Question about Building Greater Sources of Conflict

I read this article recently: and I want to know, at what stage of writing do you do this? Is it to determine the dilemma that the character faces at the end? Is it related to premise statement? Does it represent MC vs IC or OS? Do you make such a comparison at each storybeat to make sure it’s a proper source of conflict?

Hey @SharkCat, there was a great recent thread on this technique. It was quite long however, so somewhere in the middle I summed up my takeaways:

and Jim added this caveat (right after):

Hope that helps!

I would add: while it can be applied at every story beat, I personally am starting to think that this is overkill. It might be better used only when you’re having trouble figuring out the source of conflict for a story point or you feel that there’s something missing.

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You can use it for all levels, all throughlines. “ People need to feel safe in order to be able to create freely UNLESS people should take risks in order to be known as one of the greats” can describe a story at the largest levels as well as the smallest. It can be the whole message, or just a single scene in an act. While taking the time to sit down and do this for every point probably is overkill, in order to inject conflict into every part of your story you are technically going to do it for every point even if you don’t go through this exercise to do it.

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So, make each story point the topic of each justification and don’t worry about that “Need corresponds to Ability” stuff?

I half agree with this, but I’m at the polar end of Plotter in the Plotter-Pantser spectrum.

I find, that for myself, I often need a justification for each of the PSR points in a Throughline that doesn’t come naturally to me (such as the OS). At times, I’ll even need to go to the Element level, but this depends a lot on how much detail I need. It wasn’t until I did this for the OS in my current work that I felt I could actually write, as opposed to outline, the story.

I’d say so. Thus far, I haven’t personally seen the correspondences play out in any practical uses when working with justifications. That’s not to say they can’t; I just haven’t seen it.

So, if I’ve got my storybeats broken down into PSR elements and I’ve got something in the OS Signpost 2 of “Prediction to Interdiction while Conceptualizing” and I’ve got no idea how to illustrate a conflict of Interdiction for that, how do I take an argument like “People should intercede for someone in order to be helpful UNLESS people shouldn’t intervene in order to let others learn from their own mistakes” and turn that into an illustration?

Say in using Subtext, you’ve got the same elements but separate storybeats for the Protagonist and Antagonist. Do the Protagonist storybeats represent one side of that argument and the Antagonist storybeats represent the other side? Like “Protagonist should intercede for Alice in order to be helpful UNLESS Antagonist shouldn’t intervene in order to let Alice learn from her own mistakes” which doesn’t sound like it makes sense… Or are both the Protagonist and Antagonist beats each supposed to contain a different argument about Interdiction?

Is “Protagonist should intercede for Alice in order to be helpful UNLESS Protagonist shouldn’t intercede for Alice in order to let her learn from her own mistakes” too similar on both sides of the “unless”?

If it’s ok to use, then which side is my illustration arguing for? If my illustration is about the Protagonist interceding, who or what represents “shouldn’t intercede”? Is it as simple as writing “Protagonist intercedes to help Alice BUT Alice makes the same mistake twice” (is that even a conflict?). Or do I illustrate that the Protagonist is thinking about helping but is initially unsure because it might cause Alice not to learn from her own mistakes?

Or can I say “Protagonist should intercede for Alice…” etc. and something similar for Antagonist like “Antagonist should intercede for Bob…” etc. and have Protagonist choose to intercede and help Alice and Antagonist choose to not intercede and cause Bob to learn from his own mistakes?

(I can’t remember why Protagonist and Antagonist get their own storybeats.)

TL;DR: I want to know how to take “justification UNLESS justification” and turn it into an illustration.

Yeah, actually I’ve been going all the way to the Element level – using the Subtext instant scene PRCO – for every beat. I was writing out the justifications even there – that’s when I started to think it was sometimes too laborious. But then I haven’t been doing it at the PSR Variation or the Signpost Concern level – I was maybe going to go back and fill those in.

I’d love to hear what others say, but this example doesn’t feel like a change of context to me, but it might just need more detail.

