Conflict is critical to plot development. It’s where your characters move forward the plot of your story. But… well, sometimes a plot just doesn’t seem to want to move. If you find your plot is stuck in a rut, it may be that it doesn’t have enough dimensions to it.
Yes that’s right, dimensions. Plot dimensions.
How many conflict dimensions should your story have? Just like Goldilocks’s bears and blind mice and stooges, the answer is three: external-world conflict, external-personal conflict and internal conflict.
Here are the three dimensions of conflict:
1. External-world conflict
No world is perfect—each one has its problems. In Game of Thrones, winter is coming. In When Harry Met Sally, the world’s fast pace makes it nearly impossible to find a real connection. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, fame and money isolate the ones lucky enough to get them.
If your world doesn’t have a conflict, you’re in the wrong world. Or maybe you just haven’t delved into it enough yet. Dig deeper—what troubles and dangers lay within your world? What are its weaknesses and tension points?
Hint: The best world conflicts build out the story’s key themes.
2. External-personal conflict
The external-world conflict offers a foundation. Now that you’re grounded, find the tensions between your story’s primary characters.
If your characters are fully developed, they have needs, wants, and their own personal agenda. Even among friends, these varying agendas are bound to clash at certain points. So to find your most dynamic external-personal conflicts, explore your characters. Find where they clash most, and exploit it.
Even if you’re writing the rare one-character story, you need an external-personal level conflict. What elements are prominent in your story? It’s not uncommon for an inhuman element to be given characteristic attributes. In The Happening, for example, the villain is the Earth.
3. Internal conflict
What haunts your hero? What are his greatest weaknesses? What’s your character’s greatest struggle?
Your main character’s inner world should be as rich as the one you’ve created around her. In Delirium, Lena falls in love just as she reaches her 18th birthday, when emotions are surgically removed in her world. She has to choose between what her friends, family, and society expect of her, and what her heart wants.
The conflicts you establish in your hero’s internal world can be the difference between readers investing in your character or not. So don’t be afraid to get dark, challenge what your character knows, or be downright mean. Your character might not thank you, but your readers will.
Revealing the Conflict in the Real World
When these three dimensions of conflict come together, magic happens. Your plot starts to push itself forward in threads that feel organic. And, really, as far as your characters and world are concerned, they are—after all, these plot developments aren’t driven by a need for more plot. The forces behind your story’s world and your key characters are driving them.
When you implement the three dimensions of plot, your story starts to feel like it’s got all the dimensions of reality, too.
What tips do you have for discovering each of these dimensions of plot?
Pick up a story you are working on, or one that you struggled to make-work. Identify your three plot dimensions. Are they all there? Are any of them underdeveloped? Where are you having trouble? Spend fifteen minutes brainstorming ideas for any missing or weak plot dimensions.
When your time is up, share your ideas in the comments section. And if you share, make sure you give feedback on a few practices by your fellow writers.