The Easy Peasy Conflict Formula . . . or why Good + Bad x Worse = Great fiction!
I usually hate metaphors (especially when it comes to writing ‘advice’), but this one does possess a spot of magical wisdom as it pertains to creating great fiction: force your protagonist up a tree . . . then throw rocks at them until they fall.
When it comes to story, technically there exists nine acts (Act 1’s 1st & 2nd halves, Act 2A’s 1st & 2nd halves, the Midpoint, Act 2B’s 1st & 2nd halves, and Act 3’s 1st & 2nd halves) but let’s keep things simple and leave it to the base three acts of Beginning, Middle, and End. Or Problem, Complications, and Resolution. Or Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.
I like to describe the three basic acts as follows:
Act 1 = Engage a major problem.
Act 2 = Mistakes exist as opportunities for learning.
Act 3 = Experience is the best teacher.
Because Act 1 represents the set-up of everything and everyone in your story while introducing its central conflict. Act 2 represents all the trials and tribulations the protagonist endures and overcomes while attempting to resolve the story’s central conflict. And Act 3 represents the protagonist applying everything they’ve learned through the adversity of your story then proving it against the antagonist to either a triumphant-positive (most common) or tragic-negative (least common) outcome.
But that’s the big basic picture of the story whole, and here we’re going to focus on the smaller puzzle pieces of its scenes and how they fit together.
After you finish crafting your latest glorious scene of minor protagonist triumph, you relax and bask in the awing genius that is wonderful you . . . only to ponder the inevitable as to that perfect scene you just wove upon the page by asking yourself, “Okay, so what happens next?”
Just apply the proven formula standby that one ‘good’ scene deserves two ‘bad’ scenes and you’ll never ponder for long. Though how much good and how little bad is up to you.
Devastate your happy characters, or just prickle their fouling turn of moods. Though understand this: a scene should be either a step toward or shove away from your protagonist resolving the story’s central conflict. Because just as with your overall story, every scene in it should involve a point of view character, a goal, and an obstacle preventing said character from achieving their current goal; ergo: conflict. The scene is over when it is determined that the point of view character either succeeds or fails, causing change to their previous status when before the scene began whether positive or negative.
The first necessary part is already provided via the good scene. Excellent. Next you chase it with two specific and important questions:
1. How can I make it bad?
Then . . .
2. How can I make it even worse?
The ‘good’ scene rewards your characters with success of some sort, however extraordinary or mundane, a positive step in the right direction: a new revelation of key information discovered; the harbored tensions between two arguing allies at last or temporarily smoothed through amiable compromise; small progress achieved toward resolving the main story goal; a minor subplot concluded with victory; whatever floats your boat as according to your particular story.
But then . . . (maniacal laughter ensues, full and deep and with head craned) . . . oh yes, and then you, the sadistic writer you are, should punish them with a doubly wicked turn of two negative scenes (bad, and worse), however major or minor, a negative shove in the wrong direction followed by a punch in the face as they stumble backwards for regaining stolen balance: someone close to the protagonist betrays them; a loved one is harmed, kidnapped or killed; a precious item is discovered broken or lost or stolen; a friendship dissolves through misplaced suspicion or an argument of a past misgiving resurfaced; the simple twist of a sprained ankle while running; whatever floats your boat as according to your particular story.
You can bundle the bad and worse scenes into one horrible scene if you like, depending on how good the scene preceding it, or keep them separate though chained in a sort of double whammy ala the shove then punch. Point being, reward and punishment go hand in hand when it comes to great fiction. Because reward followed by punishment instigates constant conflict, and conflict piques our interests while demanding we keep reading until its dramatic and surprising though logical and satisfying conclusion.
Two bickering neighbors outside?
You know you crack your window to steal a better listen while peeking through the blinders opened just enough of a touch to see what’s happening across the street.
A car wreck on the side of the road?
Of course you slow down while passing and staring at the police handcuffing the driver as their crying spouse tries to fight off Johnny Law.
Because conflict is interesting.
Offer your eager protagonist climber a daunting tree up which they clamber then shout victory while clinging to its swaying apex (Good).
Now throw rocks at them until they fall (Bad).
Now kick them in the ribs while laughing strong (Worse).
Then you remove a bit and allow them recovering space through which they groan into standing, dust off and, determined not to be undone, they prove eager for that next harrowing climb (Great)!
And when they do, make sure you grab another handful of rocks and take aim as they clamber once more up that inviting tree of conflict . . . because good + bad x worse = great fiction!