FAQ: How I do Conflict Diagrams for Impending Doom stories?

I had a nice email from reader HM (who gave me permission to use this here):

I’ve read Storyteller’s Tools a couple of times now and have had several epiphanies about how stories work and are constructed. Thanks for those!

However, there is one kind of trope(?) that I’ve been turning over in my head that I can’t seem to grasp with the tools in the book. I’m talking about working the story around a disruptive event that is out of control for the players in the story.

For example, let’s say that certain characters find out that a massive earthquake is imminent, threatening the whole community with total annihilation. The actions and struggles of the players happen against this backdrop, but the characters do not have any means whatsoever to prevent or affect the impending destruction.

How do you think the quake or its threat fits in the conflict diagram? Some of the implications of the quake can be bones of contention, but is that all?

First, answer, you don’t, not if you are stuck.

The philosophy of Story Teller Tools is that if you are stuck with one tool, you pick up another! For example as soon as you use a Story Outline, you’ll probably find your characters reacting to the impending doom, and thus find your conflicts.

However, my approach would be to look at the implications of the disaster and turn those into players. Once you have those, the Bones of Contention just pop into your mind. Here’s my stab at the problem:

Disaster Story

Conflict diagram for unstoppable impending disaster


I’m very glad to answer questions via email or in the comments. However, if you have no idea what I am talking about, perhaps you want to try my book on outlining (UK)(CA)(USA)

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Posted in FAQ, Outlining, Storyteller Tools, Writing Fiction Faster, Writing Tips
10 comments on “FAQ: How I do Conflict Diagrams for Impending Doom stories?
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    HM wondered: “there is one kind of trope(?) that I’ve been turning over in my head that I can’t seem to grasp with the tools in the book. I’m talking about working the story around a disruptive event that is out of control for the players in the story.”

    If you reframe how you’re thinking of this event, you’ll see that the answer is surprisingly easy. First, think of what happens on page 1 of any story: Protagoness is happily tending her garden, life fully under control (except perhaps for hail), when Author wakes up and seizes his word processor, Plot Complication Happens, and Protagoness embarks on an unplanned and unintended novel, without even time to call a sitter for the kids.

    Your disruptive event is no different… it only means that you need to redraw your conflict diagrams to account for the revised situation: some characters may have been redacted from the tale (the meteor strike that unexpectedly flattens Lancelot in mid-oration) and some props may have changed their context (discovering that Excalibur is really Stormbringer wearing Its Sunday best). Plot happens when character circumstances change, forcing the characters to respond in the hope of regaining control of their lives. Revise your conflict diagram(s) and move forward.

  2. mharoldpage says:

    One of my mantras is “whatever works” and it depends on the story.

    HM’s example was very specifically an event. To make that clearer, perhaps my conflict diagram should have called the AWESOME DISASTER an IMPENDING DISASTER.

    Your example is about aftermath. If the story is about people trying to move on, then as you say, you just have a conflict diagram reflecting this, e.g. “Arthur is trying find a new champion to replace Lancelot”.

    However, if the story is about the effects of the disaster, then I think I would make the disaster a player and end up with a diagram much like the one for the impending disaster.

    (I’ll update the caption to make the impending one clearer and to reflect this very useful exchange!)

  3. Geoff Hart says:

    Yes, making the disaster a “character” would work very well. I’d thought of proposing that, but then decided not to muddy the water by mixing up characters and events. But it’s certainly true that your suggestion would work, provided the author maintains the distinction. I suspect that if you diagrammed most “monster” fiction, the resulting diagram would treat the monster as a character even though it generally has no personality to speak of or anything else much resembling a character. Like the wind, it just blows (away characters). It’s a force of nature that can’t be argued with, psychoanalyzed, or otherwise treated as a true character.

    Needless to say, some of the best monster films aren’t that shallow.

  4. mharoldpage says:

    > Yes, making the disaster a “character” would work very well.

    I hope so! Categorising everything as either a Player or a Bone of Contention is the core concept of my Conflict Diagrams, and what makes them useful.

    Sometimes the thing is a character even though it’s not.

  5. Francine says:

    Love this game

  6. Joy Livingwell says:

    Thanks, that’s very helpful. Using your diagram, it’s easy to see where you could pop in specific Bones of Contention for virtually any character, and what would fit. Pick some interesting Bones, and it’s easy to create characters to match. Or start with characters, figure out which of their goals fit in each Bone, then work from there.

    Since conflict is one of my weakest writing skills, I’ve been diagramming stories from various genres to understand it better. In short erotic fiction, characters often collaborate to create an experience both want. The main conflict is often along the lines of desire vs. caution, or desire vs. social programming. In some stories, one character embodies desire and another caution. In others, each main character has desire/caution conflicts, and my diagrams make more sense when I make Desire the protagonist and Caution the antagonist, each trying to influence the characters. Is there a better way to handle this?

    • mharoldpage says:

      It sounds like you have it nailed. The few ahem love scenes in my books are either (odd) seductions, or where both characters have agendas and one or both get derailed by sex.

      In the case of collaborative encounters, my – inexperienced in this case – advice would be to have some conflict framing the encounter and providing the But now.. For exampled – probably a cliche – the couple might both be trying for no-strings, but – ultimately – their shared free-spiritedness makes them bond.

      You could also turn it into a bit more of a struggle, e.g. one or other character is trying to prove themselves or sate the other, or is trying to keep up a front. Imagine pickup artist and playful free spirit who sees his soul? The encounter might not go as he expected emotionally.

  7. Mr. Page, such a wonderful book on outlining! I discovered it while reading Charlie Stross’s blog and it’s the best book on storytelling and storywriting that I’ve ever read (and I read those a lot)! Thank you so much,

    I have a question, though. I’m a sci-fi writer for several projects (a game my friends are making, a short film of my own, and an upcoming feature of my own), and I have a long-time writing partner.

    I can see that, technically speaking, most of outlining tools that you describe boil down to writing and rearranging cards. Me and my writing partner, we work quite a lot separately, and in different geographies, so some sort of collaborative software is a must. Over the course of years we found our own stack (Paper by Dropbox, WriterDuet, Dropbox itself), and now we can’t wait to actually try your techniques while working together!

    If you’re aware of some collaborative software that covers your tools, please share the name with us!

    Best regards,
    Anton

    • mharoldpage says:

      First, thanks for your kind words! It means such a lot to me to know I have helped, or may help, somebody. Please consider posting a review on Amazon – they make a huge difference.

      For outlining collaboratively, you could just use google docs and multi-level lists.

      For cards… doesn’t google also have a graphics tool?

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