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By speculative, I mean mostly science fiction, fantasy or intrigue.

For example Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which is a 900-page book, goes well past the 200-page mark before the central conflict begins to take form. Works such as these have universes that need to be explained to the reader before the story proper can begin, but does this sort of thing cause the reader to lose interest?

More specifically, in my case, if the villain is still hidden 100 pages into a 300-page book, will it bore the reader? Note that there may be many small incidents and disasters, and other characters may be searching for answers, but the overarching conflict is toward the middle of the book.

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To a large extent, a plot-centric book should make its central conflict clear as early as possible. If the reader needs to get past hundreds of pages of exposition to find out what the book is "about," that's definitely a structural flaw in the book.

It might not be an insurmountable flaw (if the lead-up is sufficiently well-done); it might also be a flaw that's extremely difficult to correct (e.g. because your speculative element demands a lot of exposition). Nonetheless, it is a flaw, and worth correcting if you can. The extreme form of this is books that "get really good at chapter 12" - in other words, even the author doesn't consider the first 11 books interesting or gripping on their own, so nobody's going to get up to the "good part."

If the book is plot-centric, then the central conflict defines the book. Until you make it clear, the reader doesn't really know why he's reading - he's moving forward primarily on trust, that things will be interesting later. What's worse is, the reader is looking for the plot - he's trying to figure out what's important, where things are heading. Until you tell him, he can get frustrated, or he might start hanging on to various tangents and thinking they're central to the plot. The longer the central plot is absent, the less clear the structure becomes - because you're spending more and more focus on things that won't have the narrative arc, the climax, the payoff, that the plot will.


Take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as a negative example. That book starts out with (IIRC) over a hundred pages on journalist Blomkvist's battle with Wennerström, the corrupt industrialist. Only then is Blomkvist called into the Vanger family murder mystery that serves as the center of the book. And once that's solved, we go back to Wennerström, to tie up that plot line. That's awful structure - these two subplots have no connection to each other. It feels like somebody spliced book A into the middle of book B.

This structure makes it tough to tell which we should consider the "main" conflict. Is this a book about a journalist fighting against corruption? Not really, because half the book is spent on an unrelated murder mystery. Well, then, is this the story of an investigation into the past of a twisted, influential family? Kind of, but if that's the case, how come the payoff and climax of the book are all about the completely-unrelated Wennerström? If the book starts and ends with the Wennerström conflict, then that seems to be the defining arc, doesn't it?


So let's talk about how to bring the conflict forward. The trick is to find the core of the conflict, and set that on the table as soon as humanly possible. Everything else - the details, the implications, the consequences - can be layered on above that. Because once the core is clear, the reader will understand why these details are important and how they tie in - vice versa, that isn't the case. Once the core is clear, the reader knows what to focus on, he knows why he's reading, and he can follow along with you more easily, knowing how to tie in new information to the core of your story.

The difficulty is that often, the conflict needs a lot of explanation. So the trick here is to begin from an immediate conflict, something clear and compelling enough to require little upfront exposition, which nonetheless introduces and represents the central conflict. For example:

  • Indiana Jones takes a while to reach the Lost Arc, but we see him risking his neck for archealogical treasures right off the bat - and facing off against the same villian he'll be facing later.
  • Ender starts out certain he's not going to Battle School, but Ender's Game starts right off with Ender being attacked for being "better" and different, and launches right into both Battle School's untrustworthy interest in him, and into the compelling dynamics between Ender and his siblings. (Notice how little it's necessary to explain about Battle School, about the Buggers, about the whole speculative mileau - all the attention is on the immediate conflicts Ender has to deal with. Of course, these conflicts are carefully chosen to start exposing the setting.)
  • Dr. House is absurd, outrageous and cruel right from the beginning of each episode, deliberately creating petty conflicts out of thin air. Part of what this does is start off episodes with immediate conflict, whichs show off the dynamics in the hospital long before the episode has reached any pivotal climax (where such conflict would be natural and necessary). So the tiny conflicts get us ready for the big ones.

