When you find your story starting to lag – throw in a problem
So you’ve started writing your story but there are parts that are starting to drag a little. Most times the proper course of action is to simply cut them out altogether. But in reality, it’s often very difficult to make slashes.
You’re certain that these slow points are important and could form the foundation for your entire plot. You believe in your heart that these elements merely need to be refocused or reworked and that cutting them out is wrong. Luckily, there’s an alternative. Let conflict come to the rescue.
Conflict is what makes a story entertaining. If you add the proper elements to your slow points, they won’t be slow any longer.
Here’s six ways to spice things up:
1. Encourage Enemies
You can never have enough enemies in the mix. You can always plop another adversary into the story to increase the entertainment value. The new character could have a new variety of characteristics from other enemies that have shown up previously. Go wild. Give them completely new twists. What’s important is that their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s. New enemies could be characters that:
- Are competing with the hero: An example for this is illustrated perfectly in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones seeks out rare antiquities that his nemesis Belloq, a competing archeologist, is also after. In fact, the whole movie is about the competition between these two men.
- Hurt the hero in the past: Let’s call this the Inigo Montoya paradigm. After you’ve established that the hero’s father was killed by a six-fingered man when he was a child, Inigo Montoya’s whole life becomes shaped by the incident. By pure chance, Inigo encounters the dark and mysterious figure that killed his father during his quest to save the princes. The hero quits the quest early to run off to fight this person, even though it’s an obvious trap and not what he was meant to be doing.
- Were hurt by the hero: Marvel Comics movies use this scenario all the time in their movies. There’s a previous battle between one of the heroes and an arch villain which have left the beautiful metropolis in ruins. A seemingly innocent bystander is angry about the casualties of this battle then creates an experimental lab in their basement and concocts a substance capable of removing the hero’s powers.
The big trick is to connect this person with the rest of the story and to generally make this person an obstruction to a pivotal plot point. An enemy is too important to come out of nowhere so give them the proper backstory.
2. Unleash Catastrophes
What’s better to any story than huge battle? Well, a huge battle at the base of a spewing volcano.
People don’t just fight each other. There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are drifting, like when Moses leads the freed Jewish slaves across the Red Sea with the Egyptians hot on their trail.
They are also a great choice to use if you need a conflict that only shows up once, makes a big impact, then disappears.
Disasters might be:
- Fierce creatures: For example, in order to save his true love, the Greek hero Perseus must first do battle with the mighty Kraken. This particular sea monster is the destructor of great cities and the weapon of the Gods. The Kraken is literally the great destructor of men.
- Resource shortages: How about Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings. The heroes are on a long journey to destroy an evil artifact. But they run out of the provisions provided for them by the elves, and little food can be found in their desolate environment. Soon they must choose between sneaking into the enemy camp to steal supplies, turning back, or starving.
- Severe weather: My nieces love the movie Frozen. At the beginning of the movie the parents of the two young girls set out on a diplomatic mission to another kingdom, when a typhoon hits their boat tearing it apart. The heroines must now overcome the loss of their parents on top of trying to overcome the powerful, but dangerous and uncontrolled powers of the older sister – the rightful heir of the kingdom.
It’s a good idea to do some research when including natural threats. You may want to include lava as a threat, but your character can’t walk into a cave with extensive lava flow, even if they don’t walk on the lava itself. They would die from the heat or fumes.
3. Fracture Alliances
There’s a good chance your story has multiple protagonists working together, or a powerful side character that is providing support. If everyone on Team Good is getting along, you’re setting yourself up for some dull scenes. Instead, amp up the conflict between the characters. Your interpersonal conflict could include:
- Petty squabbles: Perhaps your adventurers are fighting over their shared affection for a single woman. Two of them vie for her attentions, while the rest of the party become convinced that she’s really a witch waiting to rise up and kill them during the night. That not only adds conflict, but also builds tension via a possible threat.
- Personality conflicts: Let’s say two mechanics are assigned to restore the warp drive on the same derelict ship. But one thinks the other is incompetent, and the other thinks the first is condescending. It gets to the point where they’re working against each other creating dangerous situations on the ship. Their mutual dislike of each other ends up creating a space-time portal, and the ship is sucked in. Now they must bond if they ever hope to find their way home.
- Mismatched goals: Three rival queens for different kingdoms could join forces to construct a weapon meant to defeat the great horde that threatens their lands. But one wants to use the weapon to control the horde, and through it all of kingdoms – not merely her own. The second queen wants to use it to hide her kingdom away where the horde cannot find it, while the third simply wants to defeat the might horde once and for all, for the good of all three kingdoms. They’ll argue about it, building up to an inevitable fight once the weapon is finished.
