On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares her writing advice for keeping your story conflict active in every scene, and why it matters.
Written by JJ Barnes
Your story follows your Protagonist on a journey to achieve a story goal, and your Antagonist trying to stop them. As long as these characters are motivated, your story conflict is active. I’ll explain why an active story conflict is essential to keep your story moving forwards and entertaining.
Your Protagonist Becomes Active At The Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident of your story is the moment your protagonist transitions from passive to active. Prior to the inciting incident there is no story conflict because your protagonist isn’t trying to achieve anything. Once they set out to achieve a goal, your story conflict is active.
Your antagonist is the character that throws challenges in front of them. With no challenges there is no story. Your protagonist could just set a goal and achieve it. Job done. You need your antagonist to be as motivated and active as your protagonist in order to have a story. Consider your antagonist to be the protagonist in their own story and put just as much focus on their motivation.
Your protagonist and antagonist are set against one another. Your story follows them competing to achieve their story goal. For instance, if your protagonist is a police officer, your antagonist could be a bank robber. Your antagonist becomes active when they set out to rob the bank. They are motivated with a clear goal; to steal money.
Your protagonist becomes active when they learn about the planned robbery. They are motivated with a clear goal; to stop them stealing money. The story conflict is that they both want something, and they can’t both have it. The bank can’t both be robbed and not robbed.
Keeping Story Conflict Active
The key to keeping your story conflict active is to make sure your characters are always motivated. Don’t let them rest or settle, don’t let them be satisfied. It’s essential your story conflict is active in every single scene.
If they are satisfied prior to the resolution of your story conflict, then what they wanted can’t have been that important. Make sure your audience can see that your story conflict matters to your character. If it doesn’t matter to your character, it won’t matter to your audience. If it doesn’t matter to your audience, there’s no point in them showing up to read it.
When your characters aren’t actively in pursuit of their story goal, your story isn’t moving. Its still. The pace of your story can slow down or speed up, depending on the scene. But if it is completely still, then your story is pointless and boring. Your audience won’t be hooked to keep reading if nothing is happening. They showed up for a story so give them one. If your audience is bored because nothing is happening, they’ll walk away and not feel the need to come back.
Keep Focused On Motivation
What your characters want in each scene can vary. The main story conflict won’t be pressing them at every moment at full intensity. In a scene where your police officer is fighting with her husband about him forgetting her birthday, the bank robbery won’t be on the top of her mind. But it will still be there. It will still shape her responses, steal her attention. He might blame her for not putting attention on their relationship because she’s so focused on work. She might be angry that she took time away from work for a birthday celebration that never happened.
You can have multiple lines of conflict in every single scene. In fact, the more conflict there is, the more entertaining your story will be. However, the main story conflict will still be present. Your protagonist will still be focused on what they want, even if other motivations are competing for attention.
Why Story Conflict Matters
By keeping the focus of every single scene one what they’re motivated to achieve and why, your story conflict will always be active. Your story will move forwards, be entertaining, and keep your audience interested. By not letting them rest or get distracted from your main story conflict, your story will feel important. Side adventures away from your main plot, distractions about other issues taking over, make your story feel like it doesn’t matter.
During editing you might read over your story and see a scene that isn’t as plot relevant because the story conflict isn’t active. If that scene can be lifted out and your story still make sense, then it’s time to be brutal. Kill your darlings. Kill that scene. An active story conflict is the key to writing an entertaining and captivating story. So never let it drop.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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