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Conflict and Drama for the Main Character


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Hello All!

As you are writing, just how much conflict and drama is necessary to heap on the poor unsuspecting main character? And then, is that kind of "abuse" needed to really keep the reader interested? Are there other means thru plot and theme devices that could work better in the storyline?

Threads Open Guys!

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Conflict is the very essance of drama. As I've often argued, conflict doesn't necessarily mean violence or catastrophe; you can have a lot of conflict just in a decision the hero has to make, or just in an internal monologue inside his or her own head.

William Noble's excellent book, Conflict, Action, & Suspense (part of the Writers Digest "Elements of Fiction Writing" series) goes into all of this in great detail. While it's true that too much conflict can lead to kind of a soap opera thing, where the antagonist is getting assaulted in every single chapter, the point is made that you have to have something going on to keep the action moving and keep the reader's interest up.

Think of conflict as another synonym for action. Conflict could be something as simple as a pivotal test a student has to take the next day, or maybe there's a traffic jam on the highway, and the conflict occurs because the hero is going to be delayed in a trip by fifteen minutes. Maybe the conflict happens when the hero is expecting a crucial phone call, then after he doesn't get it, he finds out his phone has been out of order for two hours. Conflict can be as simple as not knowing the information: I often see this done simply when a gay character is infatuated with another person, and we're not sure how that person will react.

There's a million ways to work conflict into a story. Usually, when I criticize a story for being boring, it's the lack of conflict (and action) that drives me to it. Conflict is the very heart of drama (and comedy); without it, what you wind up with is little character studies, where there's essentially no real story there. Those can be entertaining on some level, but they aren't real stories, with a beginning, middle, and end, nor do they set up a situation and then resolve it. To me, it's the difference between a little musical "movement" and a symphony. When you try to drag out a "movement" to the length of a novel, it gets very boring, very quickly.

BTW, I just discovered I have an extra copy of Mr. Noble's book. I'll be glad to give it away absolutely free to anybody who wants it -- first come, first serve.

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My personal complaint is where authors heap large amounts of unrelated conflict on the main character.

For example:

Based on what I've read, being the parent of gay teenager increases your chances of being killed in a car accident by a dramatic degree.

Now, I can accept this, if this forms the premise of the story, but where it is just one of a stream of disasters to hit the character, then this just pushes my levels of credibility to the limit, and hence detracts from my enjoyment of the story.

I have no problems with large amounts of conflict if you can see a link between them, or if the probabilities are high. So, have religious zealots and other homophobic types around is reasonable. Having family tensions because of a coming out is reasonable. Any major conflicts that can be traced back to some event mentioned earlier is reasonable.

Just my opinion, mainly as a reader, not a writer.


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There is a concept I am reminded of that is known as deus ex machina. Roughly translated, it means "God from a machine," and it hearkens back to the days of ancient Greek theatre, when oftentimes conflicts were solved only by the arrival of the gods (in later stage performances, figures representing the gods were lowered to the stage from above by rudimentary pulley machines, giving rise to the phrase). In the modern usage, literary theorists refer to deus ex machina as the use of convenient coincidence in fiction.

What this becomes, then, is essentially a fate versus free will argument. To some degree, particularly in the outset of the initial conflict, coincidence is "okay" to some degree. That which we cannot control plays a very real role in our lives: some of us get in car accidents; some of us win the lottery; some of us get cancer or another debilitating disease when we're very young; some of us are born gay. So if the initial plot device is coincidence, this is fairly true-to-life, and usually is acceptable in literature. Many great works of literature draw on coincidence as a plot device; for instance, Dickens had two men, unrelated, who nevertheless looked nearly identical in A Tale of Two Cities. This developed into a substantial plot device in the novel.

Now, why does the use of coincidence matter? Fiction writing requires what is known as the "willing suspension of disbelief"--in other words, we have to be able to convince ourselves, when reading a piece, that what is happening is real. In other words, if we have a character who loses his best friend to cancer, has two parents who die in an auto accident, gets randomly beat up by homophobes while on his The Price is Right free vacation in Tahiti and then gets struck by lightning and killed, there is absolutely no way we can convince ourselves that anything like this is believable. Add to this that the character in question has a two-foot cock, and now we're really outside of the realm of believability.

So coincidences aren't really valid plot devices except as the inciting incident--the thing that gets the story rolling. I'll admit that there are exceptions to this rule: well-foreshadowed coincidences can be used successfully, but it's difficult to make it believable. Coincidences off-screen that affect the story only slightly are also usually fair game--I used this device once in Tristan's Redemption, when I revealed that Julian's love, Mark, had been killed in an auto accident a year before the story opens. So, with coincidence off the table as a legitimate plot device, where then can conflict arise? I offer this scenario:

Story opens with Gay Teen #1. Let's call him Edgar. Edgar does not have a two-foot cock. In fact, his is pretty average. Funny how that works sometimes. Edgar has a best friend named Gladys, who has a rare eye disorder, and one day Gladys encourages him to buy a lottery ticket. Edgar wins the lottery and becomes instantly rich. Hooray for Edgar! He gets enrolled in a new private high school, then goes and buys himself a really cool sports car, which he drives really really quickly everywhere he goes. His lover, Gay Teen #2, whom we will call Percival, goes everywhere with him, even though they go to different high schools now. Edgar racks up a long list of speeding tickets, which he refuses to pay. His license is revoked. Now he can't see Percival! Angry, he takes Gladys and they go to see Percival anyway. Gladys is legally blind and can't drive. So Edgar drives his car illegally, flips it while speeding, and kills Gladys. Poor Gladys. Now, Edgar gets arrested and goes to prison for manslaughter. Out on bail, Edgar finds himself the victim of a thorough beating by Gladys's brother's football teammates--not because he is gay, but because he is the proximate cause of Gladys's death. Sad, huh?

But fairly realistic, also. If constructed right, a good author could easily make the readers suspend their disbelief--instead of saying "wow, this could never happen" or "hm, this could happen," the readers say, "yes, this did happen," without questioning it. Why? Because everything that happens to Edgar, as melodramatic as the incidents are, are the results of his actions rather than random happenstance. Instead of using coincidence as a plot device, that which ratchets up the tension, the conflict, the plot of the story is Edgar's choices, dictated by his free will. Everything we do in life has logical consequences, and just as we can make our own choices, we too must abide by the results of those actions. Yes, coincidence and random fortune or misfortune play a role in our lives. However, the majority of what comes our way, for good or for ill, is the result of our own actions, and fiction must be true to this aspect of life.

So, then, in plotting a story, rather than resorting to deus ex machina and contrivance, make the conflict a logical extension of the actions taken by the characters in your story. Someone decides to come out? Maybe he gets beat up. Someone decides to tell a friend he loves him? Maybe that friend rejects him. Or says "I love you too." But whatever conflict you create, in order to seem real, should be the logical conclusion of previous action.

Before I finish this long post off, I wanted to add two examples, because everything is bettered with examples to prove a point. There are some spoilers here, so if you haven't read my story or most of The Least of These, you might want to skip this part.

Okay, fair warning. So I, in Tristan's Redemption, deliberately attempted to avoid the influence of coincidence on the actions that befell my characters. Everything that happens to Tristan--his fight with Garrett, his friendship with Julian, his involvement in Julian's gay-straight alliance, his brief fling with Seth and his eventual romance--are all the results of his own actions. Good or ill (and at points mostly ill), the sources of conflict in Tristan's life are the results of the choices he has made.

Similarly, in The Least of These, the characters' native intellect and skill with computers leads them on a very logical progression: they first design simple code, then patent it, then market it, and then stand to make a very large sum of money off of their ideas. Again, the fate the characters share is that which they make for themselves.

It is this that is one of the most important lessons of conflict and of plot: eschew the coincidental in favor of the logical. Alright, I've made my point and I am done. Comments, anyone?

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What kind of conflict or drama, how much is too much?

I can offer two major points.

First, ask the seven reporter's questions:

1. Who? Which people, things, etc. are affected?

2. What? What happens? What events take place? What is the type of conflict? (Man vs. what?)

3. When? When does it happen? What's the sequence or repetition?

4. Where? Where does it happen? Is it internal, external, some specific place, or a conflict of ideas?

5. How? How do those involved respond? How do they feel or think about or act on what happens?

6. Why? Why did the conflict happen? Was it coincidence? Was it because someone did or didn't do or say something?

7. How much / how many? What amount of conflict or numbers of conflicts can the characters handle? How many people are affected? How much is required for the characters to take action (or not act)? What happens if there is too much to handle?

Whatever the source of the conflicts, however big or small the conflicts are, asking those questions will help clarify things.

Second, what makes it believable and what will make the reader stop and say it's too unbelievable, that he's stepped outside the realm of the story and is rudely back in the real world. -- Whether you're going for a realistic story or a fantasy tale, whatever the genre, there are things that will kick the reader out of the story.

Personally, I prefer the conflict to come naturally out of the characters' personalities and actions. Sure, chance happenings can and do occur, but the real hero should solve the problem himself, rather than some other character or chance event waltzing in to provide a ready-made answer. That cheats the hero and the reader. Also, make the heros and the villains have depth. Don't be afraid to make the villain have a good point too. Don't make the villain too weak, figuratively. Let the hero have flaws. Yes, it's possible for a good story to have exciting plots but cardboard characters. Some good, pro. authors do that. I just find it more interesting if the characters are more than cardboard cutouts.

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My personal complaint is where authors heap large amounts of unrelated conflict on the main character.

Give us an example. To me, as long as the conflict carries the story forward, and it doesn't come from out of nowhere, I don't see the problem.

On the other hand, if you have a kid who gets discovered having sex by his parents, gets thrown out of his house, has to live on the street, then gets hit by a car, later gets cancer, then decides to kill a guy to make some money... all in the first three chapters... yeah, I can see where maybe that's a little too much, and it's all kind of random.

