Defense Against Change-the Conflict Arc
Today’s blog post is brought to you by COVID-19, the virus that everyone’s getting! Want to miss out on the fun? Maintain social distancing and wash your hands frequently!
Sorry… a little levity is always important in times like these. It’s hard to stop reading the news. It’s hard to focus, either because you’ve suddenly got people in your home who you aren’t used to having there during the day or because you’re stressed and anxious about all that’s going on. I’m not an expert in either dealing with all these distractions nor a therapist who can help you with your anxiety—I’m feeling it too!
I have been enjoying my noise-canceling headphones as my husband does his work from home (which basically means being on either voice or video calls all day long) and we’ve been working from different rooms (although the sound still travels). As my gym has closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been enjoying long walks and runs with my dog and I plan on taking advantage of the free yoga classes that are online. Both help a lot with my mental health. We’re only two days into our lockdown here in Belgium, so I know things are going to get a lot more difficult as the days pass, but I’m hoping to make the best of this time. I hope you are too!
For today’s actual blog post, I want to discuss a quote I found amongst my notes while cleaning out my notebook, which I do whenever I begin a new book (I’m getting ready to do so as soon as I get some editing commitments out of the way). Here’s the quote (and I really wish I knew where I got this. I apologize for not have a reference for you):
“In fiction, the amazement and emotional punch that come with change results not from the eventual change, but from the growing, step-by-step understanding in readers that change—no matter how necessary, desired or hoped for—is not possible. Thus constructing an arc of change for a character really means constructing a defense against that change—the anti-arc.”
The very first thing we learn when creating characters is that they must grow and change over the course of a novel. It’s a basic fact that we all accept.
Personally, the very first thing I do when I’m plotting a book is to determine my character’s goals and how they are going to change from the first page of the book to the last. It is how they get there, the steps they need to take to attain that goal and that change which determines what happens in the book.
But the quote above points out something different, and therefore interesting. We shouldn’t just be thinking about how our characters are going to achieve that change, we should be thinking about all the things that stand in their way. The conflict of the story.
The conflict in a story can have an arc—or in the words of the author above, an anti-arc—of its own.
What is stopping a character from growing and changing can, itself, change as the character grows and advances in their quest for their goal. As they overcome one conflict holding them back, another one appears. The problems compound. The character doesn’t advance toward their goal but instead moves backward away from it. The conflict arc grows, making things more and more difficult for the character until they reach the black moment of the story where the conflict seems absolutely insurmountable for our poor protagonist. It is, of course, at that point, that all the heroic qualities of the protagonist come to the fore. They get clever, realize the truth of the situation, or enact an extreme plan they’d hoped to not have to use in order to get out of the situation.
The conflict arc swings in the other direction and, although there still may be a blip or two of difficulties for the protagonist, basically all goes swimmingly as they attain their goals and realize that change is for the good—we reach our Happily Ever After.
So, do we actually need to map out this conflict arc? The answer is a definite maybe. If your protagonist is having a really easy time of it, then yes, maybe you do. There is nothing more trite and boring than a story where the conflict is so little that the character easily attains their goal. While readers don’t like to see the protagonist they love struggle and have hard times, it does make the ending, when they overcome all of their struggles, so much more satisfying (I could make a reference to our current times here, but I’m going to refrain because we’re trying to distract ourselves here from what’s going on in the real world).
If your character not only struggles mightily against the conflict you’ve created for them but begins to truly fail and get smothered by it, you might also want to create a conflict arc because maybe you’ve got to ease up a little. Give your poor protagonist a fighting chance.
On the other hand, if your writing is going well, your character is in that Goldilocks place of not too much and not too little conflict, then I don’t think you need to go to the trouble of creating a conflict arc. But do keep in mind that it is the struggles which make us stronger. It is the sure knowledge, on the reader’s part, that this character is going to have to work really hard and perhaps give up something they love in order to attain their goal, which makes a novel so very satisfying. Give us that satisfaction. Give us the moment of glory when we can sit back with a satisfied sigh of relief as the protagonist overcomes all that has held them back. We’ll close the book happy and eager to pick up the next novel you write.