How to Review Your Story Scenes for Conflict

horses jumping hurdles

Are the hurdles in your story growing harder?

As discussed in “6 Steps to Story Development,” a story needs conflict. In fact, without it you have no story. So let’s take a closer look and see how you can make sure you’re developing the conflict in your story.

James Scott Bell, in his book Conflict & Suspense, defines conflict this way: “a clash between at least two incompatible sides. One of those sides must be personal, that is, having the ability to exercise conscious will.”

At the heart of conflict are your character’s passion and goals. In review, here are 3 questions I posited in “Story Development”:

  • How big is your character’s goal? It should be like jumping the Grand Canyon to reach it.

  • What’s at stake if the character doesn’t reach his or her goal? It needs to be strong enough to keep the character from giving up or going back to the way things were.

  • What obstacles do you erect along the way?

As your story progresses, the reality of your character reaching his/her goal should appear more and more unlikely. This creates what’s called rising action: the characters battling obstacles in the effort to reach their goals. As the story nears its end, the character reaches a point where the goal now appears impossible to achieve.

Based on Bell’s definition, here are 3 more questions:

  • Who or what is your protagonist’s opposition—the other part of “at least two incompatible sides”?

  • What makes that opposition incompatible with your protagonist?

  • Who wins the battle?

Reviewing your conflict

Whether you write from an outline or not, once a draft is written, here’s a method I use to review my scenes. Starting with scene one, ask and answer these questions about each scene:

  • What is the character’s goal? (one per scene)

  • What is the obstacle?

  • How does the character react to/deal with the obstacle?

  • What is the scene final outcome?

  • What is the intensity of conflict in the scene at its peak? James V. Smith Jr. in his ACIIIDS test from his book The Writer’s little Helper recommends “tension — passive aggressive — open hostility — injurious — fatal.

  • As your story progresses, is it becoming more difficult for the character to reach the final story goal?

I use Scrivener for my writing, so I record this information on the story index cards. Record your answers in a way that makes sense to you and that will provide you a quick view of the rising action and conflict in your story.

What will this reveal?

These questions reveal a plethora of information for me. Here are several:

  • Did I give my character an appropriate goal for that scene?

  • Is the obstacle too weak, too strong, or just right for that point in the story?

  • Have I used the best obstacle for that scene?

  • Have I varied the level of conflict intensity in each scene? This is vital or you will either bore your reader to sleep or wear them out with the constant high intensity.

  • Does my character ever move forward in achieving the final goal? There needs to be some sense of forward movement to the story.

  • Have I tried to accomplish too much with this scene?

  • Does the climax of the story come too soon?

In addition to the above, this kind of review reveals the pacing of my story and whether I’ve got it just right.

As I work to fix scenes that need it, I brainstorm with “What if _____?”

Have you read about or developed a method of your own? Please share in the comments what you do.

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