If you’re trying to avoid conflicts like these, you can also revive Team Good scenes with some playful banter.
4. Create Predicaments
If your audience can see into the head of your primary protagonist, you have a great stage for another battle. All you have to do is create something for their inner selves to fight over. Make your character waver back and forth as they struggle to resolve their private dilemma. Inner conflicts are often created by:
- Fears: Let’s say your protagonist is afraid of closed in spaces, and then discovers that his daughter has fallen down the farm well. Now he has to choose between facing his claustrophobia, and watching his daughter perish in a deep, dark well.
- Dark Secrets: Maybe your protagonist, who was once a prominent teacher, was unjustly accused of an inappropriate relationship with a former student. The teacher has attempted to disappear and start a new life somewhere where no one knows who they are. Suddenly and trouble boy finds the teacher and asks for help – but the teacher only agrees if the student keeps their relationship a secret because the teacher fears people discovering who they once were.
- Heavy Responsibilities: Perhaps your hero has been the guardian of a very dangerous book that is the key to awakening dark and powerful gods. They have been trained and told that they must not open it, ever, but it keeps whispering to them telling them that it contains great power, power that could make the world better. Slowly going mad, they must fight against temptation to use the book’s power.
If you have a character-centered story that doesn’t have an inner dilemma yet, it would almost certainly benefit from one.
5. Cripple Your Heroes
You can power up the conflicts you already have by making it tougher for your hero to deal with them. Just take away something your character was counting on to defeat the big bad. Make it a type of “crutch” that the hero feels they need, something the hero believes they cannot win without it. Then your character has to struggle not only against the big bad, but also to adjust to their loss. The blow could come in the form of:
- A stolen item: Let’s say your hero believes that their superpowers come from wearing a special ring. Then one day – someone breaks into their home and steals the ring while they were sleeping. Now, even though the ring did nothing, the hero has lost faith that they can continue being a superhero unless they recover that ring.
- Lost powers: If you have seen Spider-Man 2 with Tobey Maguire, you understand this theme totally. In the movie Peter Parker is under serious stress caused from trying to attend college, hold a job, take care of his widowed Aunt May, and being a super-hero. The more the stress begins to build he starts experiencing issues with is Spidey powers. Soon he can no longer climb walls, shoot webs, or have super strength. In one part of the movie, Peter must save a young child from a burning building but not having the use of the powers he has come to rely on.
- Social disgrace: In the movie The Three Amigos – three Hollywood actors are mistakenly hired by Mexican villagers to stop an outlaw from terrorizing their village. Through mistaken identity, the villagers believe the actors to be great gunslingers who are capable of huge deeds, but when “true” bad guys humiliate these unprepared actors in front of the village – the heroes leave in disgrace.
Depending on what you choose, crippling your hero could make your story a little darker. But it could also make it more powerful.
6. Sour A Romance
Sweet romances, often in the young adult genre, tend to be more on the less-conflicted side, but they should still have at least minor conflicts. Romances with stronger, more mature themes have more choices for conflict. Stagger and strengthen these conflicts between characters, keeping that pining and yearning alive. Here are a few examples of causing character to fall out of love with each other:
- Unrealistic Expectations: Let’s say your hero believes that they have finally managed to find that perfect relationship – the one they have dreamed about their entire life. Yet, as the relationship gets tested, the hero discovers that this dream person is merely human, with human flaws and needs that falls short of the Disney, picture-book image in their mind.
- Broken Promises: In BBC series Sherlock – Sherlock makes a promise to John Watson that he will never allow anything to happen to Watson, his wife Mary, or their baby daughter. Perhaps from past experiences and successes, both men naively, if not arrogantly, believe that truly nothing could keep Sherlock from keeping his promise. So when Mary is killed because of a bullet meant for Sherlock, Watson feels extremely betrayed and let down by Sherlock because he promised to protect Watson’s family and could not.
- Different Visions of Happiness: In the movie Two Weeks’ Notice – Sandra Bullock’s character is a lawyer/adviser to a big New York real estate developer played by Hugh Grant who cannot seem to do anything without her counsel. Throughout the movie, Grant has promised to protect a community center from demolition that is important Sandra Bullock’s character. Yet, when Grant’s character is told by his older brother that the only way to achieve his dream of building one of the most modern sky-scrapers in the world is to build over the site of the community center- Bullock’s character obviously feels abandoned.
Once you’ve chosen the conflict you want to add, the trick is weaving it carefully into your story. Even natural disasters, which are often one-off challenges, require some foreshadowing. Build up to it with a healthy dose of tension, and even after the conflict is resolved, make the effects linger. That way, everyone will think the conflict was there from the beginning.