Setbacks: In The Interests Of Conflict

“Things are going well. How are they going to slip up?”


So here you are surfing the internet, thinking you can get on with your day of watching cat videos and streaming Fortnite. WHEN SUDDENLY, A WILD POST APPEARS TO DISTRACT YOU!

…What? No! Get back here! It’s an interruption I am powerless to enforce! Go on, make the mistake of reading it!

…Well, I suppose my plans have hit quite the setback, then.

Ah yes, conflicts. The basis of a story. They are the premise, the reason, the thing which gives people an objective. A finishing line. They are “what you need to overcome.”

Then there are setbacks, the road hazards. They’re what take a boring story of “He went to the marketplace and got everything on his shopping list” to “The market didn’t have eggs, so he had to go to the next town to get them, and on the way he was attacked by bandits”. They are “what goes wrong.”

Of course, in this era of people trying to tellĀ  you why THEY are right and why you must NEVER make mistakes, how can there still be conflict?

Let’s Set The Clock Back

As elaborated, setbacks are the little problems INSIDE of a conflict, taking place ALONG THE WAY of the characters’ journeys. They are mistakes, complications, obstacles, and so on which lead AWAY from the solution to BIGGER problems that must be overcome by the characters if they wish to proceed.

What sets it apart from conflict? Simple: Conflict is the idea of “Get to the finishing line over there”, whether it’s getting to Grandma’s house safely or slaying the dragon that’s terrorising the countryside. Setbacks are all the things that GET IN YOUR WAY. They are the little moments and mistakes which will seem totally random and out of the blue, while at the same time being PLANNED and DELIBERATE on the writer’s part. And usually it comes in two main flavours.

Sometimes it’s just external forces with no reasons, with no greater motives than an inanimate object blocking the road to the finishing line. There are things beyond your control, like the shop you were sent to not having your Macguffin, leading you on a quest to get it. Then there are bad decisions made by characters which lead to failure and complications. For example, you trade your family’s only cow and livelihood away for some magic beans.

Damn fetch quests. It’s never just a fetch quest.

In that light, you can consider Frodo’s journey to Rivendell one FULL of setbacks. So you wanna head from Point A to Point B? Well, now you’re being HUNTED DOWN, you have to get through BAD WEATHER, and your ALLIES are sometimes MORE HINDRANCE THAN HELP. Similarly, Luke Skywalker trying to get two new droids? First, the cheaper, crappier model EXPLODES. Then it turns out its replacement RUNS OFF. And where does he run to? The Jundland Wastes, where there are SAND PEOPLE lying in wait. And yet, if not for those setbacks, they wouldn’t have met Aragorn or Obi-Wan.

And then, of course, there are countless Disney movies where a character makes a mistake and things don’t go according to plan. So countless good guys fall into the clutches of the baddies because they ignore the warnings and advice of their mentors…yet at the same time, countless good guys have made it out alive because bumbling henchmen are bad at their jobs, like accidentally using a llama potion instead of poison. Or dressing up as a man and joining the army to save your dad.

Funny. It’s almost as if those “mistakes” led them to what they needed to progress the plot.

But Then We Reveal There WAS A Point!

So, obviously we don’t like it when setbacks happen to US in real life. But they’re often the biggest source of entertainment in stories. And of course, setbacks are important for the same reason as conflict: It keeps the story interesting by stopping things from being solved.

This is the most obvious reason they are important. Without it, it’s no different from your weekly trip to get groceries: something needs to be done, so it is done with boring efficiency. It can be as immediate as a battle or threat you must resolve RIGHT NOW, or as indirect as a blocked path…which leads you through the EVEN MORE DANGEROUS PATH. All of which happened because YOU insisted that you knew a “short cut” instead of following the road. What would have taken three paragraphs now takes three chapters.

Like some sort of narrative Rube-Goldberg machine (the overly complicated ones that use chain reactions to do something simple), setbacks are the little accidents and bad decisions which make things WORSE, bringing NEW PROBLEMS…which lead you to something you were MEANT to discover.