I think the key (for me anyway) is to really change the context so that both sides of the UNLESS are true or valid in a way that automatically creates a dilemma or predicament. Non-dramatica story theory like Storygrid might call this the “best bad choice”. Making this choice sets up further problems (i.e. drives the story forward).

Katniss shouldn’t intervene in the peacekeeper’s beating of Gale in order to not provoke an even worse reaction from the Capital unless she can’t stop herself from getting involved because of her love for him.

It’s not like she’s even disagreeing with the idea that getting involved will make things worse. But her friend/lover is in danger – she has to step in.

FWIW I myself find that per Diane’s advice, changing the “can, should, will, need” word between the two justifications actually does help me to think of it in a different context.

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I could say “Protagonist wants to intercede for Alice in order to be helpful UNLESS Protagonist shouldn’t intercede for Alice in order to let her learn from her own mistakes” but it’s kind of the same.

It might help to know which conventional storytelling/watching/reading genre you are going after, for the examples. From real life what just popped into my head was when I was working as a para-educator in special education, which ranged from physically handicapped to mental simplicity to very advanced intellect for age. Something that ran the gauntlet was one focused on watching out for the kids, while at the same time letting them interact with others (adults and kids) on their own. Being only a silent physical assist if needed, but not also a participant, was a factor in some of the assignments, even. The kids being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them by interacting with other kids and teachers was a whole focus.

But it might help “no idea how to illustrate” head scratching if known what kind (genre) of story you were going after. (mystery, romance, action, comedy, sci-fi, etc.)

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I was actually just editing my post – I think your example works, I maybe just needed more detail to visualize it. Like maybe Alice is learning to drive, and Alice’s sister keeps telling her what to do from the back seat, and Alice explodes, saying “you have to let me learn from my mistakes!” so the sister doesn’t say anything as Alice runs the red light and causes an accident.

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I suppose it’s comedy.

But using that RL example, say it’s part of the OS and the teacher is the protagonist. How would that play out in an illustration? Does the teacher pick a side? How is the opposite side conveyed?

Would it be something like “The teacher could either help Alice socialize (tell her what to do) or let Alice socialize on her own in order to learn from her own mistakes, so the teacher decides to let Alice socialize on her own.”?

I think it’s best to stick with the correspondences. It’s probably okay to allow exceptions from time to time if they feel right to you. But I’ve found that the correspondence brings about more creative thinking, and makes me use a wider range of justifications.

Regarding your other questions, it may help to take a step back first and examine what we’re doing with this process. First you create a justification that matters to you and that you can represent through one or more characters in your story. That’s the first half. Then you write UNLESS and challenge that justification with another justification. (EDIT: same thing as what @Lakis said about true dilemma or “best bad choice”)

That’s it, really. Either side can be represented by any character or characters – no rules there. I’ve found it more common to use the same character on either side, simply because it’s easiest to challenge them that way. I’ve also used groups of characters (helps to write “we”).

This is where the correspondences help you see the true motivation for the justification. You could write something like:

Protagonist wants to intercede for Alice in order to be thought of as helpful UNLESS Protagonist shouldn’t intercede for Alice because Protagonist loves Alice like a daughter (and wants to let her learn from her own mistakes)


But that leads to even more questions that clutter up my thinking and leave me unable to do anything. Like how do you know when to say “People need” vs “People want” etc. When is the tipping point to trusting feelings over correspondences? How do you take the Knowledge/Thought/Ability/Desire part and make something out of it (from this article: what does “be fulfilled” have to do with Ability, which corresponds to Need?)

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If the correspondences don’t work for you, don’t worry about using them. But I think you should try to make the second part a knowledge, thought, ability, or desire.

Would it help to have more examples? I have a lot I could take from my current revision – scene level PRCO justifications. They’re not perfect, but they did help me. (Not sure if you saw this post, that was one example.)

Hmm, I thought “be fulfilled” represented Desire. Maybe i was wrong on that, as you’re right, Jim’s example in the article has it going with Need.

