It’s hard enough to make simple conflicts exciting, and not all conflicts should be simple. You might have lots of protagonists who need important roles, or you may simply want your conflict to be longer and meatier. Either way, once you add too many elements, you could end up with a confusing or monotonous mess. Let’s look at how to keep large conflicts eventful and engaging.
Common Problems During Large Conflicts
Below are the problems we need to avoid when scaling up conflicts.
Even when conflicts are long, every moment should matter. Unfortunately, it’s easy to end up with sections in the middle that feel like they’re using up time. If you can scoop out a chunk of your conflict and nothing after it would unfold differently, you have filler on your hands. Conflicts that keep going without events that matter will make audiences wonder when it’ll be over.
The anime Demon Slayer features many extended fights with filler in the middle. Protagonist Tanjiro will go through what would be a turning point, except these moments don’t turn anything around. For instance, he might have a battle of will to keep fighting, but then the conflict proceeds just like it did before. This continues until some arbitrary point, when he pulls out some magic power he could have used earlier.
While many stories have a single hero who should save the day solo, others have at least one important side character who should make a contribution. The more characters you have participating, the harder it becomes to find something for everyone to do and give each character the appropriate amount of time in the spotlight. When that fails, one character might swoop in and steal all the glory while everyone else gets smacked down. Then audiences may feel dissatisfied or resentful of this candy thief.
In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, protagonist Mark Russell is the only one in a room filled with experts who realizes that the enemy is using a decoy to draw Team Good away from their real target. This is particularly awkward because Mark is a white male biologist, and he lectures a Black female military commander on basic tactics.
If your conflict covers the actions of many people or goes through events very quickly, all the details can obscure the big picture. Without focusing on a specific story arc at a speed the audience can follow, they’ll quickly forget what’s happened so far and tune out further information.
The movie Space Sweepers ends with a sequence that includes the scrappy ship of protagonists, the big bad in his ship, the big bad’s troops, an exploding space factory, a secondary antagonist on that space factory, a whole ton of civilians who join the fight last minute, and some nanobots. After a while of jumbled nonstop action, it’s hard to tell what’s happening – or care.
Evaporated or Frozen Characters
When writers manage to focus the narration on a specific part of a large action sequence, it’s easy to lose track of characters who aren’t in the spotlight. While one character makes their move, everyone else might either cease to exist, stand there doing nothing, or take an enormously long time for simple actions such as getting up.
In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Dr. Impossible confronts a whole team of heroes in a coffee shop. Since the whole team would easily overpower him, he fights them one at a time. What are the rest of the heroes doing while Dr. Impossible fights one of them? The narration doesn’t say. I guess they must be waiting in line for coffee.
How Structure Helps Solve These Problems
You’re on Mythcreants, reading an article vaguely related to plot. What will Chris say the solution is? If you guessed fractal plotting, you are correct!
A conflict encompasses all the protagonist and antagonist actions that resolve a single plot arc in your story. When it gets big enough, it needs to be broken into child arcs – smaller problems with their own outcome that together make up the larger struggle. This gives the conflict an internal structure that allows you to make it feel eventful, dole out different problems to different characters, and create a focal point for what you’re depicting.
Depending on your needs, child arcs can be sequential or simultaneous. Sequential challenges might resemble a series of traps in a long labyrinth or different stages of a showdown. This keeps audience attention focused in one place, which is helpful for maintaining engagement. However, if you have a large ensemble, it’s often more practical to plan simultaneous problems that force protagonists to split up.
Splitting protagonists up means each child arc will have fewer elements to sort out, and powerful characters won’t overshadow less powerful ones. Plus, it allows you to customize the challenges each protagonist faces and work in their character arcs. On the flip side, if the conflict gets too long or you’d like to focus on the main character, arcs for side characters can play out offscreen. What’s important is that the audience knows what your side characters are up to while the main character is struggling.
This doesn’t mean it’s necessary to use child arcs if you have lots of characters. Multiple people can actually share a turning point as long as they’re all needed to save the day. For instance, former enemies might need to take a leap of faith and trust each other, or by putting their heads together, several protagonists could have a group epiphany. However, this is trickier to coordinate than separating them, especially for large casts and complex plots.
Ideas for Dividing Conflicts
All plot arcs have a problem, turning point, and resolution. To get your mental gears turning, below are some example child arcs for different types of high-stakes conflicts.
- A protagonist is afraid and must gather the courage to fight.
- The antagonist has an impenetrable shield that must be disabled.
- The protagonists must put a protective barrier in place, or they’ll be crushed instantly.
- There are too many minions to fight directly; someone needs to distract them or lure them away.
- Bystanders, hostages, or rescuees are in danger; a protagonist must protect them or escort them to safety.
- A protagonist was disarmed; they need to reach a weapon to stand a chance.
- A protagonist has been driven toward a steep cliff; they need to get back to safety.
- The protagonist must find a way to talk to someone who’s inaccessible.
- The queen doesn’t want to hear the protagonists out; they must get her to listen.
- During the conversation, the antagonist tempts or intimidates the protagonists. They must resist giving in.
- The president doesn’t believe the protagonists; they’ll need evidence to support some of their claims.
