Tuesday, September 25, 2012

11 Building Deep Conflict into Novel Structure

"You cherry-pick events that are relevant to the story question and construct a gauntlet of challenge (read: the plot) that will force the protagonist to put his money where his mouth is. Think baptism by ever-escalating fire."

Lisa Cron

"Baptism by ever-escalating fire"--I love that. It says a lot about what the plot of a story should be, but it also speaks to the core of what conflict we, as writers, have to bring to the forefront in our novels. Ultimately, our books aren't about what hoops the plot forces the character to jump through. It's about how those hoops effect the protagonist and force her to change. Without that change, we have no story. Without the "force" component, we have a boring story.

Let's consider that more closely. If I am working on a novel, and my plot in essence consists of someone saying to the mc, "here, do this," and the character says, "sure, no problem," then runs through a bunch of obstacles, maybe even dangerous obstacles, I as then I, the author, am the one with a serious problem. I haven't given my mc a strong enough reason to push back against the events unfolding. And adding conflict once the novel is written isn't as easy as it sounds, because what ultimately makes for the kind of book that I, personally, want to read, is deep conflict. That's what makes me care about a book and keeps me turning pages late into the night.

A while back, I did a post about something I called Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Tension (GMCT) building from Deb Dixon's brilliant book about Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Tension: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. (At the time, I had no idea that I would be lucky enough to have Deb Dixon eventually publish a story of mine or even that she had started a publishing company, I just thought she offered brilliant advice.)

Anyway, the idea behind Goal, Motivation and Conflict is that you have to build opposition into your story from the ground up by looking at what your characters want and, most importantly, why they want it.

When I first started writing, I equated conflict with danger. It's not that simple. Throwing more explosions into the book isn't going to make anyone keep reading. Deb Dixon explains GMCT with a simple formula.

Character X wants Goal because Motivation but Conflict.

That's the overall framework of story. But of course each time goals change as the story progresses--motivation shifts in the wake of new complications, and so really, story evolves in a recursive chain.

Character X wants Goal because Motivation but Conflict so
New Micro-goal because New Micro-motivation but New Conflict so...

Note, though, that the original Goal, Motivation, and Conflict didn't change. They are the core of the story. And the success of the story will ultimately rest on how strong, original, and fascinating the initial goal, motivation, and conflict are.

Want even deeper conflict? Layer it in.

What the protagonist wants on the surface is not even close to the only layer of the story.

I developed a conflict evaluation tool for my own use by adding an extra column to the GMC table that Deb Dixon created. I call the last column Tension and use it to test where the opposition and conflict lies within the story.

To keep this post at a manageable length, I'm only going to include the GMCT table for the antagonist, but naturally you would do the protag's GMCT first. Why do both? Because, as writers, we have to understand the conflict from both sides, optimize the conflict within the character, and then pit the  opposing forces against each other with maximum impact and momentum.

GOAL To keep Cinderella from being reintroduced to the society she should be part of. To prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.

This opposes what Cinderella wants both internally and externally.
  • She loves her daughters and wants them to prosper.
  • Having once mistreated Cinderella she can't afford to have anyone. know what she has done.
  • Having stolen Cinderella's birthright, she needs to keep Cinderella powerless; a husband would have the power to force her to turn over Cinderella's share of the father's estate.

She and her daughters are blowing through money so fast she has to help them hook husbands quickly and she wants one of them to land the prince.

There is a ticking clock on her goal, and there are consequences for her success that put constraints on how she will go about achieving the goal. At the same time, there are consequences for failure. This makes it clear she has to walk a knife edge all the way.

  • She knows what she is doing to Cinderella is wrong, but she loves her daughters so much she can't deny them anything.
  • The more she knows what she is doing is wrong, the angrier she is at Cinderella.
  • She doesn't want to lose her daughters and knows she will if they get married.

The invitation to the ball was phrased in such a way that she would break the law by prohibiting Cinderella from attending.

    Attaining her goal will result in her losing what she loves. At the same time, the more overtly she acts against Cinderella, the more guilty she feels and the angrier she becomes, which she justifies so that she can act against Cinderella even more overtly and egregiously. Her behavior in turn empowers her daughters to also act against Cinderella.


    Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story, provides a great list of layers that we can, and should, examine for sources of conflict in each of our main characters. She calls these the "versus" and writes that conflict in a story arises in between them.  That's a great way of looking at it.

