Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Plotting the External Conflict

DC Comics: Batman Death of the Family
Usually I'm all, "ditto whatever Jeffe & James said!"  This time, this topic, I have to step a wee bit out of line, because I am not, by any means a Pantser. I am one of the Plotters among the group. With External Conflicts, Plotters truly plot, scheme, and do all sorts of horrible things to our heroes and their loved ones.

External Conflicts: the means, methods, and opportunities of the antagonists.

The last two (three?) weeks we covered the bases on the Persons, Places, Things, and Ideas that make strong/compelling antagonists. We know who/what is standing in the way of our protagonist's success. Through plotting, we figure out how the antagonist is going to thwart the hero.

All the best antagonists have plan, right?
(The sentient ones, at least)

When I plot External Conflict, I use a "bell-curve of misery" spread over a three-act structure (~30 chapters). Chapter 1 reveals the inciting moment and drops the first dot on the bell curve. This is the first time the protagonist feels the pressure from the antagonist (whether or not the hero actually knows who/what the antagonist is, varies depending on the story). The pressure continues to build, getting worse and worse until we reach the peak of that bell-curve: aka, the hero's Black Moment.  It is also the antagonist's high point. The downward slope is the hero rallying while the antagonist's power crumbles. The last dot is the hero triumphing and the antagonist being defeated.

It's easy to be evil when plotting the story.

Chapters 1-24: The hero must suffer in every chapter, and the suffering must be increasing horrible. That suffering can be a result of the antagonist's actions (External Conflict) or to can be caused by the self-destructive behaviors of the hero themselves (Internal Conflict). Balancing and interweaving the External and Internal conflicts is tricky. If done well, it makes the story a page-turner because the reader doubts the hero's ability to succeed.

Act 1 Climax: Somewhere around Chapter 13 (ish) the climax of Act 1 happens. The hero fights back, takes a stand...and fails, with big repercussions. Sometimes the climax is a false success, the sort where the hero achieves their goal, only to realize they've triggered a larger disaster. The protagonist may or may not yet know the identity of their true foe.

Example: The heroine's goal of Act 1 was to steal the brass monkey from the temple. Heroine takes the monkey out of the temple...and releases a plague of locusts that eat the souls of children. Oopsie. Oh, and the people who set her up to steal the brass monkey? They've been turned into brass monkeys too.

Act 2 Climax:  We're up to Chapter 23 (ish) when the antagonist demonstrates his/her superiority over the hero; thus, the Black Moment. The catch here is that the antagonist hasn't yet done their absolute worst (believed or actual). That threat still looms until the final conflict...in which the hero prevails. But, BUT, what's done at the Black Moment is still pretty damn awful. And, at this point, the hero knows the antagonist's true identity (whether or not the reader knows is a different matter).

Example: The antagonist is The Joker. Batman's tied up in silly string that's eating through his bat suit, while suspended over a vat of bubbling plastic ready to be poured into molds.  Bubbles burst, giving our hunksome Bruceypoo some horrific third-degree burns. Batman is surely defeated.

Chapters 24-30: Lessons learned. Everything the antagonist has done has made the hero stronger and smarter.  Such is the nature of survival. Now, you the writer must show the reader how the hero applies those lessons to defeat the antagonist and to overcome the External Conflict.  If you're plotting your story, you can make little "take away" notes from each skirmish. Thus, when writing the Great Takedown, you know what to incorporate. Bonus points if the hero uses a variation of the villain's ploy to save the day.

To repeat: Every chapter is an opportunity for the hero's ruin. By plotting the External Conflict, you can appropriately escalate the damage inflicted and the scope of the lesson learned. Pace your hero's suffering. You don't want to have Big Horrible Limb-Losing event in Chapter Six. It's like...well, you know. The fun's over, and no one is sticking around for the apologies.

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