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I just looked at the post, but I’ve never been able to understand PRCO and I don’t know how circuits work so the metaphor is lost on me. I can get the P and the O sort of (shouldn’t O be another conflict? I thought all story points were supposed to be conflicts, not fractions of a conflict), but C and R usually get lumped together at the PSR level and I just think of them as the main conflict stuff in the middle. In that thread, how would the justifications be turned into illustrations or does that not happen at scene level?

More examples would help. I’m struggling with Destiny and Fate. Like for Fate, I guess I could say “People need good luck in order to be able to succeed at attaining their desires UNLESS people don’t want good luck in order to be thought of as succeeding by their own merits.” But that 2nd justification doesn’t seem like a challenge to the first other than one’s about a positive aspect of good luck and the other about a negative aspect.

Do the characters ever reach that Zen item when doing these justifications at the PSR level?

Does it matter whether the storyform is Holistic or Linear?

I could see parents learning their kids are growing up by witnessing the teacher do that. They hold back from rushing in (because the teacher doesn’t know what she’s doing … the kids need help!) and witness kids’ dealing with it. Or visa versa teacher learning from parents.

But for comedy, I’d pick a legal field example. Night Court and Benched come to mind. I’ll read through all this, again, tomorrow and see if you still want more feedback. Bedtime now.

It’s worked for me to just try out a few and then revise until they fit. I think the key is to find one that resonates with you.

I know how you feel–I always had the same problem. The Subtext instant scene has helped. But the main thing that’s helping me is to try to put it together as a little story, with cause and effect. § leads to ® which is made worse by ©, leading to (O) (which sets up the next scene).

I’ve always had blind spots on these and I still struggle with them. For the me the best way is to use one of the gists and try to forget about the definitions. But anyway I think:

is actually great. You just need to think of how to illustrate it in your story.

Alice has been wanting a promotion, but was just passed over for it by someone less qualified. She is depressed, and wishes evil on the person who was promoted–until she gets to work and hears that at the last minute the person couldn’t take the position for some reason (another accident?). Desperate, the boss calls Alice into the office. It’s her chance! But as she walks down the hallway she can feel her coworkers’ skeptical, resentful eyes on her. This promotion is her dream, but she doesn’t want to get it like this! She goes in, is offered the position–and says no.


This is great. I think of it a little differently – § is the potential for conflict that exists at the start of the scene. ® is something that amplifies and/or reduces that potential, but most importantly, kicks it off and gets it flowing. This leads to © which is the back-and-forth flow of conflict, which leads to (O) which is the change in the story / world that provides potential for later scene(s). But yours is probably easier and just as useful @Lakis!

What I really like is the correlation to physics, like § = potential energy. Like say someone is standing on the edge of a cliff – they have piles of gravitational potential energy, but it doesn’t matter – nothing happens – unless you bring something else into it that makes things worse or better. An earthquake, or someone pushes them (worse). Or someone gives them a base jumping parachute, or someone convinces them to try out their superpowers (better).

@SharkCat if you’re not comfortable using PRCO then just think of it as four steps or beats. P leads to R leads to C leads to O.

This is interesting. I never used to see O as part of the conflict – it’s the resolution of the conflict, how things end up. For example, an Outcome of Trust: “Angie decides to trust the serial killer who’s just offered her a ride.” However, now that I’ve been using Justifications I can see the conflict that’s built into the Outcome too. It raises a dilemma and the real outcome of the scene tells you which side of the A UNLESS B wins out. So for Angie:

Angie should heed her dad’s advice not to trust strangers in order to feel safe UNLESS Angie needs to trust the harmless-looking guy in the Jetta in order to make it to Tulsa on time.

What I’ve found recently is that tiny little opposing Trust beat (the dad’s advice) brought in at the end of the scene can make the outcome Trust (going with the killer) a lot stronger. But it might just be subtext too.

I think if you are outlining your scene in detail you can use the justifications to build your outline. I’ve been finding the justifications themselves make things clear enough that I don’t need any more of an outline – but I’m also doing revision so a lot of the scene is already there. Sorry I don’t have any PSR-level examples.

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