Tuesday, January 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 16 comments
Conflict should be at the core of what drives a story forward. Ah, but here's the rub: being conflict-averse and passive aggressive is far more common in real life than shouting matches, car chases and fisticuffs. Given the choice, most will flee from conflict rather than stay locked in it.

Unless there's glue.

In Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell gives one of the better explanations for this aspect of characterization he calls "adhesive." He defines it as "any strong relationship or circumstance that holds people together" (81). In other words, adhesive is the compelling reason opposing parties can't just peaceably part ways.

What's the strong reason for your lead to stick around? What keeps her going in spite of obstacles and motivates her to reassess and take new action with each set back? How about the antagonist? Why doesn't he just go pick on someone else?

Adhesive is usually found in the reasons behind your lead's pursuit of her goal and your antagonist's opposition of your lead. Bell lists some broad categories:

~Life and death. If the opponent has a strong reason to want to kill your lead, that's a powerful glue. Your lead's struggle to stay alive is a powerful motivation to keep on keeping on.

~Professional duty. Readers can understand how a doctor won't give up on a patient, for example. Our professional lives are often tied up in our sense of purpose and reason for living. To fail professionally means a kind of psychological death.

~Moral duty. A husband whose wife and child are kidnapped won't sit idly by. Nor will a pastor who discovers one of his parishioners is being abused. To give up on doing the right thing would mean letting evil prevail--a spiritual death.

~Obsession. Someone who has lost touch with reality may become powerfully locked to something they desire--whether it's the celebrity they stalk, and object they believe will empower them or a family member they need to control and dominate.

~Physical location. This is a setting-based twist on the life-and-death adhesive. Opponents might become stuck in a place that would be more deadly to flee from than to stay in. Think of the family snowed in at the haunted hotel in The Shining.

In some genres, fear of losing one's identity, autonomy or reason for living--in other words, a psychological death--are the driving force. The lead must change and grow or die inside.

What's the glue in your story conflict? How might the applying concept of adhesive make your story stronger?


  1. great post, Laurel! In my current WIP, the glue is moral obligation, and it's very strong. But it's fueled by a childhood loss... so I dunno. I think it works~ :D <3

  2. In my WIP my supporting characters, take to my main character because she reminds them of someone they lost and couldn't save. They see her as a subtle retribution. She on the other hand allows the attention because she's lost everything else in her life. Even when the attention seems self serving by my supporting characters, my main character sticks around out of loyalty. All kinds of glue and obligations. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. It's a mix of moral duty, physical location, and life and death for one of the characters in my WIP.

  4. Great break down. My glue is usually a couple of those things. Thanks!

  5. That's a great way to put it! I call it an agenda -- everyone has an agenda -- and I ask constantly why why WHY would this character act in that way?

    I suppose it's a similar analogy, though yours is better. Glue. I like that.

    - Eric

  6. I like this! The glue in my current ms is lifelong friendship. That, and perhaps fear of change.

  7. I'm actually testing out adhesives right now for a particular character that's giving me trouble. My other MC is a "moral" adhesive kinda guy.

  8. My glue is the fear of losing what it means to be a boy. Great post! :-)

  9. You always make me think! Love it :)

    I think my glue is life & death for one character and fear of losing self for the other. I hope it all works together :)

  10. Leigh: moral duties can be some of the most deeply ingrained causes of sticking through conflict.

    Indigo: sounds like you've worked out an interesting dance of give and take among the players in your story.

    GE: Mixed adhesives are always interesting.

    Elle: It's largely Bell's ideas from a great book. I just added some original examples and explanations where I could.

  11. Eric: I found this "adhesive" concept one of the most helpful in Bell's book, because it's easy for agendas to make characters like ships in the night rather than toe-to-toe in conflict.

    Janet: Interesting--change aversion is something that's a little bit moral duty and a little bit obsessiveness, a clinging to the past to feel safe.

    Bethany: It can be interesting to make each of them driven by a moral imperative, but those morals clash. Good luck figuring out the troublesome one!

  12. Shannon: ah yes, the drive to keep one's individuality and escape psychological death. Cool.

    Jemi: Aw, thanks. Sounds like you've got some solid glue to keep the conflict engaging.

  13. Hi, I'm dropping in from Mary's blog. Really, really enjoyed your blog and am following you now. In my WIP, it's a mix of moral and economic adhesive.

  14. Awesome post! It all comes back to the character's motivations. If they aren't strong enough then the rest doesn't make sense!

  15. Relationships, for sure. That sense of committment. This is good. I'm going to keep it in mind as I polish up my script.

  16. Kittie: Welcome and thanks for the follow! In the book I mentioned, Bell also talked about how economic motivations often have survival fears behind them--I need to not starve, I need to matter.

    Laura: Exactly. Both the protagonist and antagonist have to be motivated to stay locked in conflict or the plot will be weak and nonsensical.

    Mary: Why a character stays committed to a relationship is also important to consider. Loyalty may be one of their core values, or they see the other as providing something essential, or they might even have an unhealthy obsession.