Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Layering Conflict

This post first ran on Thursday, May 16, 2013

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.

The four layer method is laid out in Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, available in paperback and e-book.

Previous posts on this topic:

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. My outlines are much more general than this — and often in my head rather than on paper — but then the rewrites can be extensive, as you note.

    You mention that first chapters are easy. As far as inciting event and protagonist and antagonist positions are concerned, this makes sense. However, I find character introduction and development at this point to be challenging. The characters are new to the writer — as well as to the reader — and often feel stilted in early drafts. They become much more "comfortable" later on and ease seamlessly into three-dimensional beings, but those first pages often go through more rewrites than any other part of my story. After years of writing and editing, I've decided this is part of the getting acquainted process, rather like meeting a new person and struggling to find paths of communication that don't contribute to awkward silences. (Do you hear the introvert talking here?)

    This is an excellent post, Diana. Once again we are reminded that writing a book involves so much more than random placement of words on a page. Anyone who tells us to get a real job when he learns we're writers has no concept of what book authoring entails. "Real" jobs typically run form 8-to-5. Writing a book is often much closer to a 24-hour-a-day commitment. Who of us hasn't awakened in the middle of the night (perhaps after a dream) and grabbed the pencil and paper on the bed stand to jot down a scene or situation from one of your categories that we know we'll never remember in the morning?

  2. Only artists/writers are willing to work long into the night for a year (or several) to create something that may never see a return on investment. You have to be in love with your work to persevere while everyone else thinks you're crazy.

  3. Great post, Diana. Love the way you diagram this! Especially for revisions, this helps enormously. And Linda is so right--nobody but dedicated writers truly know the commitment this takes . . .

  4. Deborah Turner HarrisMay 16, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    It's always a revelation to me when someone presents a new method for nipping plot problems in the bud that I haven't come across before. This one is grand. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Wow, and I thought I was confused about the plot of my latest WIP BEFORE I read this ... nothing to now, but go take a nap.


  6. Such a good point, Diana. I'm reading a book right now for review that I am really struggling with because of all the negative interactions between the characters. They don't like each other, so how am I supposed to like them? There's lots of snarky behavior, like those girls cliques in school, and I am wondering why they don't all just get away from each other. LOL

  7. Maryann's point about negativity bears repeating because negativity and conflict are not the same thing. The latter works, the former does not. Furthermore, constant bickering inhibits character development, ties the writer's hands, and doesn't hook readers — three excellent reasons to balance the negative with the positive.

  8. Excellent points, Diana. It's hard sometimes to draw a fine line between conflict and negativity, as Maryann mentions. We have to strive for balance in our writing as well as in our lives!

  9. My head's spinning, but you've sparked lots of good ideas. Thanks!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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