The Best Way to Create Conflict

Imagine the scene you’re reading involves the characters all sitting around a table eating dinner. The image is clear because you’ve had dinner at a table before, so you understand what goes on. During this scene, everyone is in a good mood, enjoying food, laughing, and talking. The mood stays high through the scene’s end when the host gets up and starts dishes.

It might be interesting, but not much really happens, does it?

Now imagine the hostess’s husband raises his voice while discussing politics with her best friend during dessert. That just upped the ante, didn’t it? The mood of the dinner party, as well as the scene, has changed. A value shift has occurred.

Whenever you hear of a scene (or book!) that is stagnant or flat, it’s usually because it doesn’t have a value shift.

This shift moves the mood or action and forces the story forward. It creates momentum to which the characters must react. In our above example, all the other guests probably start to feel uncomfortable. Because the hostess is our protagonist, she’ll have a choice to make. What she chooses to do is dependent on who she is.

Shifts usually occur as opposites, and the more precise the better. In our dinner party scene, the value shifted from easygoing to tense. A precise value tells you that your scene is clear, meaning there’s no confusion as to what’s going on. A muddled beginning or ending value usually indicates that the scene needs to be reworked.

With a few exceptions, every scene in your novel should have a value shift. This is what drives the story and what conflict piggybacks on. If every scene is easygoing all the way through, there’s no story. (Remember Requirement 2: Conflict?) Alternatively, if every scene is tense throughout, there’s no breathing room and no win for the protagonist.

The value of a scene is determined by something I hammer in time and again. You guessed it…genre. Since we’ve been using mystery as an example, let’s continue with that.

If the genre is mystery, then the story value (tightly related to Controlling Theme) is justice. If it’s a murder mystery, the value of most scenes will be on the scale of life and death. There are many steps between life and death, and the middle of the book should reflect that. Vitality to weakness is a shift. Good health to injury is another. The climax should reflect the most extreme in shifts.

They shouldn’t always go from a positive value (easygoing) to negative (tense). There should be some wins for the protagonist. There should be times in our mystery that the hero figures out a clue, so the value could shift from directionless to direction

When I’m working on a book that has all the requirements of story but still feels a little flat, I look closely at the scene value shifts. Sometimes scenes don’t take the protagonist anywhere or don’t force them to react. Quite possibly the scene ended too soon. Other times, if the information is important but there’s been no shift, the scene can be chopped up and Frankensteined into other scenes. Now and then a scene can be deleted safely without affecting the rest of the story.

The concept of a scene value shift doesn’t need to be complicated. Use simple yet precise terms to identify the values. There are no rights or wrongs. Don’t think about it too much, either. Going from being directionless to having direction can just as easily be a character going from being clueless to having a lead.

This step is best looked at toward the end of your revisions since it’s a bit more detailed. You’ll find a lot of scenes do this on their own if you have the other requirements and steps in place.

Scene Value Shift is Step 6 in my signature Supersets for Powerful Story system.

Can you identify the values and their shifts in your scenes? Share some of those shifts in the comments!

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