Posted On September 29, 2017 by Print This Post

3 Ways to Tell if Your Conflict Is Just a Delay Tactic – by Janice Hardy

Happy Friday! We’ve got another keeper post by author and blogger Janice Hardy. 

Conflict is central to every story, but it’s also found in every scene—something is keeping the protagonist from achieving a goal. The specifics change of course, and “keeping from” covers a wide range of options, but at the core, the conflict is having an effect on the story.

Internal conflicts make it harder for the protagonist to make a decision, while external conflicts make it harder for the protagonist to compete a task. These challenges change the outcomes of the scenes, because overcoming them has a larger effect on the character and the events around that character.

However, sometimes writers put obstacles in the protagonist’s path and call it conflict. But obstacles do not equal conflict.

I’ve read (and written if I’m being honest) plenty of scenes where the “big problem” was to get past an obstacle in the way. It might be getting around a bad guy, or scaling a giant wall, or solving a puzzle, but the goal of the scene was to overcome that obstacle in the protagonist’s path. Technically, “an obstacle in the way” is conflict, but it’s not a challenge that requires a choice or has any stakes, so it does nothing more than delay the protagonist from getting to the next problem.

In novels with weak to no conflict, that next problem is just another delay tactic, leading to another pointless task until the novel ends at the climax. Sure, there are plenty of “exciting things” happening so it feels as though the novel has a lot going on, but the pace is slow because readers aren’t invested in the outcome of those tasks and they don’t care. They know the problem doesn’t change anything. Overcoming that obstacle will reveal no new information nor change anything that happens next.

For example, a fallen tree across the road isn’t a conflict, though it is an “obstacle in the way.” However, a guy in the road with a gun feels like it ought to be a strong conflict—the driver wants to pass, the gunman wants to stop her (classic conflict definition) but it’s not a conflict readers are likely to care about if it doesn’t do all the things a strong story conflict also needs to do. It’s just a random guy who appears for no reason other than to delay the time it takes for the protagonist to get past this obstacle.

An obstacle course has plenty of obstacles to get in the way, but do you really want to watch someone running it for hours upon hours? I doubt it. After the runner’s skill is established, there’s nothing to hold your attention or make you care. You know how every obstacle will be overcome, and even if you don’t, you know it’ll be circumvented and the runner will reach the ending.

And this is the key to creating strong conflicts versus obstacles that are just delaying tactics. Readers care about conflict. They don’t care about obstacles in the way delaying the story.

Obstacles can work if the whole point of the obstacle is to delay the protagonist so she misses something critical that does have larger ramifications. The delay actually causes problems for the protagonist. Had she not been stuck handling that problem, she would have been on time to do whatever she needed to do (but you need to be careful with this, or too many of the novel’s conflicts don’t actually mean anything to the story).

This is why “stuff in the way” doesn’t hold a reader’s interest, even though it technically might seem as though there’s conflict in that scene. It’s the challenge to choose the right path that turns a “something in the way” obstacle into a conflict that needs a resolution.

If you’re unsure if your conflicts are serving your story or just delaying it, ask yourself:

  1. If I took out this obstacle, does anything change?

Delay tactics don’t affect the outcome of a scene. Solving the problem takes time, but it doesn’t really change the path the protagonist was already on.

  1. If the protagonist fails here, does it stop the story?

Delay tactics also kill a story cold if they aren’t competed, because they don’t offer any other options for the scene, and they were never meant to actually stop the protagonist. Since the only possible result is a win, it’s not actually a conflict.

  1. Is there anything to learn from the struggle?

Some obstacles are there so the protagonist can struggle and become stronger, so while they delay the final outcome, they actually do serve a purpose. These are sometimes hard to identify though, because the changes come from within the character. If the struggle to overcome the obstacle doesn’t teach a lesson or encourage growth of some type, it might just be delaying the scene.

Conflict creates change, whether that’s in the character or the situation the character is facing. If nothing changes but the time it took to complete the task, odds are you’re looking at a delay tactic, not a real conflict.

Do you have any delay tactics in your current manuscript?

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Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of YA fantasy series, The Healing Wars, and the bestselling Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it). Her Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structurea self-guided workshop for planning a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the “editor-in-a-book,” Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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10 Responses to “3 Ways to Tell if Your Conflict Is Just a Delay Tactic – by Janice Hardy”

  1. Always good to be back at RU 🙂

    Posted by janice | September 29, 2017, 8:07 am
  2. Awesome post!

    Posted by Heather Heyford | September 29, 2017, 9:10 am
  3. Oh boy, your post has given me lots to think about.

    I’ve read novels where there’s too much conflict and reading them becomes an endurance test. When I find myself adding conflict to my stories, it usually means I don’t believe in the plot or I’m having issues with the direction of the story. Your advice on removing the obstacle to see if it changes the outcome is a great litmus test.

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 29, 2017, 4:34 pm
    • My pleasure! I’ve read books like that, too. After a while, it’s just too much work to read. It’s interesting that you add conflict when you don’t believe in the plot or direction. I totally get that, but never thought of it in those words before. Insightful! You might have just inspired another post, thanks 🙂

      Posted by janice | September 30, 2017, 6:51 am
  4. Thanks, Janice, for this great post. Really helpful in identifying a conflict-worthy scene from one that is just filler…

    Posted by Bliss Bennet | October 1, 2017, 11:11 am
  5. So needed this post. Even went back to read similar posts. Decided to buy the book!
    Funny how sometimes things hit at just the right time. 🙂 Thanks!

    Posted by Sandy Tilley | October 2, 2017, 12:25 pm
  6. I enjoy creating internal conflicts. It brings out the weakness of the protagonist and forces them to grow. In the rough draft I am working on the conflict is an 8 year old girl. The protagonist does not like children but is forced to be around her. She is, in a way, a tree in the road.

    Posted by Bryan Fagan | October 3, 2017, 8:36 am

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