- An antagonist in a position of trust accuses the protagonists of lying; they must discredit that person.
- The protagonist’s arguments aren’t persuasive enough; they must find the right emotional appeal.
- The protagonists must mention a sensitive subject that could make the ambassador angry; they’ll need to choose their words carefully.
- The animal the protagonist is riding is out of control; they must get it moving in the right direction.
- The protagonist is approaching a dead end; they must find a way past it.
- Minions on motorcycles have surrounded the protagonist; they must lose the minions before the minions manage to stop them.
- The protagonist is falling behind; they must find a way to speed up.
- One engine has burnt out; the protagonists must repair it if they hope to stay ahead.
- The antagonist is shooting at the driver; the protagonists must protect them.
- The only shelter available is rickety and full of holes; the protagonist must shore it up.
- The protagonists have no water or light sources; if they don’t find some, they won’t last long.
- The antagonists have made a hole in the wall; the protagonists must repair it.
- Some of the antagonists have managed to get inside; the protagonists must push them back.
- The invaders are too numerous to fight; the protagonists must quickly retreat farther inside their fortress.
- The antagonists have taken over one of the rooms; the protagonists must quickly seal it off.
Whatever you choose, it should feel concrete, be easy to explain, and make a noticeable, practical difference.
Evaluating the Arcs You’ve Chosen
Once you’ve come up with a series of challenges, it’s time to look them over and make sure they’ll add up to an exciting conflict.
Do your arcs have enough variety?
The last thing you want is for your epic conflict to get repetitive. It’s easiest to maintain engagement if the nature of each problem is different and solving them requires different approaches. For instance, sealing holes, getting a good water supply, and evacuating a dangerous area require different activities from the protagonists.
On the other hand, having four protagonists split up to fight four different elite soldiers would make it tough to maintain novelty. However, it’s not impossible. One protagonist might be an adept warrior who becomes overconfident and impulsive. They charge their opponent only to find themself falling into a trap. Another protagonist might be a scrappy underdog who has no chance of fighting the soldier head on. They find a crawl space and try to get away while their opponent tries to drag them out.
If you can’t eliminate repetition, fully narrate just one of these instances and summarize or skip to the end of the others. If any challenge lasts too long, you may also need to trim it down. Don’t dwell on something that won’t be fun for your audience.
Does each arc have meaningful stakes?
The audience should understand what bad things will happen if the protagonist fails to solve a child arc. In most cases, failure should imperil the conflict at large. For instance, one character might have to distract antagonists while others sneak in. If that character fails, the sneaking will probably also fail, and then the rest of their plan could be doomed from the start. Then, the protagonists must find a way to turn the conflict around.
Arcs handled by side characters can also have unrelated stakes as long as they’re meaningful. For instance, while Dr. Impossible was battling one hero, others could have been evacuating civilians from the area. If they fail to clear everyone out, innocent people will get hurt, but Dr. Impossible isn’t any more likely to succeed.
Are you maintaining tension?
Winning the day should look immensely difficult for the protagonists all the way until you reach the turning point for the conflict at large. If the protagonists succeed at too many child arcs, tension could plummet and make your epic conflict into a boring slog. You can avoid this in a number of ways.
- The protagonists can have a victory that barely keeps them in the game. This works particularly well if it follows a failure that puts everything in jeopardy. For instance, maybe the protagonist fails to disable the alarm in time. It goes off, causing the guards to rush out to capture them. They manage to hide from the guards, but their task is still harder because the facility is on alert and looking for them.
- The protagonists can also succeed, but at a cost that makes the conflict more difficult going forward. Maybe a protagonist in a persuasion conflict manages to present evidence of one of their claims, but in doing so reveals they invaded someone’s privacy. That makes the person they need to persuade angry with them.
- Giving the later child arcs extra tension also helps. Perhaps the protagonist succeeds at disabling the antagonist’s shield, but that means instead of relying on the shield, the antagonist is now attacking them with six swords held by their six arms. The protagonist is in greater danger despite their success. However, don’t let antagonists declare “this isn’t even my final form!” If they switch to a more lethal tactic, there should be a reason they weren’t using it in the first place.
Does your conflict have movement?
When you have everything else covered, check to make sure none of your child arcs are filler. Do any of them leave a protagonist in the same situation they started in?
For instance, if your protagonist is struggling to get access to the queen, they might lie to a gate guard, claiming she’s asked for them. If the guard either brings the protagonist to the queen or arrests them, then your arc has movement. If the guard simply refuses to let them in, it doesn’t.
If you find this problem, look for a way that the event in question could change the conflict going forward. For instance, if your protagonist is disarmed, they shouldn’t just grab their sword again and continue as before. Perhaps they only manage to grab a big stick that isn’t as effective. Alternatively, maybe their sword was tossed somewhere hot. In the process of grabbing it, they burn their dominant hand. Now they have to fight with their off hand instead.
If many of these tips felt familiar to you, then congrats, you’re getting the hang of fractal plotting. If not, that’s okay; just focus on breaking up any battles, extended fights, or climactic action sequences into bite-sized pieces. If it’s large enough to be overwhelming for you, it’ll be overwhelming for your audience too.
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