It’s a simple, but powerful equation. It’s a powerful equation because of its simplicity.
Let’s say you want to tell a story about a wonderful (or terrible) world in which magic is real. This is the common concept that unites most fantasy fiction. But it’s not a story. The word story implies the equation: Character + Conflict = Plot.
Without that, you’ve got nothing to tell. If you don’t have at least one main character who is in conflict with something or someone else, then you don’t have a plot and you don’t have a story.
If all you have is a magical world, then all you have is a milieu. It may be a wonderful, interesting milieu, but it’s not a story. Think of The Lord of the Rings without the one ring. It’s a fascinating world, but unless there’s that conflict, there’s nothing to drag the hobbits out of their safe haven into that fascinatingly dangerous world.
If all you have is a character, then all you have is a vignette. You may depict a fascinating character, but unless you explore whatever conflict that character is facing, it’s not a story. Think of Sherlock Holmes without a case to solve. He’s a fascinating character, but without the cases to pull him out of his study, we’d never learn how fascinating he could truly be.
I suspect there is some point in every newbie writer’s life where they have to learn this lesson. They write a “story,” create either a fascinating world or a fascinating character, but they fail to provide the conflict necessary to drive the plot, and thus they fail to draw us into whatever fascinated them.
But, then we write, we learn, and we outgrow our newbie tendencies. Does that mean we’ve mastered this equation? Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t. Having a character with a conflict, and thus having a plot, isn’t enough to rise to the level of master or even journeyman. We need a character we care about—whether we want him to win or lose, we have to want it badly enough to keep reading. We need a conflict that motivates us—it’s got to challenge our character and it’s got to interest our readers. We need a plot that makes sense, but still surprises us—if the outcome is guaranteed (good triumphs over evil, the hero gets the girl, ect.), then the ride has to surprise us without making us scratch our heads.
I love reading mysteries. I don’t have much interest in writing them, though I’ve considered it, but I love reading them. If the writer is any good at all, then the pieces are always there. The reader might not note their significance until the unveiling, but they’re never left wondering (after the last page) how the pieces fit together. In a mystery, the balance between those pieces and the surprise are obvious. But this need for the pieces, for things to fit together, for the clues to be present is true for all genres and all stories. If you drop the solution out of nowhere, you’ve cheated the reader.
On the surface, this seems to be all about plot, but it’s not. Character + Conflict = Plot. Your plot needs to fit the pieces represented by your characters. Your plot needs to fit the pieces represented by the conflict that motivates your characters to act. The setting and setup needs to bring those pieces together in a way that makes sense. In other words, it all goes together.
This isn’t easy stuff. If it was, anyone could do it. As it is, it takes work, skill, and the building thereof to really pull it off. As you gain these qualities, the equation doesn’t really get more complex, but it does get deeper, the significance becomes more meaningful. We understand it on a level our brains can’t even fully process—call it intuition, heart, muse, or whatnot, but there’s more than just thought to this! What we learned as newbies got us this far, but it takes the skill of the craftsman to really delve deeply enough to master the art.