Questions, Hooks, and Goals

Sounds like a game played by philosopher-shepherds, doesn’t it? Just to me? Fair enough.

Today we’re going to talk about story questions and protagonist goals! Why today, you ask? Why, because I’m starting a new short story as I’m reading Conspiracy and before I read Shaken, and I need to clarify the story question before I get started.

A story question, according to Jim, goes like this:


But why do this?

…By getting your story broken down into its basic elements, you’ll help yourself focus on the most important portion of the novel and avoid dumping lots of extra words into it. Always write a story as lean as you possibly can (and still be happy with it). Every scene and every sequel should be planned to move your story forward–and you should have the purpose of the scene in mind as you write it.

Yes, indeed. I did this for Shaken, and that book is one lean, muscular sucker. Conspiracy… well… I didn’t do this, and that flabby monster of a book meanders all over the place. Not good.

So let’s look at this in action. I’m writing a story about two oldish ladies running for mayor in a hippy town like the one I call home. One of them discovers the other is using magic to swing the election her way, and our protagonist must decide if she wants to sink to the other’s level to win the election. Can I break it down into a lean, mean question, though?

When she discovers her opponent is using magic to win voters and hurt the competition, Marion must become a witch so she can counter her opponent’s magical measures. But will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?

Well, aside from some unclear pronouns, that worked pretty well, didn’t it?

Here’s the trouble, though: that’s a pretty passive way of looking at it. Marion, my protagonist, is reacting to her opponent, and that’s it.

Kristen Lamb advocates boiling a book down to one sentence to show what it’s about. Doing that will show you (a) whether or not you know what your book is really about and (b) whether or not you’re writing about a real conflict.

Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.

Marion has a clear goal: learn magic so she can win the election before her opponent turns the town’s residents into frogs. There’s a real conflict: her opponent is using magic to win over the public and to take the competition out of the running. But “Will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?” is weak. That’s not saying much about the real meat of the story.

How about this: But will Marion succeed before she and her opponent tear the town apart with their spells?

That’s definitely better. You can still tell that I haven’t finished plotting out the story. (I know, I know, shame on me for writing about it before I’ve even hammered out the details.) Still, that’s pretty interesting, with clear conflicts and clear goals.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into my creative process, but now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you distill your work this way? Is there any hope for my story question?

Conflict: Don’t Avoid It

Welcome to DecemBlog, Day 1!

Okay, that name isn’t great either. We’re working on the name.

Last time I told you that for my new novel (which is about 3000 words away from completion!) I’ve been using Jim Butcher’s methodology as outlined on his LiveJournal. Today we’re going to talk about how he—and I, at least for the moment—start building a novel, from the bottom up.

I’m not going to talk about his Introduction or Story Craft. Maybe I’ll get to those later, but for now, let’s jump right into Conflict, because this is a big one.

Jim says:

Conflict is the single most important facet of writing fiction. Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. In a previous article I said that stories are about following a character in pursuit of a goal, and who is opposed by someone with an opposite or conflicting goal. That’s the overall shape of a story.

But that format of Goal-Conflict is also the basic model for any scene. ALL of your characters need to have a goal. If they don’t have a goal, then what the hell are they doing wandering aimlessly around on stage?

Every story needs a goal and a conflict. Obviously. Say you want to write a story about me, and how I want some frozen waffles. If you just write a sequence of events in which I go to Marsh, find my frozen waffles, buy them, and go home, that’s not a story. Well, it is a story, but it’s a really boring one, and if you don’t see that, I probably can’t help you.

But if I head out to get my waffles, encounter a band of ninjas, find out the lead ninja is actually my dad, and then have to accept my ninja heritage and battle a band of pirates to eventually get our family waffles, that is a story. A really weird one, but it’s a story. It has a goal and a conflict.

Here’s the kicker, though: you need conflict in every single scene. Otherwise, why will someone keep turning the pages?

This is where my first novel has issues. For the first big action-packed scene, Eva, my main character, and her partner Joe are stealing some jewels from the richest guy in the country. That’s not an easy job. I didn’t make it easy for them, but there was no real conflict the way I wrote it. Their plan worked. They got in, got the jewels, and got out. Yay.

But the reader isn’t going to say, “Yay,” because the scene isn’t satisfying. There’s no holding of breath, no wondering if they could really do it. My fiance read it and said, “Well, that was easy.”

I undervalued conflict in each individual scene. I have other scenes I could give as examples: conversations that are agreeable and friendly and everyone learns what they need to know; romantic scenes that are just about as exciting and sexually tense as the original story about me getting waffles from Marsh, sans pirates. (Don’t pirates always add at least some sexual tension?)

I focused on the overarching conflict, and every scene was a step toward reaching the characters’ final goals, but I didn’t impede those goals often enough to make the story into a page-turner.

So when I started out on Shaken, I actually sat down and listed Mitzy’s goals. I also listed her partner’s goals. And her relationship character’s goals. And the serial killer’s goals. And… you get the idea. After I did that, I listed the conflicts to those goals.

And then I did it for each scene, which I’ll talk about tomorrow when I look at Scenes.

Take away for today: even if you start out with a character and not a plot idea, like I did, you need to think about conflict. Give your fabulous main character a goal, and don’t let her get to it.

And “hijinks happen” does not count as a conflict.