So a good way to handle this is as follows:

  • Figure out what your central conflict is. It might be a person, it might be a situation, it might be a theme. Know which and what.
  • Find a splinter conflict, an offshoot of that main conflict, that can affect your cast right at the beginning. This offshoot should:
    1. Be something you can introduce right from the start of the book.
    2. Be extremely easy to understand, at least partially, and to find compelling.
    3. Be the same "sort" of conflict the central conflict is, or tied tightly to it. When the reader reaches your "main conflict," they should be able to instinctively realize that the "main conflict" and the "initial conflict" are the same thing (or that one is part of the other).
  • Good "splinter conflicts" include repercussions of the main conflict, or early "small versions" of the main conflict.

Take The Hunger Games as an example. The central conflict there is the oppression of the Districts by the Capitol. But civil war and cultural revolution are way too much to leap off from right at the start. So the author found a compelling, highly representative conflict - a reality-like survival contest, which is meant (on every level) to exemplify and highlight the Districts' humiliation and powerlessness. The Hunger Games serve as a micro-cosmos, which explains the setting in its entirety, in an exaggerated and intense manner. And even that can be broken down further - in the first book, we know far less about the Games then Katniss does; we only understand the whole procedure as she goes through the whole thing. Because the "big" conflict of the Games is introduced with several immediate conflicts: the difficulty of survival in District 12; the horrific lottery for the Games; the danger to Katniss's family once she leaves. Continue along the book, and each new scene is a new conflict along the same theme. Impress the callous judges. Overcome the despairing drunkenness of the mentor. Survive the initial bloody skirmish. Escape the cruel "professional" contestants. And so on, and so on.


I'll go back to where I started: your book should never be without clear conflict or direction, if at all possible. If you find that it is - consider whether that part could be skipped, condensed, or interwoven more tightly with the plot so that it creates interest and anticipation. You'll never get it all (and you don't want to) - but you'll tighten up your work, and give your reader clear direction and incentive.

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Thank you for this remarkably thorough answer. In the case of what I'm writing, the central players are introduced in the very first scene and the first splinter conflict begins around page 20. But now I see that it then goes into a four-chapter tangent of character study and info-dumps. My original intention was that the origins of the central conflict and the true natures of the antagonists are to be shrouded in mystery. But I'm now trying to balance between being mysterious and being obscure. But I think that's a topic for a separate question! –  HNL Feb 5 '12 at 11:59
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@HNL, Also note "How do you define (conflict)?". I'd recommend 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' as a well done example of your situation (the notorious, unknown villain). Delete the scenes in the dark lord's POV and take out the psychic link between him and Harry. Then you have an effective, hidden villain that's still moving the plot and indeed causing more panic than if he were to be seen. Even from the view of non-main characters (like Neville), knowing that the villain exists and experiencing what's believed to be his actions is enough to drive the plot. –  Mussri Jul 4 '12 at 10:56
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In my opinion, if you are feeling that a reader might get bored, then the readers might actually get bored. Consider the following:

  1. Start the novel with the central conflict. Give a teaser, then go back to the set-up and lead it up to there.

  2. You have mentioned that there may be subplots before the main conflict. That's a good thing. If you can make the characters and the issues they are facing interesting enough, it should not bore the readers. Only that, the central conflict should originate somewhat organically from your set-up. The reader should not feel that you just constructed empty worlds and characters in order to introduce your central conflict.

  3. Link all your issues/characters/subplots to the central conflict. It might give a nice thematic roundness to your novel. E.g., while introducing any character you can maybe give the reader an inkling of where it will stand in relation to the central conflict when it manifests.

(Point 2 and 3 might be the same).

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I'm actually aiming for point 3. Everything's going to come together toward the later chapters. The reason I asked the question is not because I felt the readers might get bored (I didn't even get bored reading Anathem), but because one of my 'beta' readers suggested that it might come across that way. –  HNL Feb 5 '12 at 8:45
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NOOOOOOOOOO please don't use the "Introduce conflict in medias res/Twelve hours earlier...." teaser structure unless you have no other choice. It has been Done. To. Death. in the last two years in every medium. It's a perfectly valid choice, and it may work for you book, but I am so bloody exhausted with it as an audience member. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 5 '12 at 15:17
    
That is actually true. Point 1 is terribly cliched. But writing with a fresh style and voice can enable it to be managed more subtly, instead of the filmish style of : Scene1: Car crash! Scene2: Twelve hours earlier. Man gets into car and drives off... –  M.A Feb 6 '12 at 18:07
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