How many times have you sat down at the keyboard with a fantastic story premise in your mind, but had trouble getting it organized in a manner that truly flows on the page? A solid story premise can act as fuel to your passion for writing. There is so much possibility when you have an exciting idea brewing. However, without a strong understanding of the three elements of plot, these ideas often go nowhere and are forgotten quickly.
Conflict is the driving force behind most plots, however, especially in long-form fiction. Conflict can help propel your plot, and can create tension and suspense for your characters that might not otherwise exist. Conflict can take many forms, but all conflict ultimately boils down to a clash of opposing forces. This clash can be between two characters, as in a love story where one person tries to resist their feelings for the other. It can also be between a character and an outside force, such as nature or society.
Example of Conflict from To Kill a Mockingbird
There are many examples of conflict in To Kill a Mockingbird, but one that stands out is the conflict between Atticus and the mob that’s accusing his innocent client, Tom Robinson. This is an example of successful conflict because it results in a change of heart for some of the men in the mob, who realize that what they’re doing is wrong.
Additionally, the situation highlights the strength of Atticus’ character, as he bravely faces down an angry crowd. This scene also helps to build tension and suspense in the novel, making it more exciting to read. Ultimately, the conflict between Atticus and the mob is an important part of To Kill a Mockingbird, and helps to make the story more compelling.
Internal Character Conflict
Internal conflict is a plot element that refers to the struggles that a character experiences within him/herself. This struggle can manifest as a clash between two different impulses, values, or beliefs. For example, a character might be torn between their duty to their family and their desire for personal freedom.
Internal conflict can also arise from a character’s efforts to come to terms with a traumatic event from their past. This type of conflict can be very intense for readers because it often leads to characters making poor decisions or remaining stuck in a state of limbo for extended periods throughout the story.
Example of Internal Conflict
Scout Finch, the protagonist and narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of the most memorable characters in literature. Though only six years old at the start of the novel, Scout is wise beyond her years, and her development over the course of the book is fascinating to read.
In particular, Scout’s internal conflict between innocence and experience is a central theme of the story. At the beginning of the novel, Scout is a naïve young girl who sees the world in black and white. However, as she witnesses injustice and cruelty firsthand, her innocent view of the world begins to unravel. By the end of the book, Scout has come to understand that human beings are complex and that distinguishing between good and evil is not always simple. This newfound maturity is evident in her changed reactions to different events and her growing feelings of guilt and contempt for society. Though she has lost her innocence, Scout has also gained a greater understanding of the world around her, making her one of literature’s most intriguing and well-rounded characters.
External Character Conflict
The external conflict pits the protagonist against an outside force such as another character, nature, or society. This type of conflict can be very suspenseful, as the reader doesn’t know whether the protagonist will be able to overcome the obstacles in their way.
Some specific examples of external conflict include:
- The lynch mob who come after Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird
- Tybalt plotting to kill Romeo in Romeo and Juliet
- Jack and Roger plotting to kill Ralph in Lord of the Flies
External conflict can also explore ideas like morality, prejudice, and power dynamics. In any case, an external conflict is a powerful tool that authors can use to make their stories more engaging and exciting.
But, enough about conflict. Let’s discuss our next plot element.
2) Character Growth
So what is the point of all this conflict? Well, it’s through conflict that your character can experience change. It’s the metamorphosis or growth of your character that will allow your readers to relate and engage with your plot. Afterall, it’s human nature to grow and change when we face life’s challenges. A fictional character who shows growth will feel far more realistic than a static, 2D character that never changes.
In order to achieve growth for your characters, you can visualize your character’s journey as an arc. A character arc is when a character grows and changes through conflict. Most plots track a character as they become a better or worse version of themselves. It’s this gradual rise and fall of your character arc that creates tension, builds suspense, and provides satisfying resolutions throughout your story.
What’s A Character Arc?
The character arc is the journey a character takes from the story’s beginning to the end. This journey includes both physical and emotional changes, and some sort of conflict often catalyzes the journey.
