Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A Conflict-laden Plot Pattern that Works

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 24•16

Hunger Games citizens, capitalWant a shorthand formula for a successful story? Start with a heroic protagonist who is sane and moral, but, of course, flawed. Then create  the world he or she operates in as crazy,  chaotic,  askew. Stir in antagonists who are immoral. Create conflict that’s essentially a test. Mix in at least a few sympathetic supporting characters for readers to root for. Better yet, make as endearing and  quirky as hobbits.

This archetype works on many levels and can be shaped into so many patterns. It can be written as a quest, a battle between good and evil, or survival in a Wasteland. It’s often adopted in dystopian fiction, particularly sci fi or fantasy stories aimed at YA readers. A dystopian story features a world that’s the opposite of rational, humane, and functioning society. Usually an event like a massive-scale war, a pandemic, or global climate change has shifted society to topsy-turvy.

The Hunger Games is a prime example of this type. Hunger Games Dictrict 12Katniss Everdeen is trying to survive in a world gone mad amid a family and community facing loss and deprivation.  One reason the broken world setting works so well is because it naturally creates many levels of antagonism, conflict and danger. This series has it all.

The trick to writing such a scenario is that the protagonist’s existence is tenuous, the future unknowable. Rules make no sense. Who can you trust? What is the truth? Sometimes the old order has crumbled and the new order is shaky and corrupt. Often the corruption is so pervasive  that the protagonist and his allies have no choice except to rebel.

Villains play a large role in these narratives exemplified by President Coriolanus Snow, the leader of Panem. He personifies depravity, evil, and power gone mad.  The Capital reveals a vapid, numb society of banality, vanity, and ultra-crass consumerismHunger Games, Snow. The brutal Games force children from the country 12 Districts to fight to the death for the Capital’s entertainment, while reminding the citizens of formerly-rebellious Districts who is in control.  The people who govern the Games are also antagonists and the layers of tyranny and oppression are far-reaching.

Now, a justifiable criticism of The Hunger Games series is that it’s utterly implausible. A whole country meekly stands by as children slaughter each other? The morality of the Games is never questioned in the Capital? Really? Only a handful of moral citizens exist? Survival of the fittest is justified?   

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner also capitalizes on a dystopian setting. The kids who end up in the Maze world are essentially experiments of the laboratory-rat variety, only on a much larger scale. Heroic characters, check. Chaotic, ruined world, check. Villains galore, check. Nobody knows the rules or what the heck is going on, check. These stories often feature gruesome puzzles at their core. 

MazeRunnerCastIn The Maze Runner Thomas, a teenager, finds himself descending in an elevator without any memory of who he was. When the elevator ‘arrives,’ Thomas is greeted by a group made up entirely of teenage boys.

He learns that the group calls themselves the Gladers, after the Glade in which they are imprisoned. The Glade is surrounded by an ever-shifting Maze, populated by creepy, lethal creatures called Grievers. Thomas wants to escape and so the conflict heats up…. The Gladers eventually escape the Maze and discover that the whole setup was an experiment run by a group calling itself World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department.

In these crazed worlds, innocents are naturally at risk.  Usually the author sacrifices a vulnerable character or three (think Rue in The Hunger Games) to increase heartache and tension (nobody’s safe!).

Cold mountain battle sceneSince Homer’s Odysseus, wartime as a backdrop for fiction also uses this narrative pattern. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier comes to mind. After suffering a gunshot to the neck, Inman, the protagonist, decides to leave behind the brutal Civil War battlefields and return to his beloved Ada Monroe and his beloved mountain home. Home is hundreds of miles away and he’s walking despite his injury. Readers understand that war is unpredictable and always includes a body count.

The climax of these stories usually involves gutting the corrupt world and people in power. Eventually Katniss and the rebels overthrow Snow and the leaders of Panem. The Gladers are rescued by rebels and discover that their environs (The Scorch) came about because of The Flare, a  deadly virus. Inman’s enemies are vanquished and his wanderings through the war-ravaged countryside reveal horrific realities and the sad dawning of a new reality. 

A few suggestions/words of caution:

  • Populate your world with complex characters with complicated motives. It’s too easy to create evil overlords or cartoonish, power-mad dictators. Give your villains plausible backstories so readers know how they came to be.

  • Create dynamic characters who are going to change Cold Mountain Adaover the course of the story. Ada Monroe’s dramatic character arc is a terrific example to follow.  She transforms from genteel and helpless minister’s daughter to a steely survivalist.  This goes for secondary characters too.

  • Strive to create fresh themes. Your readers already realize that power corrupts.

  • Create a highly detailed world. Know exactly how every aspect of your story world works down to what scavengers eat. 

  • The MazerunnerBeware of creating cannon fodder secondary characters.

  •  Understand the historical distance for your setting. Star Trek or The Martian couldn’t take place in our century because humans don’t yet have the technology for this level of space travel. Stephen King’s The Stand takes place in the 26th Century after a deadly plague wipes out most of the population.   How long would it take for a virus to decimate the population? How many generations could survive a global-wide drought? 

  • Although survival is the central question, take care that you don’t create a complete downer. Somehow your story needs to be sprinkled with spots of sunlight.

  • Create helpers to lighten the mood and the protagonist’s plight.

  • Imbue the protagonist with an extra dose of grit and determination.

  • Dystopian YA isn’t known for its plausibility, subtlety and subtext. You can do better.

  • Pile on the hardships. Inman’s infected wound takes time to heal with the help of an old goat herder woman he encounters on his journey. He also suffered starvation, dysentery, capture, betrayal.

  • Plan ahead for the protagonist’s arc. How will he and she transform in ways that make sense? Will he/she end up wiser? Cynical?Will he/she become a leader? 

  • If it makes sense for the story, create a parallel spiritual arc for your character. If the story begins with him devastated and broken, will he be redeemed like Inman?

  • Stakes need to be life or death. Always.

  • Don’t use the story as an excuse for social criticism.

  • Plant reversals–lots of them. In Cold Mountain Ada’s father dies. Ruby arrives to help the starving and helpless Ada. Ruby’s estranged father returns to disrupt her new life.  Inman is turned in by a moon shiner and then captured. Then narrowly escapes a chain gang after a battle.

  • Don’t be afraid to surround the hero with adversaries. In Cold Mountain Home GuardCold Mountain members of the  Confederate Home Guard–a militia formed to defend the home front against the Union–are opportunistic, corrupt, and creepy. They also tracked down deserters like Inman.

  • If a real war is your story’s backdrop, be sure to cover fresh ground. Make certain that readers learn aspects of the war not always shown such as the deep divides in the South. In Cold Mountain the Home Guard proves how people always profit on war and misery.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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