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On the Conflict Resolution Cycle: Designing a Narrative

Earlier this week I told a story. It was one I had to tell, under the circumstances. On the day I launched Gods Tomorrow to the public, you’d better bet I was going to talk about my novel.

It works well as an illustration for the writing principles I want to talk about this week, though. Any good story does — or, I should say, any story that’s well-told — so I chose the one that killed the most birds with the fewest stones.

The most important parts of the narrative were:

  • The establishing intro, in which I conveyed who I was and what I would be talking about, which is to say the proof copies of my novel
  • The big event (receiving the first proof copy of my novel) which shook up my life and introduced conflict (it was beautiful but flawed)
  • The obstacles to my happiness (those would be the actual flaws in the book), and the things I did to overcome those obstacles
  • The climax (it was an admittedly weak one, but that’s because Amazon has such a convenient system in place for self-publishing)
  • And the resolution, in which I now have a perfectly beautiful book for sale on Amazon.

What I like, for the careful reader, is that in the conclusion it ties this one small scene, this one circuit through the CRC, into the larger conflict story I’ve been spinning here on my blog, of the difficulties I’ve faced with traditional publishers over the last decade. That’s a nice touch.

Designer Storytelling

I throw around a lot of synonyms sometimes, counting on you to catch the subtle differences in usage. Just as an example, I sometimes talk about writing, sometimes about creative writing, sometimes about storytelling, and sometimes about narrative.

This week’s series is all about narrative, and when I use that word, I really mean something along the lines of “designer storytelling.” Or maybe “deliberate storytelling.” “Narrative” is the stuff you’re doing while telling a story.

And the Conflict Resolution Cycle is the basic structure of narrative. It’s the foundation on which you’ll build your narrative elements (your scenes and settings and character interactions), and then you’ll wrap that narrative with the sopping papier mache strips that make up a “story,” and pop the narrative balloon inside so it looks to a casual reader like this elegant tale sprang fully formed from your creative genius.

We know the secret, though. The secret is: storytelling is a craft.

Narrative Tension

One of the most important elements of that craft is narrative tension. That’s the questions in your readers’ minds that make them turn the page. A good story has to have some sort of narrative tension going for every single page, but maintaining that is a real challenge.

The Conflict Resolution Cycle is part of the answer to that challenge. Instead of trying to force a single question to carry the full weight of the story, and hold up for page after page after page, we structure a story in scenes, that successively answer little questions and replace them with new ones, always overlapping, and always–very gradually–pushing toward an answer to the great Story Question that drives the narrative arc.

A good book runs like clockwork.

When you think about the Conflict Resolution Cycle, when you look over the worksheet tomorrow, imagine a cogwheel spinning in circles, driving a gear with question after question after question. Each one grabs your readers for a moment (or a page), spins them a little further along, and then lets them go to be replaced by the next.

Narrative Pacing

The speed of your little cogwheel represents another major element in designer storytelling: narrative pacing. That refers to the speed at which you move the story along, the rate at which Things Happen, from page to page.

There’s not a single perfect target. It varies from genre to genre and, honestly, from reader to reader. By and large, though, the trend of the last several decades has been toward faster and faster pacing.

That’s a big part of the drive behind the explosion in Young Adult literature (particularly among non-young-adult readers). It’s also started a trend toward first-person present-tense narrative, in an artificial bid to make the narrative seem faster and more immediate. I’m not a fan.

The alternative, though, is to actually manage your story’s pacing, and that’s a lot harder than throwing gimmicks at it. But with a little effort and a little insight, it’s certainly doable.

The trick is to understand where your pacing comes from. And, in context, I’m certain you already know the answer.

The Conflict Resolution Cycle.

Your story’s pace is determined by the rate at which you introduce new obstacles and resolve old ones — and then by the amount of time you spend between scenes letting your character consider just how they feel about that new obstacle they just encountered, or how they plan to resolve it in the following chapter.

That last bit is described as “scene and sequel,” and it’s a concept I’m just now studying for the first time. I promise a more detailed post on it in the future, but for now it’s enough to know that it’s there…and that every time you drop into one of those introspective “sequels,” you’ve just backed off the throttle on your narrative.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. The trick is to know just how fast you’re going, at every milestone along the way, and manage your scenes to maintain the speed you want, right through to the resolution.

Come back tomorrow, and I’ll give you the worksheet I designed to help with that.

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