Finally, an Easy-to-Implement Method to Eliminate Plot Problems, Slow Beginnings, Sagging Middles, and Unspectacular Endings
The problem goes something like this: you have an awesome idea. You’ve created compelling characters, reflective settings, and drafted exciting scenes. You’re ready and raring to write. You dive in and plow forward, high with that first rush of story. But somewhere along the road, your enthusiasm runs short. You’re running out of speed. The story starts to sag. Sure, you’ve crafted conflict into the characters. They’re arguing right there on the page! The events seem exciting. You know you’ve never read that little twist before! But regardless of your character disagreement, intriguing plot situations and surprising turns, something’s flat. Something just doesn’t jive. Something’s plain off.
So, what happens if you don’t figure out why your story has drifted into a sea of bleh, bleh, bleh?
You switch projects and never complete this one. You feel frustrated and disappointed in yourself. Your self-esteem drops. Maybe you even convince yourself that you suck so bad as a writer you should just give it up for good. (And when I say YOU, I mean, that’s what I did.)
But trust me, it’s not that dire. And it is fixable once you know the secret.
I had this problem recently. So recently it still hurts to think about all the time I wasted not knowing how to fix my blaring story issues. I knew I had to have a big bam concept. I knew I needed those compelling characters opposing one another, even subtly, in every single micro-moment (see Donald Maas’ Fire in Fiction). I knew my story had to contain twists and turns, and I’d studied just about every plot theory I could get my hands on for, like…decades. But when I got to my 4th ShadowLight book, the story kept crashing. It stalled out. Sagged. Blew big fat chunks then sputtered and died right there on the page.
I kept reworking the giant MS of cr#p.
I added more tension. Added more interest. Redeveloped the stinking characters. And nothing I did fixed the big old pile of doo staring back at me, jeering like a spiteful demon muse who thought it was hysterically funny to taunt me and watch my soul break.
We’re not even going to talk about the ego hits I took, over and over, about how much I sucked as a writer. That and the remedy to self-defeating thoughts is a discussion for later.
On the story level, it turned out there were two problems, but the first was the biggy. The mammoth that I’m going to discuss today. The thing that, if you get, you’ll nail your story’s conflict and hook your reader AND, big ‘ole bonus, finish your story not feeling like the biggest writing loser in the Kindlesphere.
Let’s delve into the number one method to slam your novel’s central conflict and instantly improve your writing tenfold. Let’s learn to hook those readers and keep them entranced. No more writing saggy middles, meandering plots, or boring passages. You’re going to use this one, easy method to build a quickening force that drives your fiction to its satisfying, head-on finale. And it’s real freaking easy to do.
What is this mystical piece of fiction-writing magic?
I know, I know. You already understand that conflict is essential to writing a good story, but hear me out. Do you know the highest level of conflict in your story drives every single plot point in your story? Do you know that highest level of conflict must hit specific story beats to full throttle your story to a spectacular finale?
It’s not just any old conflict we’re discussing.
I am talking about your story’s highest level of conflict. A special, clearly defined type of conflict, one that I call the Axis of Conflict. Let’s first examine conflict for a moment.
We all know that conflict is a story’s driving force, but it’s never clearly defined for us. We keep hearing the Writing Gods command us to pen, “conflict!” and we think any old conflict will do. (As an aside, there is such a thing as micro-conflict – a scene-specific conflict Donald Maas talks about in The Fire In Fiction. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) Not any old conflict will do. So, let’s take a closer look.
Conflict is defined (the verb form) at dictionary.com as:
verb (used without object)
to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash:
The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
to fight or contend; do battle.
But that’s too general of a definition when it comes to story. You could string together ten scenes, all with conflict, and still have your story suck big fat lemons. Sure, I happen to like lemons, but not when it comes to my writing.
I started to dissect the problem. I read Larry Brook’s Storyfix.com. I read numerous books and blogs on plotting, most of which weren’t helpful in the least. Let’s also mention I’ve been reading writing how-tos for the better part of the last thirty (gulp) years. Either I’m a slow learner, or… let’s not even go there.
Then one day, something gelled. I had that Oprah A-HA moment.
The key to a tight, focused, unstoppable story is THE CENTRAL CONFLICT.
