Wednesday, September 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, September 04, 2013 6 comments
The prevailing wisdom is that conflict is the core of every story, advice that can be a bit perplexing. Not every character is prone to fist-fights or verbal sparring. Some people, when at cross-purposes with others, use soft, more positive tools to achieve their aims--they  might flatter, beg or joke. This, too, is dramatic. Story-moving.

In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield outlines a new way of thinking about conflict that helpfully addresses this range of real human approaches, from violent to passive.

She uses the term "negotiation" to describe how most characters experience conflict. She defines it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

I find this a helpful concept, because "conflict" is a pretty wholly negative term, whereas negotiations are often a mixed bag, and frankly, mixed bags offer more interest and diversity. Instead of one-note characters in one-note plots, negotiation helps you build character complexity and plots with organic twists and turns.

The power plays of negotiation depend first on the kind of relationship characters have, and second, with the way each character tends to relate to and use power.

How characters relate

Power in relationships can be about hierarchy. Private to sergeant. Novice to expert. Citizen to leader. Subject to king. Within hierarchical relationships, certain rules govern how the more powerful can exert his power. Power plays in these relationships will often revolve around these rules to uphold what is just and good.

Other relationships are based on equity and intimacy--friends, colleagues, partners, lovers. These, too, will at times become out of balance because of something internal or external to the relationship. A lover grows bored. A friend becomes popular and hip. A colleague cheats. A partner gets lazy. One party will often try to take the upper hand and exert power temporarily in order to restore or create balance and intimacy in the relationship.

Somewhere in between are relationships that are both hierarchical and intimate: parent and child, mentor and protege, teacher and student, older and younger sibling. In these relationships, restoring intimacy will at times trump restoring justice, or vice versa.

Keep this in mind as you build character conflict: is the relationship hierarchical, equitable, or mixed? It will make all the difference in how the characters will wield power.

How one wields power

The tools of exchange in a negotiation will vary among relationships and temperaments. Some exchanges will use mostly negative tools, others mostly positive. The most compelling exchanges will use a mix of both.

Negative tools

En garde, scoundrel! (Photo: Grafixar from
clam up
compare to enemy
exert authority
remind of past failure
twist truth

Positive tools

Pretty please?? (photo:

call in a favor
compare to hero
expose inner self
remind of goal or dream
remind of past triumph
request help

What are your common approaches to conflict? Which type of relationship in conflict do you most enjoy writing? Least enjoy or struggle with?


  1. I love this expanding view of conflict. Viewing it as negotiation, and how things can change relationships and different types of relationship, hierarchical and the others... wow! I'm going to need to read this one again to absorb it all. Definitely bookmarking this one. So helpful - thank you!

    1. I found Scofield's concept so intriguing, I kind of ran with it. Negotiation is such a wonderfully flexible conception of conflict.

  2. Awesome post, Laurel.

    I was going to say I focus more on one kind of relationship than another, but then I realized it's not true. I LOVE the tug o war in intimate relationships, but I find the parental ones are a huge factor too. Actually I don't usually write external authority figures, so I guess that's my weakness. Hm. Something to pay attention to.

    1. Which kinds of relationships a story features depends a lot on genre. I expect authority relationships in thrillers more than romance, for example. I think we tend to expect power play ONLY in authority relationships, whereas it's very much present in many intimate relationships too. Some characters will make their wants known in soft ways, others in harsher ways, depending on how they were socialized by family and peer groups.

  3. I think the idea of conflict as negotiation is perfect for developing character relationships in a book. Thanks for explaining it and giving the tips! :-)

  4. A useful set of tools for the writer's box. Thanks.