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Monday, January 22, 2024

Circling Conflicts vs. Zigzagging Conflicts

Nearly every writer understands that a story needs conflict. The protagonist sets off to fulfill a goal, runs into an antagonistic force, and their struggle creates conflict. This should happen in the story as a whole, this should happen in acts, and it should happen in almost every scene--the difference is that the smaller the structural unit, the smaller the antagonist and conflict (simplistically speaking).

Today I want to talk about a sneaky problem I sometimes see when editing manuscripts, one that relates to conflicts.

Sometimes the writer simply “circles” the conflict.

What I mean is that after a given conflict, nothing has actually changed in the story. We just completed a “circle.”

For example, say the protagonist is a favorite target of the schoolyard bully. They get into a verbal fight, but when it's over, nothing's different. The conflict didn't have any consequences.

It may not sound that bad.

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this happens repeatedly or this is the main conflict, the plot isn't progressing. It just did a circle and the characters ended up in the same situation they were before the encounter. Essentially, no matter how exciting the scene may seem to be, you could still cut it and the story would be the same.

Let's look at an even less obvious example.

The protagonist needs to get Object X from Character B.

The protagonist finds a way to successfully steal it.

But then immediately afterward, Character B steals it back.

The scene ends, and the protagonist is back at square one.

It doesn't sound that bad, does it?

And if it only happens once in a while, and there are enough other conflicts going on, it may not be.

But if this sort of thing happens repeatedly--over and over and over--the plot isn't progressing. You're just going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And if we just arc that path a bit, guess what? It creates a circle.

Another example:

The protagonist has a problem.

But she's not taking action to solve the problem

Yes, she reacts emotionally to the problem.

She may even sometimes come up with a plan for how to try to solve the problem.

But she doesn't execute it. Or, some other problem comes up that keeps her from executing it.

And rather than come up with and execute a new plan to address that problem.

She just reacts emotionally to the problem.

Imagine this going on for multiple scenes.

The plot isn't progressing. She's just ruminating.

It still feels like the text is just circling the conflict.

Please know I'm not saying a story can never do these things. On rare occasions, circling conflicts can be useful, like when the point is to show the audience how some things don't change. My first example may arguably work near the beginning of the story, to show what the protagonist's day-to-day life is like. My second example can sometimes work as a frustrating irony. And my last example, well . . . don't do my last example. Okay, okay, maybe it could work to show off how the protagonist is incapable of or has the flaw of never moving forward (and chances are it'd probably be better to illustrate that through summary, rather than scene).

And some degree of circling can work, when the story needs to end with the characters and world in the same place they started, like in a serial, but note that usually through the installment, there isn't much circling.

And often, even if the external circumstances complete a circle, the journey changed the character internally in some significant way.

BUT if you are repeatedly writing examples like those above, where the situation at the end of a scene or act is essentially the same as it was at the beginning of the scene or act, then you aren't moving the story forward.

Sure, conflict may show up on the page, but the text is just circling it.

Instead, it's much more effective to create a zigzag. 

If we wanted to keep this super simple, we might say the scene (or act) needs to move from a positive situation to a negative situation, or a negative situation to a positive situation. Or, a positive situation to a better situation, or a negative situation to a worse situation. Essentially:

+ --> -

- --> +

+ --> ++

- --> --

This is a good starting point, but I admit, it sometimes feels oversimplified to me.

In any case, the situation the character is in, has changed.

The story didn't do a circle. It did a zigzag (or zigzigger or zagzagger). 

The protagonist had a goal, encountered an antagonist, had a conflict, and the conflict came to a definitive outcome (if only on the small scale for that scene). It hit a climax or turning point.

And that outcome carries consequences.

The protagonist gets in an argument with the bully and gets suspended for his language. If he's suspended, his parents will ground him, and he won't get to go on an upcoming date with his crush. It's a setback.

Character B steals Object X back and in the process, mortally wounds the protagonist. Now the protagonist needs to get help before they die.

The protagonist takes action to solve the new problem, and not only succeeds, but manages to solve her original problem at the same time.

But often just adding consequences isn't enough. We need to make sure the consequences aren't or can't be undone, at least not easily or coincidentally. We don't have the protagonist's dad have a serendipitous change of heart and simply allow the protagonist to go on the date.

Don't undo what you just did (generally speaking). 

If the protagonist ended with a bigger or new problem, make him put in the effort to try to solve it. (See the "No, and . . ." vs. "Yes, but . . . " rule under "Disaster.")

And don't forget my "acid test" for plot progression. At the end of the scene (or act), ask, did the protagonist's current goal and/or plan shift? If the answer is no, chances are you did a circle. (Or you at least left things stagnating). If the answer is yes, something changed.

As I mentioned above, sometimes the change is internal. 

Maybe Character B did simply steal Object X back, but maybe that leads to the protagonist realizing he doesn't want Object X as much as he wants revenge on Character B. He hatches a plan to exact that.

While that may not be as strong as the protagonist getting mortally wounded, it's better than nothing changing, and the experience does change the direction of the story.

Personally, I'd still be cautious of writing such a situation, though. In most types of stories, we want consequences to be both internal and external.

But that topic could be another post.

So in closing: zigzagging conflicts is better than circling them.



  1. I must check my WIP for circles! Thank you for the enlightenment.


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