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Plotting the Novel: Part III: Conflict
Shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award.

The third installment of notes from my "Plotting the Novel" seminar at Boston's Grub Street (find out more about their courses and other offerings at www.grubstreet.org).  The course has four parts:  Yearning, The Launch, Conflict, and Consequences. I will be posting each part separately over the next few weeks. Take a gander at last week's "Part II: The Launch" if you missed it. 

Note:  Each section includes an in-class exercise under the "how," though I often alter these exercises as we work.  I've tried to synthesize terms since the writing community as a whole lacks such synthesis.  I believe students need to be able to identify the heart of these various writing elements no matter which labels their past or future teachers attach to them. A list of articles by the named authors follows this post.  Ok, here we go:


7.  What's at Stake?

What:  The threat of losing people, objects, or life situation--anything that is dear to your Protagonist and a central part of his/her identity.  The Protagonist's actions toward his/her Concrete Desire put one or all of the above at risk.  What's at stake may also be or provide for the novel's Obstacles (see below).

Why:  If the Protagonist can't lose anything in pursuing his/her Concrete Desire, your reader won't be interested in that pursuit.  If a guy wants a hot dog, we won't care unless he could suffer a heart attack in trying to get to the vendor or lose his vegetarian girlfriend if she catches wind of his intentions.  Knowing "What's at Stake?" for your Protagonist can make even the silliest of Concrete Desires suddenly appear more important, thrilling even, and we'll root for your Protagonist to achieve that Desire (and thus, keep turning the pages).  For more serious Desires, just think how much gravitas you're adding to your Protagonist's search if we know he/she's got plenty to lose. 

Notice too, however, that "What's at Stake?" for your Protagonist might not be "What's at Stake?" for the average person.  Your Protagonist might love his red pajama bottoms, and we might not be able to relate to this concept--unless of course we find out that his red pajama bottoms is the only thing that remains of his long lost father, the only person he ever trusted.  In this way, the threat to even silly objects (and not just silly Desires) can become dramatic, meaningful, and individualize your character far more than the potential loss of something more commonly valuable, like a million bucks.

When:  Throughout the novel, though the reader should understand some part of what the Protagonist is putting at risk very soon after you reveal the Protagonist's Desire and/or incite him to act on it.

How:  Make a list of at least five objects, relationships, places, and situations your Protagonist most values.  Ask yourself the following for each:

·      Why does he/she value it?

·      Is the value he/she puts into the object (etc.) relatable?

·      Is the value he/she puts into the object (etc.) interesting?

·      How does the object (etc.) reveal your Protagonist's individuality?

·      How might the Protagonist pursuit of his/her Concrete Desire put this object (etc.) at risk?

Now, which valued object (etc.) inspired the most interesting answers to the above questions?  Make that object (etc.) the greatest thing he/she is putting at risk.


8.  Obstacles

(Sexton refers to as "Conflict"; Barth as "Incremental Perturbations")

What:  Obstacles create "successive compilations of the conflict" (Barth).  These Obstacles are usually increasingly problematic to the Protagonist's Desire and often relate to the Protagonist's Flaw.  Obstacles can and should be both external and internal.  As Butler writes:  "Often in the most exciting literary works, an internal conflict runs parallel to, or resonates through, some larger conflict in [or with] the external world."  (See also my example of this idea for Flaws above.)

Why:  Without Obstacles, you have no Conflict.  Without Conflict, you have no story.  If Cinderella had simply donned a pretty dress from her closet, walked around the corner to the Ball, and married the Prince that night (without loss of footwear), she would never have been named Cinderella and your kids would scream for another book.

When:  Throughout your novel and becoming increasingly problematic as the novel continues.


Consider the following:

·      What are the three main Obstacles to your Protagonist's Desire?  Remember, these can be external, internal, or preferably both.  You might already have one:  Your Protagonist's primary Flaw.

·      How do each of these Obstacles increase in strength, size, stubbornness, or difficulty as the novel progresses?

·      Through which events might these Obstacles reveal themselves or demand to be dealt with?



Try out at least one scene in which your Protagonist has to deal with one of his/her Obstacles.


9.  Climax

What:  Resolution of the story's conflict.  This is the moment when the Protagonist either achieves his/her Concrete Desire or loses it to one of his/her Obstacles.

Why:  Without some sort of Resolution, your story will never seem to end but only peter out.  (This is a possibility with Existentialist fiction, wherein the Protagonist repeatedly seeks out his Desire--if he/she has one--without ever achieving or losing that Desire.  Existentialism argues that our lives hold no purpose or meaning, and that consequences are random.  Unless you're trying to make such a philosophical statement, I would stick with Resolution.)

When:  Near the end of the novel, possibly even the last chapter, though it should not be the last scene (see Denouement and Complexified Equilibrium below).  The climax is the point at which your Protagonist's journey toward his/her Concrete Desire can go no further.


1. Consider the following:

·      Is my Protagonist strong enough morally, physically, emotionally, and/or intellectually to win out over his/her Obstacles or vice versa?

·      Is my Protagonist's Concrete Desire a true Desire or an impediment or lie in comparison to the Protagonist's Abstract Desire? 

2. Name your choice of win or lose depending on your current understanding of your novel.  (This choice may change as you write, but it's helpful to have it in mind early on.)

3. Finally, do some freewriting:  What final event decides whether my Protagonist wins or loses?






Aristotle's Poetics

Barth, John. "Incremental Perturbations:  How to Know Whether You've Got a Plot." Ed. Julie

Checkoway.  Creating Fiction:  Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the

Advanced Writing Program.  Cincinnati, OH:  Story Press, 1999.

Butler, Robert Olen.  "Yearning." From Where You Dream.  New York: Grove Press, 2005. 39-61.

Gerard, Philip.  "An Architecture of Light:  Structuring the Novel."  Ed. Julie Checkoway.  Creating

Fiction:  Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Advanced Writing Program. 

Cincinnati, OH:  Story Press, 1999.

Sexton, Adam "Story Structure: 'Araby'." Master Class in Fiction Writing.  New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 2006.