The Conflict Box

Heart Bomb HiRes copy 2
The key to a great conflict is that neither the protagonist nor the antagonist can resign from the action
. They must keep fighting each other to the bitter end because they need their goals and because they cannot escape each other’s actions. One way to analyze the strength of your story conflict is with a conflict box.

A conflict box is a table with six cells, one cell each for goal, action, and conflict for both the protagonist and the antagonist.

Box Def

Filling out a conflict box makes you cut through all the detail in your story to get to the core conflict.  If you can’t fill in these boxes, you don’t know your conflict.  But filling in the boxes isn’t enough, you also need to check to see if you have a conflict lock; that is, that your conflict is one that neither the protagonist or the antagonist can resign from.

To do that, after you’ve filled in the boxes, switch the cells in Conflict column around.  If the actions in the action box now match the actions that are creating the conflict in conflict box, then the actions your protagonist is taking to get her goal will be the actions that are causing the antagonist’s conflict, and vice versa.

That means that everything the protagonist is doing to get her goal is escalating the antagonist’s conflict, and everything the antagonist is doing to get his goal is escalating the protagonist’s conflict.  As long as your character motivations are so strong that neither character can quit the struggle, and each character’s actions to achieve that goal are directly causing the other character’s conflict, your story has a crucible,  a perfect storm of conflict that neither character can escape from.

An inescapable conflict is your story’s conflict lock.

Example:
Let’s go back to Jane and Sam duking it out over Grandpa’s Farm.  Their conflict box looks like this:

Jane's Box

Now switch the conflict cells around:  Jane’s actions are causing Sam’s problem, and Sam’s actions are causing Jane’s problem so they have conflict lock.

Box Lock

The conflict box is a fast way to discover if your conflict is focused and locked.

TroubleshootingOne quick fix for your conflict if it’s wonky: rewrite the action cells so they match the conflict cells in the opposite character’s box.  Then look to see how you can rewrite your scenes so that those characters do those actions in your story.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

9 thoughts on “The Conflict Box

  1. This is a great explanation, but I have one question: how do they resolve such a conflict? If nobody can back down, the resolution is impossible. Someone must give way, and the possible way out should be embedded in the conflict somewhere. Maybe hidden but there nonetheless. Romance between Jane and Sam doesn’t change anything in the dynamics of the conflict either, does it?

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    • Leigh says:

      I suspect that topic will be dealt with in the conflict resolution chapter. Maybe a short reference to that chapter somewhere so the thought doesn’t nag at the reader?
      I’ve never seen the conflict box before or heard of the conflict lock. Thanks for educating me on it, Jenny.

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    • One of them destroys the other, which provides catharsis for the reader.
      As you’re about to point out, that makes for a lousy romance, which is why next week is about romance conflict.
      But even for romances, you need catharsis at the end, and compromise, while great for relationships, is generally lousy for story.

      If there’s a romance between Sam and Jane, it affects the conflict by putting extra pressure on it, and at that point you have to decide if the romance is the main plot or the land conflict is the main plot and plan accordingly. Assume for hte moment that there’s no romance; it simples things up.

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  2. carolc says:

    I can’t wait for the romance conflict post next week, because that is one I have trouble with.

    Even as a brief overview, all of these posts have been illuminating. Very clear and easy to understand. I’ve read more how to write books than I can count and this is the most understandable explanation of conflict I’ve ever seen. You’re not just an excellent writer, you are also a wonderful teacher. I really hope you continue with these posts and write that book. I’ll be first in line to buy it.

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    • Everybody has trouble with romantic conflict. That’s why so many critics says romances have no plot. A lot of them have plots, but no climaxes because the end is a compromise. It’s a problem.

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  3. Dear Jenny-

    I LOVE, Love, love…. this site and this series. I can’t tell you how much I share these gems around and how awesome they are. This has been a great experiment and pure genius.

    Thanks, us mere writing mortals. 😀

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  4. Jenny, the conflict box is genius and a good reminder for me right now. I already *know* this stuff, but keep forgetting to remember it when I need it.

    The thing that struck me looking at it this time is that the first box of “goal” also covers “stakes.” It’s not just what does this character want, it’s also what happens if that goal is not met. You’re so experienced with all this, you probably don’t even separate them anymore. But they’re two different things. I think you need to make that point. Too many stories I read have goals but no stakes (and therefore, very little significant conflict).

    Carry on with the good work. Can’t wait to buy/recommend/read this once it’s done. 🙂

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    • That’s a really good point.
      Let me cogitate on that one. I don’t know whether to add a post on stakes, add the idea of stakes to the goal, or put the whole thing in the character section, but you’re absolutely right that “stakes” is not the same thing as goal and it’s crucial to strong conflict.

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