1. One conflict/resolution leads to another.
In Harry Potter, particularly books 1 & 2, the overarching conflict is unraveling a mystery, (What is hidden in the castle? Who opened the Chamber?). Within this larger conflict, the characters engage and complete numerous smaller steps, some planned, while others are unexpected. As they progress, each resolution leads to the next step in the plot.
For example, in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone:
A. Harry learns that Hagrid takes a significant but small parcel from Gringotts.
B. Harry learns that a recently emptied vault at Gringotts was broken into.
C. All students learn that one section of the Hogwarts Castle is off limits.
D. Harry and friends stumble upon a large creature in the castle, guarding something.
E. A monster attacks the castle. In the chaos, Harry sees one professor head towards the off-limits section.
F. Harry almost suffers a tragic accident. In its wake Harry and friends learn the name of someone connected with the secret being guarded.
G. Harry and friends learn what the secret is.
H. Harry overhears one professor threatening another in regards to the secret.
I. Hagrid obtains an illegal item.
J. Harry encounters a new monster, and realizes who is trying to get the secret, and the full significance of said secret, in their possession.
K. Harry asks Hagrid about the illegal item, and realizes it was bait to get Hagrid talking, and now the villain knows how to get past the guardian.
L. Harry and friends race to stop the villain from navigating all the challenges.
Each step either leads to the next step, complicates the task, or adds to the urgency, forcing characters to re-engage the problem.
In the case of Lord of the Rings, specifically Fellowship of the Ring, the cast try to cross over a mountain, known for being cantankerous. They fail, and with that path closed to them, they are forced to reevaluate and decide on a new course, eventually choosing the underground path through Moria.
2. Multiple characters invested in the same overarching conflict.
Most stories have a primary, overarching conflict. In many cases it’s a conflict with such broad consequences that every character in the diegetic world will be affected by the outcome.
Examples include the assorted wars in the Ice & Fire series, the economic and political intrigue of Dune, the war between Sauron and the free peoples of Middle Earth, and the conflict between Voldemort and Dumbledore/Harry Potter.
These are all conflicts over a way of life, what rights and laws will govern the world? Will characters be allowed to continue living the way they have? Another common universal conflict is treasure or rewards. Who among the various characters will succeed, and grow beyond their current status quo? Ready Player One would be one example, where every character is racing to solve the puzzles and earn the prize.
3. Multiple characters invested in the same small-scale conflict(s).
In Harry Potter, even as Harry and his friends struggle with the issue of Voldemort, they also strive to do well in school; attending classes, competing in sporting events, and passing their exams. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the only students actively engaged in the main conflict, but every student has a vested interest in whether Harry succeeds as a Quidditch Seeker, and whether students are awarded or deducted points in the competition for the House Cup.
These casual conflicts create opportunities to explore characters and deepen relationships, but the casual nature of these conflicts keeps them from competing with the main conflict, and makes it easy to set them aside when the story needs to.
4. Mutually exclusive objectives or goals.
To clarify, this is distinct from competing for the same goal. In Dune, both Atreides and Harkonnen want to rule Dune. In A Song of Ice & Fire, many want to rule the 7 Kingdoms. This is a situation where two characters have distinct goals, but both cannot be achieved.
For example, in Dune, the Atreides and the Harkonnen are fighting. The Bene Gesserit don’t care about that conflict, but they do care about Paul Atreides. They want him to survive, while the Harkonnen want all Atreides dead, including Paul.
Similarly, many among the common people in Ice & Fire don’t care who rules the land. They are wary of all nobles and soldiers and simply want to “stay out of it”. However, to win the war and the throne, each noble faction needs both provisions and money, which often leads to robbing and killing the common people.
This technique of creating more than two factions in a conflict often undermines the classic “good vs evil” mentality. It highlights the moral ambiguity of the conflict, and the moral relativity of each faction in the conflict.
5. Characters are peripherally involved in a conflict, even if they are not invested.
When Ron and Harry, or Ron and Hermione, come into conflict, the third member of the group is affected and invested in the outcome, but they themselves have no role in the conflict, except as an observer.
By itself this technique is not a strong way of uniting a story, but its absence can feel odd. Throughout life there are people which “we” don’t personally know or have a vested interest in, but because of a shared friend, family member, or other type of relationship, we are aware of the person, and we do have a casual relationship with them ourselves.
6. Multiple plots advancing simultaneously.
It’s rare for multiple conflicts to advance simultaneously while existing independently. Even A Song of Ice & Fire establishes some relevance across its various conflicts. Synners would be the best example I’ve encountered.
Synners follows multiple characters as they each pursue their own goals, navigating around each other when their paths do cross. Gina spends much of the story looking for Mark, a character that struggles with reality. That is her goal. She doesn’t care about the company that’s hired Mark, or any of the other characters involved in the larger conflict of “the project”.
Gabe repeatedly crosses paths with both Mark and Gina, but doesn’t actively engage them. He’s too focused on his own marital difficulties. To Gabe, Gina and Mark are like a pair of wild kids, living a life free of responsibility, a life he cannot share, so he watches, like an audience in front of a stage.
Throughout the story, Gabe gets in Gina’s way, and irritates her with his calm demeanor, while Gina’s antics create numerous momentary problems for Gabe, but he consistently dismisses them so that he can focus on his own problems.
It isn’t until midway through the story that Gabe and Gina choose to engage each other, and gradually work together to resolve each other’s problems. And that’s a very important point.
Any time a story presents 2 seemingly unrelated narrative threads, there is an unspoken promise that eventually they will become relevant. It’s a very weak connection, since it’s essentially asking the audience to take it on faith, but it can work, if the author fulfills the promise in a timely fashion. The longer audiences are forced to wait, the more likely they are to grow frustrated and say “to heck with it”.
How Setting(s) Can Unite a Story 110-03