How to Build Conflict With 2 Dogs and 1 Bone

Learn how to plot a story from Cujo

Woman sitting on top of a car. How to Build Conflict With 2 Dogs and 1 Bone.
Woman sitting on top of a car. How to Build Conflict With 2 Dogs and 1 Bone.

Without conflict, there is no story. As writers, we create a conflict to move a story forward. We bring characters together in a stressful situation so we can learn from them. Make the conflict too easy and the story stalls. If the conflict is overwhelming, it leaves the author with an implausible solution.

“A plot is two dogs and one bone.” — Robert Newton Peck

What is a story plot, and why is it important?

A satisfying plot has 3 parts. A character wants something and tries to get it. But there is opposition. In the best stories, the harder the primary characters work to get what they want, the greater the opposition. The conflict mounts until there’s a climactic event where the success of the quest is in question. Who will win? Who will lose? The greater the risk, the more intense the ending.

If you are writing a story, and there is no problem, you haven’t got a story. Start with a conflict and then build your story around it.

Couple in a conflict
Couple in a conflict

How does a writer create conflict in a story?

To create a conflict, give your major character a problem that the reader can identify with. In Stephen King’s Cujo, Donna Trenton is trapped in her disabled car with her son, Tad. Outside of the car is Cujo, a large Saint Bernard that has rabies. There is no one to save them, so to save herself and her son, Donna has to get past Cujo and into a house where there is water and safety.

In the story, there are two dogs: Donna and Cujo. The bone is the house. Donna wants to get to it, and Cujo wants to stop her. The stakes are the highest. If she cannot get to the house, she and Tad die of dehydration or Cujo kills them. In his plotting, King ramps up the tension, layer-by-layer, until the reader can’t put the book down until there’s a resolution.

Image for post
Image for post

How does a writer resolve a story’s conflict?

There is only one resolution to a conflict: either the main character wins or loses. Having a tie isn’t satisfying for the reader, so it isn’t an option.

After working through a series of escalating conflicts, the story reaches a climactic moment when the conflict gets resolved. In Cujo, the conclusion is final and violent. Because of the events leading to the end, the reader feels a lot of tension and then a huge breath of relief.

When you bring your story to an end, you want your main character to experience change. In Cujo, the book opens with Donna’s marriage in trouble, and she has an affair. At the end of the book, Donna reunites with her husband and they are working things out. She has grown in her love for her family.

Final thoughts

It doesn’t matter if you write a stressful, violent story like Cujo or a romantic love story like Titanic, the elements of conflict are the same. Someone wants something and tries to get it, and someone or something creates opposition. Whether the main character wins or loses is your decision. But the storyline is the backdrop to the development of the main character. The conflict makes the character change.

When writing your story, have two dogs and one bone. Add a healthy dash of conflict and a dramatic ending, and your readers won’t be able to stop reading.

Published in The Ascent, The Writing Cooperative, Illumination-curated, Writers’ Blokke.

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