Hit ’em Where It Hurts

The last couple of posts have been more about the overall philosophy of writing. This week let’s begin our dive into the nitty-gritty aspects of the craft, starting with plot. We’ll cover the actual methods to plotting in a later post, but for now let’s focus on what it is that makes plot work. In other words, what makes a story interesting?

The answer, of course, is conflict. Conflict is the sole and primary driver of any tale, and it must be continually heightened to maintain reader interest in your story. In Aspects of a Novel, E. M. Forster explains that there is nothing to grasp in the statement, ‘the king died.’ You can improve it to ‘the king died and then the queen died,’ but it still lacks a certain tension. Add an emotional sense of causality, as in, ‘the king died and then the queen died of grief,’ and you have yourself an intriguing plot.

In fact, conflict is the glue that not only binds the reader to the page, but also entwines the separate aspects of your story into a cohesive whole. The three major divisions of a story are Plot, Character, and Setting. These become a completed tale only through the accentuation of the conflict points that connect them. An atheist in a nation of believers provides an immediate Character vs. Setting conflict. A world in which demons terrorize the night, eventually resulting in the death of one of our main characters throws Setting and Plot into conflict. Most importantly, all of these make the story more interesting.

It sounds almost sadistic, but a captivating story is one in which a character desperately wants something, then is systematically denied that thing until the very end (at which time they may still not get it, depending on the story.) This can be explained simply through the famous, “no pain, no gain,” adage. Your character’s victory will only have value if they have to fight through hell to achieve it. In a way, the pain is simply a means to an end, at which time it will finally be appreciated as the true reason for the reader’s emotional satisfaction.

When outlining a plot, creating a character, or building a setting, think about what conflicts they each add to the story. Do the conflicts overlap? Do they each provide opportunities to heighten the tension? Are the stakes high enough that your main characters can’t just walk away from their problems? It is questions like these that will add that extra layer of cohesiveness to both your plot and the novel as a whole.

We’ve explained the crucial role conflict plays in a story, but before we move on to the actual structuring of a plot, there is one other piece to making a plot work (which will be covered in the next post,) namely the concept of promises and their fulfillment.

Happy Fourth of July!

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