Character arcs can be physical, emotional, or spiritual, but it always involves some kind of growth or change. The character arc is the character’s journey from innocence to experience or ignorance to enlightenment. It can also describe the character’s emotional development, from happiness to sadness or anger to forgiveness.
The character arc is often one of the essential elements of a story, as it can help create empathy for the character and make the story more relatable. When done well, a character arc should generate an emotional reaction with your reader. If done poorly, it can feel contrived or artificial.
Example of a Character Arc
To understand character arcs fully, let’s look at the character arc of Scout Finch again from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scout Finch is the narrator and protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird. She is a young girl growing up in the town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s. The novel follows Scout’s journey as she learns about life, love, and loss. Through her experiences, Scout grows and matures, eventually becoming a more compassionate and empathetic person.
One of the most significant events that shapes Scout’s character is when her father, Atticus Finch, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of rape. Throughout the trial, Scout witnesses the racism and bigotry that exists in her community. She also sees how her father stands up for what he believes in, even when it isn’t popular. This experience helps Scout to develop her own sense of morality and justice.
These lessons culminate for Scout in the novel’s finale. Scout spends most of the book frightened of her reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. She is prejudiced against Boo even though she has never met him. However, it is Boo who saves Scout and her brother when they are attacked by the novel’s antagonist, Bob Ewell.
Boo kills Bob, bringing justice to Maycomb after the townspeople failed. Through this experience Scout realizes that she unfairly judged Boo just as the town had unfairly judged Tom Robinson.
3) Literary Theme
A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work. When it comes to creating a theme, it’s not always an element of craft that happens purposefully. In fact, some writers don’t recognize the overarching theme until the story is nearly finished, and that’s completely okay! When it comes to recognizing and zeroing in on your story’s theme, it’s important to let it show itself naturally. Your theme should not be some lesson or agenda you’re trying to force upon your reader. Instead, you should allow it to appear to the reader on its own through events, character actions, etc.
Sometimes we underthink the theme, and we define the story’s theme with a single word. For instance, you might hear that the theme of the Lord of the Rings is sacrifice. But that’s wrong. A theme cannot be summed up in a single word or idea. You need to investigate what Lord of the Rings says about sacrifice. Is sacrifice necessary, unavoidable, or should we avoid it at all costs?
A story is more than just a sequence of exciting events. A compelling story must have a sense of purpose just as every person in life has a purpose. That being said, forcing your story’s purpose or making it become a “lesson” for your dear little reader is an amatuer way of thinking about your theme. While it’s your story’s job to reveal the theme as it develops, it’s your job as the author to help connect the dots from theme element to theme element throughout the story, so that your reader can fully grasp it.
The theme allows your reader to see the larger picture and understand the true importance of what is happening in your story. In short, the theme is what makes a story worth telling. It provides direction as your reader travels along with your characters. If you’re having trouble seeing your theme yourself, you may need a beta reader to help you pinpoint it. Once you recognize your theme, think about how it’s woven throughout your story. How can you help your readers more easily recognize the theme without forcing it?
As you write your novel or short story, keep these three essential elements of plot in mind. While it is important to consider these elements of plot, you certainly don’t want to overthink them or allow them to stunt your writing progress. If you feel you’re lacking conflict, character growth, or a theme, just let your story flow anyway. Once you move into the editing phase, you can work out the kinks of your story at that point. The most important thing is to get your story written!
John Kerr is a writer and junior high English teacher with published works in “Helios Quarterly Magazine,” “The Wifiles,” Listverse, “WhatCulture,” “SFS Shorts,” Well-Storied.com, The Writing Cooperative, and more.
John has a degree in history from the University of Texas at Arlington. After graduating, he discovered a passion for teaching and sharing his love for literature. He loves discussing the intricacies of a well-developed plot, poem, or even a good sentence!
He is the owner of a creative writing website called The Art Of Narrative, where he shares tips and advice on creative writing.