Yes, that’s right: Setbacks are important for delivering necessary things. This is their SECOND function: They lead characters where they’re meant to be and who they’re meant to meet. What seems like a total disaster can become a blessing in disguise, because in OVERCOMING these problems, characters are exposed to vital things: Learning skills they will need, meeting allies who will join them, or even accidentally discovering the only thing that would have helped them.

And sure, we ascribe all that stuff to CONFLICT, thinking that CONFLICT is what gives characters challenges and reasons to grow…but a lot of the time, nobody really LOOKS for conflict (with a few exceptions) and would rather stay out of it without changing. If not for setbacks, the majority of characters would be stuck as underdeveloped, narrow-minded problem children. Setbacks send these characters onto the paths to adventures which we, the audience, KNOW will strengthen them, along with the colourful cast of characters which will accompany, challenge, and support them.

This is seen most clearly in RPGs and the like, where we itemise and list plot points and character rosters more clearly than in movies or shows. The fresh, newbie protagonist is given a simple task. It gets complicated, and they have to go looking around for solutions. And when they do so, they have to find the right people to help them. It’s a trope so familiar that when we’re playing a game and we KNOW there are more allies (especially if they’re on the box art), one of our most common instincts in response to the plot is “Things are going well. How are they going to slip up?” which is followed shortly afterwards by “Are we going to meet the dude with blue hair first, or the chick with purple hair?”

Heck, you can even see this in action in stories like The Lord of the Rings. Let’s review:

  • The party meets a setback of bad weather and makes the bad decision to go under a mountain.
  • They lose the Wizard.
  • The Fighter decides now would be a good time to try and steal the One Ring.
  • Then suddenly, ORCS!
  • Fighter dies. Two guys are kidnapped. The other two decide to run off on their own. Party is split up.

So yeah. A LOT of setbacks when everyone initially thought “We’ll have a FULL, WELL-DEFENDED party at MAXIMUM STRENGTH and then we’ll TAKE THE MOST CONVENIENT ROUTE to our goal.” And yet BECAUSE of those setbacks:

  • The infiltration team finds the sneakiest road behind enemy lines.
  • The three battle characters go after the kidnapped guys…and then find (and save) a nation whose military ended up being VITAL to the war.
  • The kidnapped guys accidentally run into a large nature faction…and promptly rouse them to war.

So you see, setbacks have long been a vital component of any story. By taking the road less traveled, characters are given more challenges andĀ  more room to grow, while audiences get to discover more of the world and more of the characters. And by spreading out into new territory, you can capture the sense that they EXPLORED a new area to FIND a solution. Even AUDIENCES are subconsciously aware that in any story, things that seem to be going well simply cannot last.

…So why do people keep COMPLAINING when they show up?

How To Cause Accidents On Purpose

Well, just a quick reminder: Those channels you see pointing out plot holes are usually equally aware that setbacks are necessary, and are doing it in fun. And that would be the mindset of most people: It’s just a way to poke fun using an anticlimax that would solve everything immediately.

That being said, there are also a fair number of nerds who take these things VERY seriously, and that’s because of one simple reason: In their eyes, the mistakes are seen as TOO stupid to forgive.

It varies from person to person, but at some point, the more unlikely a setback becomes, the more it depends on characters being STUPID in some critical way, the harder it is for a member of the audience to simply “accept” it. Their suspension of disbelief is broken, most often when the solution is both extremely OBVIOUS and extremely EASY.

THAT is when an acceptable setback becomes a plot hole. It is when a problem occurs for VERY POOR reasons, often with no foreshadowing. Or worse, the problem IS foreshadowed and obviously expected, and it STILL surprises them anyway. Either it comes from out of NOWHERE, or you can SEE it coming and it STILL HITS YOU. And in both cases, the setback will feel less like something to shake things up for more excitement, and more like an obviously forced attempt to prolong the story.

And to be sure, we all make mistakes. We all accept that some level of ignorance is expected in a plot. But even then, it STILL needs to be written well. And it will seem even WORSE if it’s still happening when everyone should know BETTER…like, for instance, a naive character STILL falling for a deceptive character’s lies even after doing so for half the story.

