There you sit, my writer duckling, staring at your blank screen, the cursor mocking you as it blinks slowly in the upper left corner waiting for you to type your first brilliant sentence. Waiting. Blinking. Waiting. Blinking.
Gah. Ideas. Who’s got a brilliant idea anyway? Better to flip over to Facebook or make a nice hot cup of tea…
But then the next time you sit down to write, that cursor is still there. Patiently blinking.
Instead of reaching for Castleville (my current addiction of choice) the next time you face the blank screen, consider the type of conflict you enjoy reading about and see what ideas that generates.
Types of Conflict
Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch once classified plots into seven basic categories: Man against Man; Man against Nature; Man against Himself; Man against God; Man against Society; Man caught in the Middle; and Man and Woman.
By the time I learned about conflict, these seven ideas had dropped down to six. Doing random Internet searches, I found these conflicts dropped down again to four or five. Regardless of the absolute number, the categories alone are often enough to start generating ideas.
Character vs. Character
In this type of conflict, Character A–let’s call him Ted–really wants Foo, but Character B–let’s call her Angela–really, really doesn’t want Ted to get Foo. Angela is directly between Ted and his goals. Conflict.
Graceling has a Character vs. Character element to it (it also has a Character vs. Destiny element). Katsa’s uncle has planned her career and life for her, a life she finds she no longer wants. She has to fight her uncle to get the life she wants.
Character vs. Nature
Nature, the environment, the elements, forces of nature, whatever you want to call it, these are all against Ted (poor Ted). Whatever Ted wants, he can’t get it because Nature herself is against him.
Hatchet by Gary Paulson is an excellent example of Character vs. Nature. When Brian’s plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness, he has no hope of rescue and he must figure out a way to survive against the elements until rescue comes.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is another Character vs. Nature novel. (And, frankly, any children’s novel still in print after 50 years deserves a read.)
Character vs. Self
Here, Angela is battling her own inner demons to get what she wants. The only thing standing between her and Foo is herself.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is a great (creepy) example of Character vs. Self. Lia struggles with anorexia and self-worth and guilt, much of it self-imposed. She has to accept her own worth before she can begin healing.
Character vs. Society
In a Character vs. Society conflict, Ted is fighting against the manmade society around him.
The Hunger Games is a Character vs. Society novel. Katniss only wants to survive The Hunger Games, but she must fight her society to do so (across all three books).
Feed by M.T. Anderson and Unwind by Neal Shusterman are both examples of Character vs. Society (and, at the risk of being too categorical, dystopic fiction in general has a Character vs. Society conflict).
Character vs. Destiny/Fate
Angela really wants Foo, but she is fated to not get it. This fate was determined without her knowledge or consent, and in order to get Foo, she must fight her destiny.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin is absolutely a Character vs. Destiny novel. Lucy discovers she is part of an ancient curse that will enslave her and drive her to madness unless she can destroy the curse by completing three impossible tasks.
What to do with Conflict?
Take a look at the last few books you’ve read. Which were most interesting to you? Which did you find most compelling? What type of conflict presented in the novel?
Use that conflict type and come up with a story idea using “What if?” questions.
Say the type of conflict that appeals most to you is Character vs. Destiny. What if… what if a girl wants to go to college to be a vet, but her family is from India and have arranged a marriage for her, and her future husband wants her to be a homemaker?(If you’re not Indian, you’ll have some research to do to make this work…).
Now, start writing. 15 minutes without stopping. You aren’t looking for good prose right now; you’re looking for an idea that will generate other ideas. Keep asking what if: what destiny is before your potential main character? What will she have to do to defeat or change that destiny? What other factors will stand in her way?
Next time you’re staring at your blank computer screen, give What if? and a particular conflict type a shot. Your next novel may lie in the answers.