Friday, September 18, 2015

Solving Impossible Conflicts

Does your Heroine ever get too stuck? Does she end up deep, deep within the dungeons of the evil overlord, who is planning on destroy all that is green in this world? In fact, he’s doing it right now and she’s stuck a hundred feet underground. There’s no way out. 

The climax is in one chapter, and you’ve got to get her out! You, the author, are scrambling to find a way to get your heroine out of her cell, up out of the dungeons, out of the castle, across the countryside, up the mountain, and all in time to stop the villain from winning.
Good luck with that.

As authors, we’re very good at writing ourselves (and our poor main character) into rather tight corners. The only way out, it seems, is to write ourselves out.
That’s where it gets sticky. One of the easiest ways to write oneself out of a corner is to place a series of convenient happenstances right at the MC’s feet and walk away. Mission accomplished.
The heroine now has the ability to trick the guard into coming into her cell, she snatches the keys, learns some quick martial arts, escapes the dungeons, and uses the evil overlords super, super fast magical horse to ride to the mountain. After that, she whips out a magic locket that belonged to her long dead mother (who for some reason held on to it despite it being… magical?) and uses it to slay the villain.

Easy as that. Dust your hands and congratulate yourself.

Dues ex Machina. That’s what you’ve just done. “God in the machine”. You’ve manipulated your story to get out of unsolvable conflicts.
Eh… let’s see if we can try something else.
This might entail rewriting and re-plotting large portions of your novel. That’s okay. Rewriting is part of writing (if you want to be literal, writing is literally a part of rewriting).

If you don’t have the slightest inkling1 of how your hero is going to defeat the villain, I suggest these steps:

1. Assess the situation. Write down all the things that you and your hero can’t overcome. This can range from being locked in a dungeon to having a phobia of the villain’s pet praying mantis. List them in order of what needs to be conquered chronologically in your story. Not in the order of what is hardest to figure out.

2. List your hero’s strengths. All of the hero’s strengths are your strengths, okay? If the hero knows something, has some talent, or is really bad at math, then whatever you write must follow what the main character can do. Even if you have some fabulous, fully necessary allies, let’s ignore them for the moment. 
If your hero is an expert whittler, but can’t swing a sword for naught, then he can’t escape the dungeon by challenging the head guard to a duel. That won’t work in his favor.

3. List what strengths are necessary to win. If your hero hasn’t a single one, that’s bad. If he has all of them, that’s bad. These two options make it either impossible or impossibly easy. If he has to be able to: pick a lock, swing a sword, beat a dragon, and answer a clever riddle, then he needs to be incapable of at least one. Maybe two. That makes it seem – to the reader – that the story goal is impossible to reach.

4. Look to the allies. Do they have any strengths the Hero needs? Are they willing to sacrifice that strength to help the hero win? They shouldn’t just happen to have this strength, it needs to make sense. If the strength is simply convenient to you, it shouldn’t exist.

5. Use the chinks. Every villain, no matter how good, has chinks in his armor. What weaknesses does your villain have? If he has none… then it’s time for you to consider a more realistic villain. As a note: never make this chink the minor villains. Those poor fellows have struggled enough under the cliché of weakness and ineptitude that has befallen them. Make them better; make your main villain weaker in a different way.

6. Keep us holding our breath. As the heroine uses a pin from her hair to pick the lock, then use her womanly wiles to slip the guard, make us think to the very last second that she won’t make it. The guard will realize who she is, what’s she’s doing, and ram a sword through her stomach. As she races (on foot) across the plains and up the mountain, let the storm clouds gather. It turns out the villain has to wait to a particular day (because he needs a special weather pattern to unleash his weapon), and it’s the day she arrives at his camp. His guards attack her, but her ally and mentor have spent the past few years infiltrating the villain’s hideout. That is, after all, their job. Her friends take the minor villains while the hero confronts the villain. 

The reader is terrified. The heroine can’t beat the villain. No way. He’s basically invincible, and his weapon is about to be unleashed. All good things end now.
And then she wins.
Your reader is going to be ecstatic. If you can pull it off, make every single page worth turning, then we’re going to congratulate you.

And if you’ve already done that, then we already do.

What about you? What corners have your written yourself into - and out of – in your writings? Leave a comment and share!

No, I’m not talking about a miniature Lewis or Tolkien. But if you DO have one of those… I’m coming to visit and poke it with a toothpick.


  1. This is extremely helpful, Bender. Thank you so much :)

  2. And by the way, you certainly may /not/ poke my mini Tolkien. If you'd like to have a cup of tea with us, that would be lovely. But no touching.

    1. Aw, come on, why not? XP
      But sure, a cup of tea sounds lovely.

    2. Fine. One teensy-weensy poke. When he's not looking.
      I'll put the kettle on!

    3. When he's startled I'm blaming you. ;)
      Can't say when I'll be there... probably seventeen hundred O'clock sharp.