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Determining Relevant Conflict

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

or…The Curious Case of the Constipated Elephant

Have you ever been reading a book and out of the blue, some problem arises that you just don’t care about?

I have, starting with my own first novel-length manuscript.

A misleading tenet had guided my novel-writing journey: “Conflict is story.” Turns out that wasn’t quite specific enough. Story works best when it develops a certain kind of conflict, and mine included everything but a constipated elephant. (Or perhaps I should say, “A constipated elephant!!”, since we all know that exclamation marks can ramp up the tension when we doubt our storytelling abilities.)

As if ripped from the pages of some other book, a problem that feels irrelevant will stand between your reader and the further progression of the tale you thought you were writing.

So how do you know if you’re choosing conflict that’s relevant?


Guard your story’s identity

Aligning your novel’s key structures will help you stay on track.

Decide on a premise. Writers use the word “premise” in varying ways, but for me, premise speaks to purpose. Premise defines the kind of story you are writing by evoking your protagonist’s arc of inner change. A premise is kind of like a moral, but not as didactic—it is your story’s raison d’etre. Its point. Writing out your premise with an action word that suggests story movement will be invaluable to you. For instance, your character’s belief about something at the outset will lead to believable change regarding that belief.

The premise of the previous paragraph is, “Knowing what kind of story you are telling leads to your ability to state its premise.”

The premise of this essay is, “Studying story structure leads to an understanding of relevant conflict.”

[Kathryn, you should tell us a constipated elephant anecdote here, just for kicks! No, I should not.]

Inciting incident. While you might hook readers on the opening page with a bridging conflict (Will Dot’s de-iced plane be able to take off safely from Logan International in this snow squall?), it is the inciting incident that changes everything in your protagonist’s life and tips her into the story.

In the example I’ll build, that incident is the sudden death of Dot’s husband, just three weeks before the Kilimanjaro trip meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their first climb, when they met and fell in love. At first she thinks she should cancel. Why bother? The trip will only remind her of all she’s lost, and she’s probably too old to pull it off anyway. But when a nor’easter is forecasted to bring a foot of snow to Boston, Dot is reminded of when she almost declined the offer of a dream job which would require a winter move to Boston years ago, and she hears her husband’s ever-buoyant voice saying, “You’re not going to let a little snow stop us, are you?” So she keeps the reservation to Tanzania.

This inciting incident raises a story goal for the protagonist (to survive the climb and restore her spirit), and a story question for the reader (in light of her husband’s loss, will Dot be able to finish the climb up Kilimanjaro at age 60, and revive her broken spirit?). The reader will keep this question in her mind, constantly assessing Dot’s progress.

Note the specificity of this inciting incident: if the climb hadn’t already been scheduled at the time of the husband’s death, the reader wouldn’t have linked the two; this linkage will be crucial to sustaining reader interest in the climb. The quick look back is important too, as we realize how Dot benefitted from her husband’s influence.

[But the constipated elephant story is really funny, and the story is set in Africa—can’t I throw it in? Not all stories set in Africa have elephants, especially considering their dwindling populations. This event must earn its way in.]

Orchestrate your character set. Your story should focus on the attainment of your protagonist’s goal. The other characters are present to support or obstruct that goal in a way that will either directly or tangentially tie in to the premise.

Let’s say our Kilimanjaro story has the premise, “Perseverance leads to success.” Perhaps Dot’s lifelong friend takes her husband’s seat on the plane, but she decides halfway up that the trip is too hard, too long, and too dangerous, and so she turns back. Dot has lost her emotional support. What will she do? This is a good, relevant complication. Surmounting it will no doubt result in a turning point on Dot’s emotional journey.

Another well-orchestrated character might be a local teen who was shunned because of a birth defect. He finds out about this climb, and is so determined to go along that he surmounts a language barrier in order to convince Dot to let him come, because he must prove he’s as much a man as any other in his Tanzanian village, where until now he’s been made to cook with the women. His keen desire and personal stakes make him a great addition.

[Ooh—how about our protagonist carries on, only to find that an elephant has also wandered up the mountain, and because it has altitude sickness, it is constipated!!! Sorry, the exclamation marks still don’t convince me. Our Dot has not persevered up this mountain so she can find an elephant.]


Use this key to relevancy

Scene by scene, you achieve true, relevant conflict when each member of your supporting cast has a personal goal that 1) intersects with the protagonist’s achievement of her goal, and 2) either directly or tangentially ties in with the premise. Such conflict will then arise organically, and result in emotional turning points for your protagonist that keep him or her moving toward a satisfying, relevant ending.

To illustrate this, let’s throw in some bad guys—some poachers after an endangered snow leopard. Good conflict—but is it relevant?

That depends.

It’s relevant if our protagonist gets in their way and is wounded, and in addition to figuring out how to get these creeps out of her way (I’d involve the teen who wants to prove himself a man here), Dot must decide whether to keep going given all the new obstacles.

It’s much less relevant if Dot is able to shoo the hunters away easily, because this has not supported your premise. These hunters must be highly motivated to want this leopard in order to tie in with the “Perseverance leads to success” premise, and they don’t care who is in their way (maybe one of them desperately needs the money from the leopard’s hide to pay for medical care for his newborn son—see the orchestration? Our teen has already foreshadowed that medical care is hard to get. And isn’t it more interesting when antagonists are fully rounded humans?).

The result: Our protagonist, it would seem, has an even bigger fight on her hand than she realized. That’s always good.

[But the elephant…]

All right already! Over the years, the protagonist made friends with a man who keeps a small breeding center for endangered animals at the base of the mountain. Dot wants to get going up the mountain before the weather changes, but her friend, who was going to come along, can’t leave yet—he’s been caring for a pregnant but very constipated elephant, who now refuses to eat, and he doesn’t want to leave until her survival is ensured. He ramps up his efforts, trying every homeopathic trick in the book, while Dot watches the skies. And finally—perseverance leads to success. You can tell your funny anecdote without fear of an editor’s red pen, because through its tie to both premise and a complication arising naturally from the intersecting goals of your well-orchestrated characters, the elephant’s constipation has gained relevance as a bona fide plot event.

Follow these steps and your manuscript will gain story integrity while pointing your protagonist—and your reader—through relevant plot conflict and toward a satisfying ending.

 *This lays the foundation of a discussion of premise that I’ll build on next month, so stop back!

Let’s honor our mistakes through the lessons they taught us. Have you ever caught yourself attempting to ramp up conflict in your novels with plot that ends up feeling irrelevant? Could you solve the issue by deletion or reworking, or is that novel in a drawer just like my first one?


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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