This is the fifth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Is The Obstacle? – Conflict

Every scene needs conflict, otherwise, why spend your precious word count on it? But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what, exactly, conflict is. Does it mean a fistfight? Well… obviously. But every scene can’t have a fistfight, unless it’s one of the Fast and Furious movies.

Think of ‘conflict’ as something that stands between the hero and her goals for that scene. Let’s remember that there’s always an Actual event for your main characters, something they want to achieve, a goal they need to reach. The conflict is something that prevents them from reaching that goal.

If you want to take a third-grade understanding of this, the obstacle is a physical thing. An actual barrier. If you’re writing an adventure story then a physical barrier is a real possibility. That big rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re writing a story about star-crossed lovers, however, the obstacle is almost never going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. The boy is forbidden by his parents from seeing the girl, who is herself torn between the safe choice and the boy. The path of true love never runs straight.

The Obstacle Can Be Another W

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. We have the hero who intends to tell her ex-husband she’s taking their son across country. Why can’t she just come up and tell him? Tear the band-aid off, metaphorically speaking?

Good question. If a dilemma could be solved by people simply talking, the world would be a much nicer place. But it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting. In our hero’s case, the obstacle – the conflict – could be that she’s done this before. Maybe she did it a few years ago, and faced legal repercussions because of it. Or maybe the obstacle is that her husband is an angry control freak, and she knows that when she tells him she’s leaving, he’s going to marshal all his considerable resources to stop her. Or maybe the obstacle is the son himself, who learns of his mother’s intentions and tells his father he doesn’t want to go before the hero can.

In all these cases, it’s the Character and Relationship that provide the conflict.

Conflict Should Be Resolved, Not Necessarily Overcome

The hero doesn’t need to physically conquer every obstacle. A story like that quickly becomes boring. Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He didn’t conquer that rolling boulder, he didn’t stop it, he didn’t divert it, he didn’t step out of its way. He ran. As fast and as far as he could until he got out of the cave and the boulder rolled away somewhere harmless. He didn’t overcome that boulder, he out-ran it.

The same principle applies to more metaphorical challenges. In our birthday party example, say the son tells his father what the hero – his mother – intends. So what’s our hero going to do about that? Stand and fight? Face off against her ex-husband who has far more cash and friends in high places? No, she’s going to thinks sideways. Maybe she’ll just up and leave anyway and take the boy with her. Or maybe she’ll pretend to go on a road trip, which is really her absconding. Which, of course, creates an entirely new obstacle for her to overcome.

However you do it, you need to resolve the conflicts you set up. This is the pay-off for the set-up. It doesn’t have to be smooth, or elegant, or even pleasant. But it has to work with the other Ws.

This is the fourth of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Who Are You? – Character and Relationship

We’re over halfway through the process of constructing a scene and now we get to the characters. About time. When going through this exercise as an actor, you really only have to worry about your own character. When you’re a writer, you get to worry about all of them.

I could (and probably will) spend a lot of time on constructing a character and how best to do that, but for our purposes here, let’s assume you’ve done that work. You know your character, her flaws, her aspirations, her habits, her quirks, and what she does and does not know about herself. Now you have to take that character – or those characters – and place them in the scene you’ve created using the first three of the Ws.

Sticking with the birthday party example, let’s say the hero is at a birthday party for her son at her ex-husband’s house. The apparent event is the birthday party, the actual event is she intends to tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country and taking the son with her, the environment is her ex-husband’s house, not a friendly environment for her.

Now what? You put the characters in that situation. Let’s say the hero is not good at conflict at all, but has resolved that this discussion has to happen this day, at this time, before she loses her nerve.

Can you feel the tension building? The situation is set to explode.

The Setting Changes Characters’ Relationships

This seems simple enough, but too often I see characters whose relationship seems equal on both sides all the time, and that just never, ever happens in real life. There’s always a power dynamic, and that balance shifts over time, or even over an afternoon, and especially when they have a change in venue.

Here’s a concrete example: you have characters who work at a restaurant, where one is the manager and one is a waiter. There’s a power dynamic there, boss/subordinate. No matter how friendly they are with one another, Jeff is the boss and Mike is the employee.

Now switch the location. Move Jeff and Mike to, say, a seedy pool hall. Mike comes here every Friday night after his shift, he knows the people, he’s one of them. Jeff is a newcomer, sticks out like a sore thumb, and – God forbid – is still wearing his restaurant manager’s tie. Who’s the boss in this situation?

Same characters, but their relationship, and thus their interaction, changes with a simple trip a couple of blocks away.

The Scene Can Change The Relationship

As a matter of fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every scene should alter the relationship between its main characters. That’s not to say it has to be a positive change, but if there’s no tension to resolve there’s no movement in the plot and there’s no growth in the characters.

Back to the birthday example. The hero is at her son’s birthday party at her ex-husband’s house, where she’s going to tell him that she’s moving away. As the hero works up her courage to have the conversation, her ex-husband surprises her by confessing that he’s not over her and asks if, maybe, they could give it one more try. With a few words the ex-husband has completely changed the tenor of the scene, and subverted the hero’s intentions.

Does the hero stick to her guns and tell him she’s leaving? Does she back down? How is she going to deal with this surprise?

You tell me, you’re the writer.