So knowing there’s a limit to setbacks, how can we work around that? How can we avoid pitfalls as we try and make our stories more interesting?

Well, first off, I’d like to stress that you can’t control how people will react. Some people are just naturally miserable curmudgeons with no ability to enjoy anything except their own opinions. Like how Cracked keeps putting on pretentious airs about how “Guardians of the Galaxy is predictable” only to seem out-of-touch and absolutely blind to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely awesome.

That being said, there ARE some tips I can give about how to create setbacks:

  1. Firstly, your setback should serve a PURPOSE and stay focused on the plot. As I mentioned before, whether that purpose shows up immediately or later, setbacks are there to guide characters to where and who they’re supposed to go to next. So if they’re going on a detour against their will, have them meet the next vital member of the cast, a place that has what they need, or even both. Sure, it can seem like a coincidence that’s too good to be true, but giving audiences the sense that it achieved SOMETHING is usually a fair trade in return for them going along with your preposterous scenarios. A setback that serves no purpose is just a waste of space. And a setback which distracts from the plot defeats the entire purpose of writing a story, because A New Hope would have been waaaay duller if we had to watch 30 minutes of Luke trying to earn money to hire a ship. If you’re going to make a character do something stupid, like having Katara steal a waterbending scroll, then have it move the episode or chapter instead of making it a pointless distraction that goes nowhere.
  2. Secondly, it should ultimately move the plot FORWARD or in NEW directions. Granted, setBACKs keep characters from goals. By their very definition, they would move them BACK, or at least SIDEWAYS from the goal, whether they need to replace stolen money or find their way back home. But even then, whatever they do or whatever they discover, the plot is STILL moving forward: A character out of cash will uncover the next parts of the plot while trying to make some money, while a character taking a major detour will encounter valuable allies or learn vital information. Whatever it is, there should be a feeling that they are STILL moving forward or even making gains. On the other hand, what you should AVOID is making the setback TOO disastrous with no way to work past it. If a setback is too drastic, its results too mundane, that’s not interesting at all. An audience can still follow a sideways detour because the character is going somewhere NEW; on the other hand, if your setback only takes them BACKWARDS with no gains, like if you plot “The bridge is destroyed, so you need to make the 3-day journey back home to take a different path”, then that’s just not interesting at all. It’s like playing a board game and landing on a square which says “Go back to the starting square”: Fun for your opponents, tedious for you.
  3. Finally, it should still be FUN to read. Whatever your genre or style or situation, that is the one thing writers should never forget: Your readers should WANT to read what’s next. Don’t get so caught up in the details and functions that you forget that it is STILL part of the story and still needs your attention. And yes, some stories are dramas, and the setbacks are of the very dull sort even if they meet the conditions of moving the plot forward and serving a purpose. But even then, it STILL needs to be written in the ways which make for COMPELLING drama. Whether it’s a sudden betrayal in a political thriller, or a machine going haywire in science fiction, these setbacks still need to have all the descriptive goodness and action you’ve been using for your story’s most important parts. Otherwise, you’re just saying what happened without any details, making it about as interesting as a street sign without any landmarks.

And that’s the crash course on setbacks, and planning mistakes on purpose in stories. And that PURPOSE is how you can sum up what it is and how it should be: Your setbacks, like every other piece of foreshadowing or thematic prose in your story, should have a REASON. Like the rest of your plot, even as it goes through highs and lows, you still need to move forward. And through it all, it needs to be written WELL.

Some people will still insist that ANY mistake is unacceptable. That characters should always act according to strict logic and precision, always solving problems, never getting into them.

To that, I would pose a question: Which is the better story? How you walked around a pit? Or how you climbed out of it?

The former is the safe way to do it. The sensible way to do it.

But life and stories are not sensible. Life is a series of highs and lows, and people falling into pits by accident, by habit, or by choice.

And it is also about having the strength to climb out of these pits…or meet someone who can help us out of it.

Author: The Write Stuff Was Taken

Well, I think he's important to the site...can't imagine how, though...

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