The key to a great conflict is that neither the protagonist nor the antagonist can resign from the action. They must keep fighting each other to the bitter end because they need their goals and because they cannot escape each other’s actions. One way to analyze the strength of your story conflict is with a conflict box.
A conflict box is a table with six cells, one cell each for goal, action, and conflict for both the protagonist and the antagonist.
Filling out a conflict box makes you cut through all the detail in your story to get to the core conflict. If you can’t fill in these boxes, you don’t know your conflict. But filling in the boxes isn’t enough, you also need to check to see if you have a conflict lock; that is, that your conflict is one that neither the protagonist or the antagonist can resign from.
To do that, after you’ve filled in the boxes, switch the cells in Conflict column around. If the actions in the action box now match the actions that are creating the conflict in conflict box, then the actions your protagonist is taking to get her goal will be the actions that are causing the antagonist’s conflict, and vice versa.
That means that everything the protagonist is doing to get her goal is escalating the antagonist’s conflict, and everything the antagonist is doing to get his goal is escalating the protagonist’s conflict. As long as your character motivations are so strong that neither character can quit the struggle, and each character’s actions to achieve that goal are directly causing the other character’s conflict, your story has a crucible, a perfect storm of conflict that neither character can escape from.
An inescapable conflict is your story’s conflict lock.
Let’s go back to Jane and Sam duking it out over Grandpa’s Farm. Their conflict box looks like this:
Jane’s actions are causing Sam’s problem, and Sam’s actions are causing Jane’s problem so they have conflict lock.
The conflict box is a fast way to discover if your conflict is focused and locked.
One quick fix for your conflict if it’s wonky: rewrite the action cells so they match the conflict cells in the opposite character’s box. Then look to see how you can rewrite your scenes so that those characters do those actions in your story.
And thank you, Michael Hauge, for showing me this so long ago.