Why do all the elements of fiction writing seem to conflict? How do they work together? To write many smaller things, do we have to choose between them? Try to cram them all in? It’s so much noise.
The answer is simply not to force technicalities upon an emotional experience. Follow the emotion, and the exceptions to the “rules” will be the right ones.
See? Did you really need even this much advice?
Fiction technique comes in layers that harmonize, rather than types of moment that constitute conflicting advice. Ignoring for the moment that this looks suspiciously like something mathematical, and therefore evil, consider this:
Think of the green wave as motivations and reactions. The blue wave is goals, conflicts, resulting problems (disasters), reactions, dilemmas, decisions. The red wave is scenes and sequels. And the navy wave is the major moments of the macro structure.
See how there are repeated points when they come together? Think of those as scene endings, chapter endings, and the conclusion of major sections of plot.
If you just write motivations and reactions, and let their events and feelings and consequences — the content you put in the empty boxes — accumulate some combined force, they’ll create larger moments that force the viewpoint character to change or die (metaphorically, as in an emotional or social extinction event, or literally). The big navy wave is not so much something that needs engineering as it is the pendulum of forced transformation, set in motion by smaller moments.
All you need to seek is the smaller moments.
In short story, these transformations can be reveals: twists that uncover new conflict and growing context until a conclusion is reached. Depending on its length, short story won’t be so much about goal, conflict, disaster, or scene and sequel, as moving through sharp moments of transformation. If it’s a bit longer, those scene tools may come in handy as prompts for what direction the motivations and reactions could take.
But it’s better to leave all that aside.
Don’t tell yourself what you’re going to write.
Think of how mystical Stephen King gets in his strategy to guard the creative mind from analytical intrusion. He talks in On Writing as if there are multiverses and creativity can somehow peer through the cracks and find pre-existent ideas and images. This is a metaphor for denying the analytical side of the mind access to the psychological “room” in which creating happens.
In Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider simply advises not to tell yourself that you’re going to write a novel. Or anything in particular. Just write. If we’re thinking “novel,” we’re thinking about all these technicalities and hemming in the process with (over) analysis. If we’re thinking prose poem, we could miss a larger story.
Those are formats, and format is very much second to content.
Use the tools available as prompts, not rules.
If it’s time to come up with a goal at the start of the scene, that’s a prompt. It’s a leaping-off place from which the mind may wander. It’s not an imperative you have to track and enumerate, unless you want to start there and then write from an outline as a prompt. (An outline is just a series of writing prompts arranged in a widely-recognized pattern of psychological, circumstantial and emotional progression.)
Conflict is a prompt. It’s a word that allows us to be mindful of the broad, very generalized nature of what happens next. Friction might be a better word, because that conflict can be very subtle. We’re interested in conversations where the speakers fray each other, in lines of action where the outcome is in question. The human mind is captivated by the feeling of potential threat and sated by the resolution of that potential.
But if you’re sitting back analyzing these things, you’re probably missing the raw core of pure feeling. Pure hatred, pure shame, pure love, pure joy. Submerging into a moment and capturing an image that makes you feel is the main thing.
To find that moment, you can take Schneider’s advice and just write — as she urges, as fast as you can, without lifting the pencil from the paper (or perhaps fingers from the keyboard). Know the feeling and the image that sparks it all, and lay things down as quickly as possible in order to outrun the intrusion of analysis.
When you do this many times over, you’ll become able to see what the character wants, or whether that’s missing from the picture. You’ll be able to see what the friction (conflict) is — overt or latent. The disastrous consequences that propel things forward will rise out of the mist like pre-existent moments lost in the ether between universes.
What do you feel deep down?
What happens next?