Monday, March 16, 2009

Conflict Boxes

Scene Level Conflict Boxes

This month (March 2009) over on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum in Writer's Exercises, we're talking about scene level Conflict Boxes. If you want to participate by posting an exercise and commenting on the work of others, hop on over there. Here is what we're working on:

One way to increase tension in a scene is to ensure there is an appropriate conflict lock between the scene protagonist and a scene antagonist, obstacle or opposing force. In other words, in every scene your protagonist should have a goal, and there should be some person or thing which is working in opposition to that goal.

Jennifer Crusie and Michael Hauge refer to this as a Conflict Box, and it looks something like this:

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on scenes where there is a protagonist and a scene antagonist operating in conflict. Recognize that in some scenes it may be a non-human obstacle or opposing force, but let’s ignore those scenes for now. Also note that the scene antagonist may not be the same as your story antagonist. A scene antagonist may be your protagonist’s best friend, side kick, mentor, ally, etc… or a complete stranger. The scene antagonist is simply the person who is preventing your protagonist from meeting his or her immediate goal.

Tension in scenes is increased when there is a conflict lock between the protagonist and the antagonist – when the protagonist’s attempts to achieve his/her goal directly blocks the antagonists attempts to achieve his/her goal.

In the Protagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the PROTAGONIST takes to block the antagonist. In the antagonist's row, the conflict should be the ACTION the ANTAGONIST takes to block the protagonist.

Using a story we all know (and a story level rather than a scene level conflict), in the first Indiana Jones movie, the conflict lock looks like this:

You could replace the word "Conflict" with the word "Action" to show the dynamic nature of the conflict box. Conflict occurs when two character's actions block the goals of the other.

Indiana Jones’ goal of obtaining the ark is in direct conflict with the Nazi’s goal of obtaining the ark. The actions of the protagonist block the antagonist from achieving his goal, and the actions of the antagonist block the protagonist from achieving his goal.

There are a number of things to keep in mind when determining if you have a conflict lock in your scene:

  • Conflict locks are best used when the protagonist’s goals are external, concrete and specific. If your protagonist’s goal is internal, try to find a McGuffin, something physical, to stand in as the external symbol of the internal struggle. A concrete, external goal is something that the reader can visualize. It may stand-in for an inner emotion.
  • The scene antagonist should also have a goal he/she is willing to fight for. In other words, the antagonist is not just there to block the protagonist, but he/she also has something he/she wants.
  • The protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals must conflict. There is no obvious way for both to win. For one character to obtain their goal, the other character must loose. Their goals are mutually exclusive.
  • What the antagonist is doing to obtain his goal is also what he is doing to block the protagonist. If the antagonist wins, the protagonist fails.
  • The protagonist and antagonist do not have to have the same goal. For example, imagine there are two teenage siblings who share a car. The conflict lock might look like this:

  • So, either both characters have the same goal (the ark), or they have different goals which are in direct opposition (both teens want the car).

Remember, in terms of storytelling, your protagonist has a goal in the story. Each scene in your story provides either progress or a setback. Your job as the writer is to set up barriers and obstacles, through the use of antagonists, to make your protagonist’s job harder. This adds tension to your story and your scenes.

As examples of conflict lock, let’s look at some scenes from fairy tales – since most people are familiar with these.

Example 1: Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Set-up: After a vigorous walk, and a filling breakfast, Goldilocks decides to take a nap.

Analysis: Papa Bear prevents Goldilocks from meeting her immediate goal – getting a nap. Goldilocks prevents Papa Bear from his goal – keep his family safe by keeping strangers out of the house. Goldilocks cannot meet her goal of getting a nap if Papa Bear won’t let her stay and sleep.

Example 2: Hansel and Gretel
Set-up: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods. The children are hungry when they stumble upon the witch’s gingerbread house and begin to nibble.

Analysis: The witch prevents Hansel and Gretel from eating her candy house by locking them in a cage. Once locked in the cage, Hansel and Gretel have no immediate way to satisfy their hunger.

Example 3: Jack and the Beanstalk
Set-up: Jack finds some magic beans and climbs the resulting beanstalk to the giant’s home in the sky, where he steals various items of value in order to keep his mother out of poverty.

Analysis: Jacks wants to save his mother from poverty and keeps stealing from the giant. The giant wants to protect his valuable items, but Jack keeps outsmarting him. Jack only wins when the giant looses.


If you’d like to post a good example of a conflict lock, either from a book you’ve read or from a movie, feel free to post as a reply to this thread! If you disagree with something I've said above, let's discuss it!