Thoughts on Metatopia, part 2 & The Conflict Engine

Two blog posts for the price of one, you lucky reader you.

First, I want to conclude my thoughts on Metatopia. I’m not really happy with Monday’s post, but it’s easier here to go forward than go back.

The big takeaway for me was that I’m more okay with not-knowing things, though I’m still navigating the idea that rather than just not knowing a few things (like graphic design and layout), there are times when it feels like I don’t know anything. My inbox now is fat with a combination of praise, criticism, and suggestions that seem to be both actual suggestions as well as insinuations that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or that I’m doing “it” (whatever it is) wrong. So, mixed bag.

I think next year I want to run a panel on “How to be a good panel attendee”, because my panels this year were packed with GREAT attendees, from the people who asked wonderful questions, to the people who did a lot of nodding and asked only one question while furiously taking notes. I got lucky this year, there was only one panel where I felt completely lost. I don’t think it was done maliciously, I don’t think the “make John feel inadequate” was intentional, and it was likely due to exhaustion and nerves as much as the fact that I had less to contribute than others. I’ll get over it.

The hardest part for me isn’t even the activities I’m doing. It’s the physicality involved in doing all the things. I get tired (yes I know everyone gets tired, but very few people get tired enough to fall asleep just by sitting down, you know what I mean?) I see my friends so rarely, and I feel bad that I can’t spend more time on my feet with them. The FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong, and I don’t always have the willpower to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m doing my best. But that’s a tough salve for the creeping paranoia that because I’m not out and about that I won’t get hired, or that secretly many people hate me and they’re just waiting for me to keel over. Maybe that thought is just from today’s exhaustion, I’m dictating this part of the post before taking a hot bath. I’m very worn out.


Now, let’s talk storycraft. I had a conversation earlier with a client, and it got me thinking about a fundamental story mechanic and its relevant axis.

A story mechanic is a fundamental part of storytelling (like plot or characters), that you can’t omit without adversely affecting the MS in a significant way. Today I want to talk about conflict. It’s important. Like really important. Without conflict there’s not a lot of interesting material in your story for your reader to engage.

Conflict isn’t just physically fighting. Conflict is a difference between multiple possibilities that oppose each other. It’s Us versus Them (we’ll talk about that one later in November) or smooth versus chunky, or great taste, less filling. Those are binary conflicts, and they’ll comprise the majority of the conflicts a character faces.

Everything from doing what’s right to not doing it, to showing mercy or vengeance can be mapped in an either-or fashion. It’s not wrong or bad to frame things that way, it can help make for really clear decisions. The problem is that not everything can be split down the middle, and it doesn’t account for mitigating factors or nuance. Not everything is so polarized, nor should it be.

Along with this binary decision making process, there’s a corresponding binary axis, which is a fancy way of saying “which is affected more by this decision: the person or the world around the person?” That’s what we look at when we talk about goals from conflict within characters.

An external goal is between the person and the world. We see this most often as the goal the character has in the real world – to complete their quest, to go somewhere, to prove something to someone, all that jazz.. The external goal is what the rest of the world sees the character trying to achieve, and the goal often has to do with the character finding their place among the rest of the world.

Contrast that with the internal goal, which is what’s going on in the character’s head. The internal goal is the what the character pursues to bring them to a state of improved emotional or psychological balance.A character who wants to reconcile their taboo pursuits with their stuffed shirt dayjob, or the knight’s thirst for vengeance while she tirelessly stalks across the land stabbing fools … these are the internal goals. We don’t see a person’s internal efforts, they go on in the mind, and they get expressed as actions we undertake, so the outside world is left to infer what they’re thinking based on what they’re doing. Because the world can guess at motives, they can be wrong, and if they’re wrong, then they can react in ways that cause (you guessed it) more conflict.

Pitting the external conflict against the internal conflict puts a character in a state where they have to change, because that unbalanced state will tear them apart while simultaneously paralyzing them. If this is unclear at all, let’s end this post with some examples:

A guy who needs to get promoted at work (external) so that he can show his wife/partner that he’s not a loser and worthy of their love (internal).
A woman who has to abandon her career focus (external) to discover what love’s all about (internal).

Now let’s reverse the order, just to show you what that looks like.

An anxious kid who wants to be accepted (internal) has to ask the most popular other kid to the school dance because of a playground dare (external).
A mother grapples with her grief (internal) as she murders the men who hurt her daughter (external).

When you set one conflict against each other, when you put them at odds with one another, or even when you make one progress into the other, you’re creating the idea that the character needs to take action (read: do stuff) in order to accomplish at least one of those goals. Action yields momentum, which leads to more action, like a snowball downhill.

The interesting bit, the part I encourage you to ponder, is what happens when failure crops up in the course of taking those actions. How do the characters react? Who or what did the failing? Does a setback mean full-stop on the efforts? Does the character redouble their efforts?

And that’s before we even talk about the idea if the failure was incited by another character’s reactions …

(this all leads into Friday’s blogpost) Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus

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