The Basis of Every Scene: Conflict and Emotional Change

Conflict and emotional changeYou’ve probably heard before that something needs to happen in every scene of your story. But “something” is a pretty vague word. What exactly is this “something” that needs to happen in order for your plot to advance? Each scene must provide important development that pushes your narrative along: conflict and emotional change.

Let’s envision a scene.

It’s a glorious Tuesday morning, as glorious a Tuesday can be. The sun is shining bright overhead and little birds are singing in all the branches of all the trees. Yes, just glorious. Little Suzie is swinging for the blue sky when her headband flies off and lands in the tanbark ten feet below. By the time the swing slows down enough that she can jump off, her classmate Joey has already grabbed the headband and started running. She has to chase him all over the playground. By the time she gives up and calls the Yard Duty, she’s in tears.

What’s going on here?

We have a clear example of conflict: Joey steals Suzie’s headband and she wants it back.

Suzie started out feeling happy and peaceful, but ended up frustrated. She was angry at Joey for stealing her headband, and worried that she wasn’t going to get it back. That’s why she had to resort to tattling.

Overall, the scene went from an emotional positive (+) to a negative (-). As you can see, conflict initiates emotional change.

I also find it an interesting and often enlightening exercise to imagine the scene from the antagonist’s perspective. Why did Joey steal Suzie’s headband? The awesome thing about being a creative fiction writer is that you don’t have to settle for theorizing—you get to make it up. I know why Joey stole Suzie’s headband: It’s because he likes her and doesn’t know how to express this or get her attention. That’s why he stole her headband—so she’d have to chase him all around. And boy, was it exhilarating. Joey started out at an emotional high (+), but ends up at an emotional low (-) because the Yard Duty sent him to see the principal, and that means he won’t be getting dessert at dinner again. Plus, now he thinks Suzie probably hates him.

That scene is a pretty straightforward example of conflict. But not everything has to be so dramatic. In life, conflict is all around us. Even when everything is going pretty well. It’s there in the morning when someone cuts you off in traffic; it’s there at that unearthly hour when the smoke alarm starts chirping for new batteries and all you want to do is sleep. Same thing in fiction. Conflict arises in your story when something or someone stands between the character and what they are attempting to achieve, no matter how big or how small that obstacle might be. That conflict doesn’t even have to come from a human source. And it can be subtle.

The same goes for emotional change. It doesn’t have to be super dramatic, unless maybe you’re working on a new soap opera. Just remember: Every action has a reaction.

These sequences of conflict and emotional change are the kernels around which your story is built.

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