Story planning and creation – conflict and threat

An organge line-drawing background of an ancient city with the words: Story Planning and Creation: Conflict and ThreatFollowing on from the last post about creating your story’s premise, I thought I’d continue the thread and go through what my next steps (ideally) would be in planning this particular story.

While the premise I came up with is in the ball park of what I’m happy with, it needs… more. I’m not sure what ‘more’ is at this stage, but that’s part of what I need to figure out.

If you Google ‘questions to ask before writing a book’ or ‘questions to ask when planning a book’ you’ll get a tonne of responses with some pretty nifty ideas to consider.

They might include:

  • Who’s your story about?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • What does your protagonist want?
  • Who’s your audience?
  • How are you going to surprise your readers?
  • What are you promising your readers? etc.

They’re big, broad, generic questions, and worth considering, but they’re largely taken care of by the story premise or questions that require a premise before you can answer them.

If you missed the previous post, I’d recommend reading it first so you know how I arrived at my story premise. The premise I came up with was: A missing woman who reappears as a teenager tries to protect her grown children when they’re hunted for the secret of her youth.

It’s a little bit of a mouthful and not as tight or specific as I’d like. Generally, it doesn’t suggest enough about story world or protagonist, but there’s plenty of time to refine it. It’s not something you want to get too hung up on.

For now, well ask some questions that might make that clearer while developing the story at the same time.

Let’s revise what we already know

I kept the previous iterations of the premise because they contain some gems. Let’s pull out what we can, remembering that this is largely brainstorming – there are no right or wrong answers, and it doesn’t matter if ideas conflict at this stage.

Ideas we’ve covered:

  • She wakes up in the woods
  • time has passed – decades perhaps – yet she hasn’t aged
  • or – only a little time has passed (days, weeks, months?), but she’s decades younger. I’m leaning toward this option for two main reasons:
    • it makes the story more immediate and contemporary rather than a missing persons case
    • it’s a little more original. Missing persons who come back from the dead (sometimes after centuries) have had a bit of a run on television lately.
  • When she disappears, she’s:
    • a young woman (new mother? – doesn’t really work with my preferred option above, but it’s worth noting)
    • an experienced mother (kids are perhaps 8-10ish)
    • a career woman who probably doesn’t have as much time for her kids as she’d like (maybe in her forty’s with kids who have already grown up or are in their late teens).
  • She and society struggle with the fact she’s younger now.
  • Her family totally disbelieve her story
    • she’s shunned/on her own?
  • She tries and fails (at least initially) to reconnect with her extended family (mother, father, siblings?)
  • She tries to reconnect with her immediate family (teenage daughter, husband, other children?)
  • Someone/something/some organisation (antagonist) is trying to discover her secret and/or steal her gift
    • is the antagonist supernatural, or mundane?
  • She is forced to protect her family
    • her child/children are actively being hunted so they can be used against her with the intent to force her hand and reveal the secret of her ‘eternal youth’ or hand over whatever power she’s been invested with
    • if she’s got more than one child, does that mean the others are considered expendable by the antagonist?

Some of that’s very usable and not bad for no extra effort.

What we need to figure out now are the big issues: the story drivers. Knowing these will help with the detail.

Story driver 1: Conflict

A cartoon of a person being punched in the face with the word 'punch' highlightedMy definition: Conflict is immediate – it’s happening now, and it can be broken into three categories: internal, external, and interpersonal.

The obvious sources of conflict are:

  • She doesn’t know what happened to her (internal conflict).
  • The people she cares about don’t believe her (interpersonal conflict).
  • The antagonist does believe her and wants to take advantage of her (external conflict).
  • Her family is in danger because of whatever made her different (external conflict).
  • The antagonist wants whatever she has (external conflict).

That’s probably more than enough conflict at this stage, so let’s consider the bigger picture.

Story driver 2: Threat

A cartoon of a person about to use a slingshotMy definition: Threat is the potential for conflict, and usually has big consequences.

The main threat needs to stem from the story’s premise. In this case: she has something the antagonist wants. That alone isn’t enough. If there were no consequences, she could simply hand it over, right? For this to work, she can’t afford to lose it or let the antagonist have it.

The question here is: What would happen if the antagonist did get it? This is the source of the story’s main threat.

Consider the potential consequences if she loses it for:

  1. Herself:
    1. Will she die?
    2. If she survives but reverts to normal, will she lose the power to save her family/world etc? (the only answer is ‘yes’ if we take this path, which would mean she has to get it back or find another way.)
  2. Her family:
    1. Will they be harmed/killed if she resists?
    2. Are they likely to suffer more (long term) if she gives in?
  3. The mundane (normal) world:
    1. Something bad. For now, let’s go with the obvious and say the antagonist is a power-mad world-domination type and the consequences are dire. Bit of a cliché, but it’ll do for now. Think big and change it if something better arises.
    2. Nothing at all. This isn’t the mundane world’s fight.
  4. The supernatural world:
    1. Will it be destroyed forever? Again, bit of a cliché, but the higher the stakes the better. We can peg it back later if necessary.
    2. The antagonist gets to rule forever (as they’ll be immortal and therefore unstoppable?).
      1. To do either of these we’d need to tie the protagonist to the supernatural world very strongly – give her something far bigger than herself to care about.

Considering the info above, I’m leaning toward developing the main threats to her family and the supernatural world, and leaving threats to the mundane world alone, otherwise it gets too complicated: too many moves. I’d like to see it played out in the mundane world for contrast however: the supernatural world intruding into the mundane. Considering I write fantasy, having the main threat directed at the normal world doesn’t provide as much fun (or impact).

So now we’ve considered some of the major issues we can start making choices and building something of a working document/outline. We know the premise and have some good ideas for the main conflicts and big threats.

Plot-wise, it’s lacking a little in originality, but we can compensate in the world-building, characterisation and delivery (or come up with something more original as we develop the story). I don’t want to stray too far from reader expectations though.

Have you considered your story’s main conflicts and threats? What are they?

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