So if you can give us an example of too much conflict, I'll be glad to give you my thoughts. Again, to me, as long as the conflict and action are logical, move in a pattern, and come out of the specific overall plot of the story, there's no problem. Of course, it all has to be believable; that goes without saying.

Based on what I've read, being the parent of gay teenager increases your chances of being killed in a car accident by a dramatic degree.

Where did you read such a thing? This sounds like pure hokum to me. Do you have a website or online survey statistics you can direct us to?

As far as I'm concerned, gay kids (and adults) are just as randomly stupid, smart, rich, poor, fat, slim, ordinary, and special as straight people. We get a kind of jaded "reality" of what gay people are in TV shows and fiction -- even our own. Whenever my partner and I attend the West Hollywood Gay Pride festivals every June or so, we're always struck by how "ordinary" most of the audience is. Some of them look like totally ordinary people -- which, when you think about it, they are.

We're all just people, mentally and physically. To me, our sexual orientation is just one part of what makes us who we are; it's not necessarily the most important part of our existance.

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Hey Keith~

This is a great chance to pick-up & learn from a group of very talented & dedicated authors. BTW Guys thanks for the great responses! I am hoping that all of this info will assist young new writers and even old fools like me who edit.

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aussie_gw wrote:

My personal complaint is where authors heap large amounts of unrelated conflict on the main character.

Give us an example. To me, as long as the conflict carries the story forward, and it doesn't come from out of nowhere, I don't see the problem.

I agree that as long as conflict carries the story forward, I don't have a problem. However, when it stops me from being able to suspend my disbelief, it detracts from my enjoyment of the story.

One example (and no offense intended to the author - I enjoyed the story, but I found this grated):

1. Gay youth going through a tortured series of misunderstandings with his boyfriend, resulting in relationship breakup and the boyfriend ending up with someone else.

2. Gay youth also has an anonymous stalker that keeps sending threatening notes.

3. Gay youth's best friend (who he started having a relationship with after falling out with first boyfriend, as described above) is killed in a car accident.

4. The best friend's former girlfriend is dying of a incurable disease.

5. It turns out the best friend and his former girlfriend had a baby boy a few years ago. The baby was put in foster care, in another state. As part of the best friends will, the gay youth is asked to become the young boy guardian.

6. The young boy, and one of his foster brothers, turns out to be being physically abused by the foster dad. The gay youth becomes the guardian of both.

I'll leave off the details of the various gay bashings and abuse that also occured in the story. Those, I could accept as I could connect them to other events that had occured. These conflicts are not "unrelated", but reasonable extrapolations of past events. As it turns out, the stalker is also an extrapolation of past events, but with the added throw-in of a mental illness on the stalkers behalf to explain the extreme nature of the homophobic response.

A few of these, I could accept. I could even accept the best friend/girl friend/baby boy situation if that was the premise for the story. But when it appears as an extra to the rest of the story, I just had trouble maintaining my disbelief.

Based on what I've read, being the parent of gay teenager increases your chances of being killed in a car accident by a dramatic degree.

I did not intend to imply this for real-life. It's just that I find an uncomfortably large percentage of authors that seem to use this as part of the plot of their stories. Again, I can accept it when it forms part of the premise of the story, but it seems that some authors almost think "I have to introduce some more conflict - I know, lets kill the parents in a car accident".

If I have not made myself clear, please tell me and I'll try to explain it better.


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I did not intend to imply this for real-life. It's just that I find an uncomfortably large percentage of authors that seem to use this as part of the plot of their stories. Again, I can accept it when it forms part of the premise of the story, but it seems that some authors almost think "I have to introduce some more conflict - I know, lets kill the parents in a car accident".

Oh, well in that case, I understand. I thought you meant this was REAL.

Sure, I agree: getting rid of the parents by killing them in a car wreck is far too convenient. There are countless stories guilty of doing the same thing, and to me, it's often an easy answer. Anytime I kill off a character, I damn well think about it for a long time, and make sure the person's death is justified in the story. Sometimes, I'm guilty of going back and inserting some foreshadowing just to provide a clue that this person may not be long for this world.

The laundry list of stuff you listed from that other story sounds a little over-the-top to me. But who knows? If it's well-written, and you buy it while you're reading the story, it's fine. But the moment a reader smells some plot point thrown in just to stir things up, I think they'll realize the writer isn't being honest with the story-telling. Conflict for conflict's sake doesn't work, either. There are always limits to believability, and I'm the first guy to scream about "internal logic" in a story, when things don't make sense or don't feel justified.

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Based on what I've read, being the parent of gay teenager increases your chances of being killed in a car accident by a dramatic degree.

:shock: You have to watch for those invisible "This is humor / hyperbole / sarcasm" tags. -- I thought it was funny; I figured it was obvious aussie_gw was kidding. -- Relax, guys, lighten up and reread if somethiing strikes you as odd. -- It must be that 8) sexy Aussie accent that has them distracted. :roll:

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It must be that sexy Aussie accent that has them distracted.

Thanks for the complement 8) For the record though, Australians don't have an accent - everyone else does... :shock:


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  • 2 years later...

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