Conflict Matrix

17 December 2014 08:00

I am currently working on the outline of my 9th book, and I’ve hit something of a bump in the outlining process. The primary conflict of the story is crystal clear to me, and both the beginning and the ending of the story are pretty solid. But how I’m supposed to get from this beginning to the end, let’s just say I haven’t quite figured it out.

Now, there are several things I can do to remedy this. I could put the outline away for a week in the hope of my muse hitting me over the head with a clue bat, speeding up the process by doing lots of physical exercise (trust me, this works). This has done wonders for me in the past.

But I’m not exactly in a patient mood. Waiting for the story to unfold itself in my mind can definitely work, but there are ways for me to speed up the process by going back to the drawing board.

I’ve blogged about Alexandra Sokoloff’s book Screenwriting Tricks for Authors many times before, and it’s basically my go-to book whenever I run into problems writing an outline. My outlines generally start as boards full of index cards (fully digitized these days, but my first books had actual post-its on cardboard), and I often make overviews of characters’ inner/outer desires, ghost/wound and arcs.

Except, for my current series, it has been a while since I wrote those, and I’ve introduced half a dozen new major players in the story. I’ve started by renewing those descriptions for all significant characters, to get a better grip on what motivates them, and how those motivations will manifest in this story. This has gone quite well, but it hasn’t helped me to immediately find new story elements. But then I figured out something new to try.

Each character responds to others in a different way, influenced by their personality, their mutual history (or lack thereof) as well as their own varying goals. There is a lot of potential for conflict, and each such conflict could lead to a new story element. I wanted to make a map of all potential conflicts between major characters, so I decided to write them all down. A matrix of each major character, set against each other major character, with all potential conflicts between them as cells. This looks kind of like this:

Now, suppose you have 10 significant characters. This would give you a 10x10 matrix, requiring you to write out 90 different potential conflicts (or 100, if you want to add the potential of a character to come into conflict with him/herself). This is quite a bit of work, but should give you plenty of ideas of stuff to introduce into your story.

Once you’ve written out all the conflicts, you start marking the scale of the conflict. The easiest way to do this is by giving the cells colors based on severity (green for something trivial, orange for something minor, and red for major conflicts). Once this is done, you filter out all the trivial conflicts (don’t throw them away, they can come in handy when you need to add a bit of spice to a certain scene), and take a look at the major ones, ordering them from greater to lesser importance. See if they’re already part of your outline, and if not, add them. See what ramifications the conflict has on your story. How did things get to this conflict? Add that to your outline. Repeat for each major conflict, until you feel like your story is fleshed out enough for it to be writable. Depending on how many characters you have, you might not have enough room to include all of them. This is fine, as you don’t want to overcomplicate the story. Run out of major conflicts? Start adding minor ones to spice up the story.

What could happen is that these conflicts change the course of your story, even going as far as altering the ending. This is not a bad thing. If the flow of your story, and the conflicts between characters result in a different ending, then it’s likely to feel far less forced than the original ending.

You could also take this process and turn it around, using it to create a Cooperation Matrix - an overview of how characters might find common ground and help each other. This is less likely to be necessary though, unless we’re talking about a story about a stereotypical Chaotic Evil DD party.

One final caveat: this technique is somewhat experimental. I’ve only figured it out today, and I don’t know how effective it will be just yet. I’ll share my experiences in a later blog post.