Friday, June 24, 2011

Character Conflict

As I’ve discussed before, before you can start writing a novel, you need to have a story. How much it’s planned out is up to you. However, a good thing to have is a high concept. If you can tell me what your story is about in one sentence (around 20 words) then you have a steady indicator to lean on if you get stuck with your story, nevermind an easy way to entice.

With a high concept at hand, you can get a general feeling for your story as a whole (thus, the sooner you get it the better). You can make the necessary adjustments before you are too far in.

Let’s say the first high concept you put together is this: Two friends find a relic, but an evil guy steals it and they set off to get it back before the world falls into ruin. A bit long, but it’ll do for our purposes. Regardless, we can get a better view of how the story will run.

Finally, I’ll get to the point of this post. In the high concept you can spot something (or the lack of it) that is pretty important to an interesting story. Interesting character conflict.

Currently, we have two friends (who will spend most of the book’s time together) and an evil guy whom no one knows. There will be conflict, yes. Interesting conflict even. Between the evil guy and the two friends. However, this is simply the times when they clash which will maybe make up a third of the story. Most of the time, it will be the two friends who try to get the relic back. They can bicker among themselves, yes, but it will not be as interesting as it can be. To use a better example, would Lord of the Rings have been as interesting if Gollum never joined the Frodo/Sam party? Without the constant conflict between Gollum and Sam and subsequently Frodo and Sam, the journey would have been a lot less interesting.

In our own example, we can do with a bit of interesting conflict. To do that, I’m going to shuffle things around a bit. Here’s a new high concept: Two friends find a relic, but when a guy from a rival village attacks them, one of them flees with it, intent on ruling the world, and the two enemies must work together to stop him. Also too long, we’ll leave it like that.

With the new high concept, we have more interesting conflict (the two enemies that must work together; the antagonist is the protagonist’s best friend) and secrets (the one friend hides his aspirations from the other; the enemies plot against each other while working together).

Some stories might lose too much to change it around like I did now, but an additional character or a change of relationship can make a great impact on the conflict which will make the story that much more interesting to read.


  1. You're right that interesting conflict, and knowing what that conflict is at the start, makes it easier to focus the story in the right direction, but what you've described so far isn't really high concept.

    It's the difference between:
    1. A man is threatened that if he doesn't commit a crime his family will be harmed.
    2. A man's wife is kidnapped and she will be killed if he doesn't break into the Louvre and steal the Mona Lisa. The man is a retired superhero.

    They may appear the same basic proposition, but the details are what raise the concept. The whole point is to know going in what the issue is, the predicament that is central to the story.

    In order to benefit from a high concept you need to spend some time before you start writing. Yo have to work out the thing it's about. The predicament, the dilemma, the unexpected problem... whatever it is you have to capture it now. Specific details.

    Two enemies who have to work together has the potential to be fun, but so has 'A man has to fight against the odds', but it also might not be, it's too vague to know either way. The whole point of high concept is that it isn't vague.

    Why are they enemies? Why are they both after the relic? What's stopping them working alone? Remember you're not looking for reasons, you're looking for interesting reasons.

    And don't worry about reducing it to a single line until you've figured out what it is.


  2. You make good points, but the high concept isn't really the point of this post. A good high concept requires a lot of time (as you mentioned) and I didn't have it. So the high concepts were more like very vague summaries, but I think the point was carried across, yes? Specifically the character conflict between enemies would be more interesting than two friends.

    The interesting character conflict won't always be visible in a high concept, but I thought this way would be the easiest to make my point.

  3. It may just be your use of high concept isn't the usual one (which is fine if a little confusing) but vague summary is basically the antithesis of high concept.

    The point of working out these things before you start writing is to help drive through the process. But by being vague you're basically just putting down place markers and on your next pass you'll still have to work out the actual specifics, in effect writing two outlines and not really saving any time at all.

    The general set up is easy to come up. A guy wants a girl but she loves his best pal. Good story? Could be, no way to tell at this point.

    It's a very common approach to only go so far into plot structure and leave out all the difficult stuff for later, but it's that stuff that's key to the story far more than the general movement towards a goal.

    In this story for example. key would be why the enemies work together. What's forcing them? Because if nothing is and they're just choosing to then it's going to feel contrived and the reader will sense that.

    And if you plan on working it out later, how can you make believable and interesting choice for what happens next if you don't know why they're doing what they're doing.

    I realise you're feeling your way through it at the moment but the central role of plot isn't to get you from A to B, it's to reveal character. What characters do tells people who they are.

    You want to create conflict, I agree with your aim being important, but arbitrary conflict doesn't provide the kind of tension and motivation a novel requires (although in real life not liking somneone's face can be more than enough).

    Who they are isn't important (any two in a conflict become enemies by definition, even if they were friends to start with). It's why they're in conflict that produces drama and tension.