Stories are divided into “parts”: the Exposition (background), Rising Action (complications), Climax (sort of self-explanatory), the Falling Action (aftermath) and Denoument (resolution). Your simplest diagram of a story looks like this:
Here, you see the rising action/conflict stage makes up more of the story than the falling action. A story followingthese proportions may feel more realistic, as events don’t usually fall out in nice, balanced, equal states.
This breakdown would work well for a short story. For something longer, you’re likely to have multiple complications, several points of conflict. A novel’s diagram probably looks more like this:
What is conflict? It would seem obvious, but many writers seem to misunderstand it. Conflict needs to be something that puts some real stakes on the table. It requires characters to take action, and it should always be followed by meaningful consequences and/or results.
Let’s look at some actual published examples of “magically disappearing” troubles:
- Problem: In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ron and Hermione need to get into the Chamber of Secrets, which can only be opened by speaking parseltongue.
- Solution: Ron manages to “imitate” parseltongue (a language previously restricted to inheritors of the Slytherin bloodline).
- Problem: In Breaking Dawn, Bella and the Cullens are prepared for the worst when Bella transforms into a vampire. They expect Bella to have to endure a year of uncontrollable new vampire strength and bloodlust, meaning a year they will have to keep her away from humans (including her father).
- Solution: Bella is inexplicably different from every other vampire and has barely any trouble at all adjusting.. Life resumes as normal right away.
- Problem:In several of Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark titles, the love pair is prevented from fully realizing their feelings for one another thanks to stubborn refusal to explain simple things.
- Solution: Someone finally decides to explain something they had almost no reason to keep to themselves in the first place.
It should be noted in the last example, it is the problem which fails to hold stakes or consequences, rather than the solution failing to measure up to the stakes. This is becoming a very common problem presented in erotic romance: the love pair’s biggest obstacle is their own refusal to speak to one another. The problem with this device is the solution is far too easy for problem to be so complicated.
While this is not always a poor conflict, it often becomes bigger and more difficult than realistically necessary. This can effectively be used for comedic effect; when it is used for serious conflict, the author must be careful, else it becomes frustrating and unrealistic. Consider how satisfying it is to make a journey with a character whose biggest obstacle is becoming flustered and spitting out something they ought to have said in the first place.
Unfortunately, new writers are adopting this ‘easy’ method of removing obstacles for their character’s stories. We see many, many more cases of characters solving their problems (or having their problems solved for them) in easy, convenient means. Conflicts are forgiven, dismissed, ignored or written away without investment.
This is a literary device known as a deus ex machina: “God from the Machine”. It refers to a convention in Greek plays where one of the gods would descend to the stage and solve all the complications with a wave of his or her hand. But it is a cheap—and lazy—means of solving problems.
Conflict must be proportionate to the payoff, and vice-versa. As a writer, I am familiar with the daunting task of trying to untie the Gordian knots I’ve thrown my own characters into. However, balancing real conflict and resolution is a downright necessity to good writing. I owe it to my characters, and to my readers. So when I create a conflict, I have to give it a real meaning and real consequences. Conflicts can be big or conflicts can be small, but they must be what they are, and nothing less.
My encouragement to authors is to dive into your conflicts. Avoid deus ex machina—the easy solution handed down by the fates, the heavens, or just plain dumb luck. Make your characters take action and do the work of handling conflicts. As intimidating or uncomfortable as it may be, you’ll give them a better payoff. Then they enjoy the fruits of a “job well done”.
And so can you.
Rhiannon Donovan, daughter to the vampire Queen, would rather die than be made a bride to a demon Lord. Aijyn, courtesan to the undead Daimyo of Kansai, can think of nothing more horrifying than his promise of eternal life. In the halls of the Blood Lotus Temple, the two women struggle against the chains of their fate, and find a solace in each other that could mean freedom for them both… or might cost each of them their lives.
**Giveaway: Free e-Book copy of Lotus Petals. Comment to enter. Contest ends 6/5 at 11:59PM EDT. **
Author Bio: When she isn’t visiting the worlds of immortals, demons, dragons and goblins, Brantwijn fills her time with artistic endeavors: sketching, painting, customizing My Little Ponies and sewing plushies for friends. She can’t handle coffee unless there’s enough cream and sugar to make it a milkshake, but try and sweeten her tea and she will never forgive you. She moonlights as a futon for four lazy cats, loves tabletop role-play games, and can spend hours watching Futurama, Claymore or Buffy the Vampire Slayer while she writes or draws.
In addition to Lotus Petals, Brantwijn is the author of Goblin Fires, also released by Breathless Press.Brantwijn has also had several stories published in anthologies by Breathless Press, including the 2013 Crimson Anthology and 2014 Ravaged Anthology. She’s had a short story published in the Cleiss Press Big Book of Orgasm, and hopes to have several more tales to tell as time goes on. She has author pages on GoodReads and Amazon and loves to see reader comments on her work. Her short stories occasionally pop up at Foreplay and Fangs, her blog at http://brantwijn.blogspot.com.
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