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How To Layer Conflict

In previous posts, we discussed choosing a central question and a story skeleton, also known as genre. We have bent and twisted a premise many different ways. What happens next?

That depends on whether you are a pantser or a planner. Developing a conflict outline can keep you from getting mired in the middle. If you are allergic to outlining, you can wait until the end of the rough draft to examine each scene and identify the type of conflict it addresses.

The four layer method I use is simply a new way of looking at conflict in the story. It ensures that every scene is earning its page time and is placed in an order that has logical “cause and effect.”

First chapters are easy for most writers. The inciting event occurs. The protagonist makes an important decision or takes an irrevocable action. The antagonist knows of this decision/action and is prepared to oppose him. Then the writer loses momentum or doesn't know where to take it.

The layering process helps you develop the middle and end. You may not have a complete idea of how everything will come together. In breaking it down into layers, ideas will come to you. You may not stick with your original idea. The plot may change as you go. It's part of the process. The magic of dialogue, descriptions, exposition, and actions are not easily outlined, but scene conflicts are. They act as one sentence prompts that keep you from getting “stuck."

There are four layers of conflict to work with. All layers pertain to all genres. Even if you don't have a "bad guy" antagonist in your story, there are characters that work against your protagonist's best interest.

1) External scenes are the verbal camera at its widest angle. They focus on the overall story problem that all of your characters are caught up in and can feature any combination of characters. They address the central question and include the inciting incident, main turning points, and climax. Your protagonist should be present in these scenes. The love interest is a co-protagonist in a romance, so these scenes could follow the love interest if your verbal camera (POV) allows it.

2) Antagonist scenes narrow the focus to the antagonist, or antagonistic forces. The antagonist is the person most opposed to your protagonist's story goal. If your verbal camera follows the antagonist and/or his henchmen, these scenes can focus on them. If not, they are scenes where the protagonist is in direct contact with the antagonist/antagonistic force.

3) Interpersonal scenes focus on interactions with the friends and foes that help or hinder the protagonist and antagonist. Depending on the point of view you choose, they can be in direct contact with the antagonist, protagonist, or working their own agenda. If the friends and foes are involved in a subplot, these scenes address the subplot.

4) Internal scenes focus on the protagonist’s internal journey and lead up to his point of change. They explore his flaws, his strengths, and his thought processes. They include the personal problem that complicates his efforts to solve the overall story problem. If there is a love interest, and your verbal camera follows both characters, these scenes explore their individual struggles as they consider the pros and cons of the relationship.

There have to be both positive and negative interchanges. Two people constantly bickering with no happy moments do not make interesting characters or friends. Constant battle scenes and explosions with no softer moments are exhausting. Cycling between overt and subtle conflicts gives your story the satisfying S-curves the reader enjoys meandering (or speeding) through.

Your story may weave several plots together or explore separate protagonist’s journeys in a consecutive manner. Each subplot or protagonist will have his or her own layers. You would develop each subplot or protagonist’s journey in the same way.

Every scene should have at least one specific conflict and resolution. If your scenes are full of dialogue and people and static motion, but no tension or conflict, they fall flat, encouraging readers to skim over them and that is not the type of page turning to aim for.

The goal is to start off with at least ten ideas for each layer. Forty ten-page scenes result in a four-hundred page novel. The number of scenes vary according to your story requirements.

Changing the way you look at each scene makes writing them easier. Asking hard questions at the beginning saves major rewriting at the end.

We will discuss each layer in detail in upcoming posts.

Note: this post was originally published on

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