Writing instructors touch on it. It’s the main conflict in your story, but what the heck does that mean? What, exactly, is that?
Let me expound.
The central conflict is the highest level of conflict in your story. It’s the main force opposing another (opposite) force to achieve a specific result.
Let me repeat that: It’s the main force opposing another (opposite) force to achieve a specific result.
I call this the Axis of Conflict, for reasons that will (hopefully) become clear below.
You must know the top level of conflict for any story. This top level of conflict is the AXIS upon where all action resides. Ideally, your inciting incident should be caused by this top-level conflict (it should hint at it – it sets up the arena for the top-level conflict to be revealed and come to a head in the final battle).
The equation for this Axis of Conflict is:
It’s that simple.
A is your protag with (most likely) a highly moral motivation to achieve the positive outcome of C (unless it’s an anti-hero and then that’s different).
B is the antagonist, who may or may not have a moral motivation (if it’s romance they will, or if you’re writing a highly complex villain).
C is the stakes – that THING that neither A nor B can live without. That thing that if not achieved makes life unthinkable for both A and B characters.
This, A fights B over C, is the highest level of conflict in the book, and it must be present throughout your entire plot. In fact, I’ve identified specific plot points where this conflict needs to be present to keep your story thundering down those rail lines. But we’ll get into that later. Right now, let’s dissect this concept and give some real-life story examples—er…real fictional examples—so you will know how to apply it to your story.
The breakdown of the solution, step by step.
Let’s think of the Axis of Conflict as the middle point on a teeter-totter.
If A reaches for C, it temporarily pushes B down. The result would be a setback for your antagonist and a win for your protagonist. To the contrary, if B reaches for C, it temporarily pushes A down, a loss for your protagonist and a win for your antagonist.
You can see how the conflict plays back and forth, back and forth like this, until finally, one or the other will win the final battle and gain C, and you can proudly write THE END.
Here are some real-life (read fictional) examples so you can see how it works:
In Star Wars, Luke fights Darth over the fate of the Empire.
See how that works? Luke, character A, FIGHTS Darth, character B, over the fate of the Empire, which is C – the thing neither of them can live without. In this scenario, Darth wants to continue the crappy oppressive state of the Empire and Luke wants to liberate it. They have opposing views over the Empire, both fighting for an opposite reality of the Empire. Luke’s viewpoint is moralistic while Darth’s position is self-serving. For more complex story-telling, A and B character motivations can be shades of gray instead of black and white.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss battles President Snow to overthrow a corrupt government.
Katniss (A) fights President Snow (B) for the fate of their society.
If you are writing a man versus society type “villain,” then you’d better have someone representing society. In The Hunger Games, President Snow is this representation. Sure, you can be metaphorical about it, but you’re going to be writing a lot harder to convince your audience. The audience likes to be able to see and understand the opposition in personified form.
In The Hunger Games, the government is corrupt and oppressive, but Collins gives you a B character you can hate.
An undefined opposition force (character B) was the exact issue I faced in my 4th ShadowLight book. I thought I was writing about man versus society, a young girl facing an oppressive cultural environment. And. It. Kept. On. Sucking.
When I applied the Axis of Conflict and defined my character B as an actual person (not society in its different forms) wanting C (but a distorted outcome of C) from my A character, everything fell into place. Perhaps if I were writing literary fiction, the undefined character B would have worked, but ShadowLight is pure genre fiction.
Sure, I had to go in and redo my plot. I revised to bring the Axis of Conflict to specific plot points and subsequently gave myself a brain aneurysm trying to perform full-body surgery on my MS, but it worked. (IMO). For me, the plot was finally exciting. No more sags. And it led to an inevitable showdown. How I wished I would have had this equation before that painful expedition. I highly suggest using this BEFORE you start writing, so you don’t have the major brain bleed that I experienced, not to mention the enormous amount of time wasted fixing the issue.
In The Notebook, Noah battles ALZHEIMERS to keep his wife’s memory of them alive.
Noah (A) battles Alzheimers (B) for his wife’s memory (C).
That’s harder to pull off. But Sparks executes it brilliantly. So, yeah, it’s possible. Maybe I’ll try it one day, but for now, I’m sticking to a tangible character B. You go, Sparks!
