St.John, “Conflict is brought to life by the character’s motivation and reactions. What constitutes conflict for one person may be taken in stride or even considered an ideal situation for the next person.”

“Until you know your character inside and out, the conflicts in some of your scenes may remain vague,” says Jim Mercurio. “Once you know your character with specificity, it follows that your conflict becomes more precise.”

“Mentally devise a moving game plan for both the lead character and the antagonist so that even if you don’t tell the reader what either is thinking, you know what both are thinking,” says Mr. Bickham, “This awareness of your character’s thoughts, as the conflict moves along, will help you to imagine and bring out more angles–more feints and parries–in the conflict as it develops.”

Craft your characters

“Conflict between characters always takes the form of insistence versus resistance,” says Mr. Frey.

“Creating characters with embedded conflict from the planning stage will make your story strong and will ensure that you have enough conflict to carry the length of the book,” says Ms. St.John.

Inner Conflict

“Establishing a good dilemma [inner conflict] and knowing the core nature of your character–fears, flaws, and what’s important to him–help you craft realistic character interaction and scenes that cut to the chase. The conflict runs deeper, and you will be able to write better dialogue, and do it more quickly,” says Mr. Mercurio.

The Other Characters

“Active conflict is created when a character wants something and an antagonistic force stands in her way of getting it,” says Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld.

“Create characters with built-in conflict,” says Ms. St.John, “Build in conflict as you personify your story people, and give them diversity. Use their pasts, their needs, and their fears as fodder for conflict. Use their strengths and their weaknesses against them. Their backstories, combined with characterization, will be motivation for everything they do. It will shape their goals and define the way they react to situations.”


“[M]ake sure your characters have individual goals that will clash and conflict,” say Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, “Drama is about the fight for dominance among a group of characters.”

“When characters have different goal and are intent on achieving them, conflict results,” says Mr. Frey, “If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama.”

“In order for conflict to exist, each character must have a concrete goal. Otherwise, conflict is only a nuisance,” says Ms. St.John.


“What the character is doing is not as important as why he is doing it. What’s happening is not as important as how he reacts to what’s happening,” says Ms. St.John.

Know your story’s core emotions

“A story is feelings, and if you plan your story to engage your character’s emotions, you will engage your readers,” says Ms. St.John.

Know the setting and circumstances

“You want to put pressure on a scene, and there are a couple of ways you can do that.” One is “Small Spaces. Conflict occurs because two different people with opposing goals are forced into a small space together. . . . Another way of putting pressure on a scene is with a time limit,” say Rubie and Provost.

Know your turning point

In a scene, “mutually exclusive desires between different characters need to clash, and when they clash, something will change,” says Steven James.

Rubie and Provost say, “[W]ithin the scene, even though somebody or something is saying no to your character, you need to get the opposition to say yes by the end of the scene or you won’t have much movement in your narrative. The question is. How are you going to get to this point? . . . You can’t just have characters say, ‘No. No, no, no, no. Oh, OK. Yes.’ It’s going to seem contrived. Readers have to believe that something happened within that scene that got those characters to turn around and say yes. . . . You can get to yes a number of ways.” Carrot, Stick, Seduction, Threat, Blackmail, Favor, etc. Anything that lets “Readers understand how [Character] got from no to yes. But the most common way for getting from no to yes is something internal to the character.”

More on the turning point in a later post

Know your craft tools

Jordan Rosenfeld gives us “some specific techniques to add plot-relevant complications to your characters’ lives in the middle of scenes.

  • The Withhold . . . dangle the object of desire just out of reach, using a technique known as withholding.”  This can include tangible things and intangible things, such as information or emotion.
  • “The Element of Danger . . . put your protagonist or someone he loves in danger.”  This can include physical or emotional danger.  “In truth, the essence of any conflict involves a little danger.”
  • “The Unexpected Revelation . . . However they manifest, revelations are transformative pieces of plot information that drive your narrative forward and offer huge potential for drama in the scenes where they are revealed.”  They can be positive or negative and have positive or negative consequences.

Prioritize and deepen

“Conflict is often a combination of obstacles that arise on many different levels all at the same time. Together, they represent the opposing forces that the character must face, with one force central to the struggle,” says Mr. Dunne. “[T]hink about the possible conflicts you have identified for your scene. Which of these would you pick–or how would you combine any of them–to identify the central conflict? This is the biggest problem that must be overcome in order to achieve the scenic objective.”

“Know what the major impediment to your character’s goal is and clearly define the conflict,” says Ms. Dixon, “Otherwise your reader may feel bombarded by conflict, unable to sort out the important issues from the peripheral issues. Unrelenting conflict or throwing ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ at the character can numb the reader.”

That’s it for Part 2

We’ll see you on Monday for Part 3.

Top Books on Conflict

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Related Posts

Conflict is a fractal tool; it applies at the macro story level (the concept and plot level) as well as the scene level and others as well. So when working on your scene conflict, keep your macro conflict in mind.


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