Overarching Plots: The Major Conflict

In general, if you’ve got an overarching plot, you should have—one might even say there has to be—a major conflict. Something has to tie all those little plot threads together, after all! But how much do you actually have to plan beforehand, and how much can you leave to your subconscious mind, the actions of your primary characters (whether your creations or your game’s PCs), and your overall inspiration?

It’s important to know what general form the major conflict will take. Note that this does not mean that you need to know every detail about the major antagonist, his plans, what the main characters can do against him, what his contingencies are, so on and so forth, at the very beginning. In fact, unless you’re working on an overarching plot where mystery is an important enough element that you need to seed clues in from the very beginning—and possibly not even then—I would suggest leaving a certain amount of wiggle room as you work on the rest of your skeleton and start in on creating the story or game itself. (I for one have never had an overarching plot in which I did not have to determine at least one detail—including at one point the antagonist’s name—either at the last minute or in retrospect of the event it referred to but before it needed to be finalized.) You can have something as vague as “The main characters, outsiders in a society which is not yet accustomed to them, use their external view to help them hunt down a traitor to said society”, “A gaggle of prison escapees in a large city dodges feuding nobles as they solve a mystery that could turn the entire city upside down”, or “New transfers to a highly regarded school discover their teachers have a dangerous secret.” Neither does it mean that there needs to be only one major conflict (some of my favorite books have woven together three or more), nor that the major conflict has to be clear from the very beginning of the narrative (more on this later).

What danger does your primary conflict pose? Without the stakes, it can be hard to properly motivate PCs or keep a reader engaged—or, for that matter, make sure a character’s motivation is consistent with the situation. Threats to life, limb and the existence of the world may be common, but bear in mind that there’s plenty else that can be thrown on the table. Love, fortune, dignity—no concept is safe.

Consider also what sort of event might serve as the climax. While this can be (and in fantasy, often is) a battle, that’s not the only option—there are plenty of examples of conflicts resolving with something else. The webcomic Digger climaxes in two well-done verbal confrontations and a knacky bit of crowbar use, Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign climaxes with a political body voting—one can have appearances in court, long runs, cunning tricks. Knowing what you want, though, allows you to start setting your tone to fit your desired result—if, for instance, you want a nonviolent resolution to a situation, you may wish to stress the importance of the rule of law in the setting and/or the potential for the antagonistic characters to see reason, and you will probably want to avoid instilling bloodlust against the antagonists in the protagonists.

Not only will knowing your major conflict help focus the direction of your narrative and figure out what you need out of your main characters, but it will likely help to motivate you to keep going; I, for one, have found it a lot harder to invest in a storyline where I don’t really know yet what’s being threatened or how. Plan what you can, then run with it!

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