Game of Thrones has many A characters all battling each other for the Iron Throne, but even Martin knows that’s not enough conflict (god forbid!) and sets it up, right there in the first chapter, that all will eventually battle the creepy dead ice guy’s army for the fate of humanity.
Read chapter one. Martin’s got the Axis of Conflict rearing its conflicted head right there, teasing you, taunting you, daring you to read on as ice walkers murder rangers of the Black Watch before you even meet a main character. It’s easy to forget about the ice walkers as you get wrapped in the multitude of Martin’s complex characters and all the other shocking events in A Song of Fire and Ice.
In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts (character A) fights Cameron Diaz (character B) over the marriage of her best friend.
What makes this interesting is Roberts is an antihero and Diaz is the adversary, but she’s adorable (which in turn makes her insurmountable, as she’s the perfect match for Roberts’ best friend). It’s an interesting format! And it still follows the rule.
Do you always have to follow this rule? There’s no such thing as hard and fast rules. Just a suggestion. ’Cause that’s what I’m here for. Sharing what made it easier for me, in hopes that it might make it easier on you.
What’s Your Story?
Who is your character A?
What do they want so badly that they can’t fathom living without it? (C)
Who is opposing them, wanting the opposite outcome for C? (Character B)
What is the opposite outcome character B cannot fathom living without?
Fill in the blanks:
__________ (Your Character A) fights ____________ (Your Character B) over ___________________________________________________________.
And there you have it. What your entire story plot will revolve around. A fights B over C is the…wait for it…Axis of Conflict that drives your story forward. Your story will consist of these two characters teeter-tottering back and forth as they try to achieve their vision of C. Remember the teeter totter above? That’s what you’re shooting for. Plot is a series of triumphs and setbacks, getting bigger and bigger, stakes rising, until that final face-off with character A and B where one or the other achieves their desired outcome of C.
Some Words of Caution on Your B Character:
Keep in mind, the B character must be tangible (yeah – even if you’re not writing an actual character – your reader has to feel this big bad threat). Make B visceral. Make them understandable. Make them real. Remember The Notebook example above if you’re not using an actual character. Alzheimer’s is a real threat in that book! You can feel how insurmountable of a villain the disease is.
Also, the B character has to have an understandable motive, assuming they are flesh and blood. There has to be a believable and palpable reason for them to want what they want, or your reader won’t get on board with you. Your B character will fall into a flat, cardboard cutout of a real flesh-and-blood being. and while that might have worked decades ago, readers are savvier and more demanding now.
Lastly, character B has to seem to be an insurmountable force for character A to overcome. or your readers start the dreaded snicker beneath their breaths. Snorting. Laughing. Proclaiming, “Yeah, right!” and your book hits the nightstand faster than ice melts in Phoenix.
I break this down even further in my free downloadable Axis of Conflict worksheet. It walks you step by step in defining your protagonist, antagonist, and the common but opposite goal they are seeking. It will force you to define believable motivations for each character to want what they want.
Underdeveloped antagonists are the biggest downfall I see in most lagging stories, but the Axis of Conflict will assure that it doesn’t happen to your story. I will also have a post on how to weave that conflict into the major plot points of your story, which plot points are most important (no matter what plot structure you’re following…or not following, as the case may be). It will help you reveal the Axis of Conflict at the most important steps in your narrative, and I’ll update this post with links once the post is live. Or sign up for the newsletter and get an instant notification.
Is this method for you? I can’t answer that, only you can, but if you’re facing a certain lack of tension or compulsion that drives your story forward, then what have you got to lose by giving it a try.
It’s free and only requires your brainpower for operation. 😉 For me, it’s been a boon to have this information, especially going forward with new stories. No more wandering through the chaotic and sagging middle, or simply boring myself to snoozes with my own story because it lacks that top level of conflict. All you have to do to get the free Axis of Conflict worksheet is sign up for my newsletter below. I’ll include tips, inspiration, and premade cover releases. You will have direct access to not only this worksheet but several others coming in the future. And I promise I won’t bug the cr#p out of you with sales emails. That’s not my style, and frankly, it’s annoying. I’ll keep my correspondence to you helpful and informative. My goal for this blog is an open dialogue where writers help writers succeed both in the craft of writing and in the mindset required to write for a career.
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Have you used this method or another for keeping your story on track? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.