    Conflict arises from:

    • The character's inner goal versus her external goal.
    • Goal versus an opposing character's goal.

    That's where, as writers, we often stop. But Lisa Cron points out that we need to go further.

    • The character's driving wound, the debilitating fear or thing she must learn to overcome, versus her motivation.
    • The character's desire versus some constraining or mitigating factor that would limit her drive toward fullfilling that desire: mercy, sense of justice, etc.
    • The character's goal versus the expectation of her family, society, etc.
    • The character's desire versus her existing circumstances.

    Are you seeing a pattern here? The character has to have a GOAL. She has to WANT that goal for a reason. And she needs reasons why achieving that goal is really, really HARD. The more reasons I, as the author, can create for why she needs to achieve that goal, the more I can make the stakes of failure clear, and the more I can make the reader sympathize with what she wants, the better it will be for the story.

    To make that work, I need to know my characters. All my characters. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and how what they want is opposed to what everyone else in the story wants.

    Making The Conflict Matter

    The conflict has to escalate as the story progresses, which means that I can't start with the greatest conflict in the book. Why? Because the reader doesn't care about the character yet, therefore she has no stake in the outcome of that conflict. To make the reader care about conflict, I have to understand the motivation behind the conflict and let readers see or be able to visualize the stakes inherent in that conflict. Believe me, I've succumbed to the temptation to start a story in mid-action. And I made the mistake of thinking that more kapow I put into that action, the better off I would be. Not so fast. There's a reason  for the advice that says to start the story on the "day that is different" instead of "the minute that is different." The day gives us the before so that readers can recognize the after. Without the contrast, readers wouldn't "get" the point of the story or recognize the character's transformation. It took me many drafts fiddling with the manuscript to learn that lesson.

    Making the Conflict Appropriate to the Genre and the Story

    Using the right level of intensity in the action is another reason i can't just throw more danger into the mix and think it is conflict. If I am writing a quiet romance, I'm not going to write-in a long series of gun-blazing chases and explosions. Why? Because from the first sentence of my novel, I have a covenant with my reader. I have to deliver what I promise, I just deliver it in a surprising way.

    Chekov's famous rule about not putting a gun on the wall in Act One unless you plan to use it in Act Three works in reverse, too. As writers, we can't put a gun in the story in Act Three unless we've established a foundation for it in the events that lead up to Act Three.

    The Upside of Deep Conflict with GMCT

    Okay, there are a lot of upsides, actually. But the main one is that if I know nothing else about my story than the GMCTs for all the characters, I'm not going to stray too far off the point of the story. To keep a nice, tight focus, all I have to do is keep testing events, actions, and reactions I want to put into the story against the mc's goal. I can ask myself one question:

    How will this event, action, or reaction make it easier or harder for the character to achieve her goal?

    If the event doesn't affect the goal, then either the event doesn't belong in this story, or I haven't figured out a connection my subconscious is trying to make for me about how this subplot weaves back to the main story. Either way, I need to spend some time making connections or cutting. Words are dispensible. The reader's attention isn't.

    How do you build deep conflict into your story? Have you found a different tool that works for you?

    Happy writing,



    1. Great post! Just got my copy of Wired for Story and am in the process of reading it.

      1. I'm so glad! Please let me know how you like it. I seriously think it is one of the very best craft books I have ever read.


    2. Perfect timing! I just took notes on all this. Today is Plotting Day for my WIP. I'm 2 chapters in so far, and need to clarify things before progressing. :) Thanks!

      1. HAH! You must work the same way I do. I have to write two or three chapters before I can really dig into my plotting, otherwise, I know nothing about the characters. Of course, that makes it hard to go back and ditch the opening later :) Happy plotting, Carol!


      2. Yes! That's exactly how I do it--immerse myself into the story a bit to see who everyone is. :) LOL, and yep, harder to ditch it later.

    3. Awesome post again Martina. You show us yet another time what we need to do to make our stories better. I loved the chart with the evil step-mother. It makes me really see what you mean. Wish I could articulate this all even half as well as you.

      1. You are always much too kind, Natalie! Thanks so much! :) The books I referenced provide really clear explanations. I highly recommend them.

    4. Thank you. I struggle with this so much and your post corresponds perfectly to some feedback I just received on one of my manuscripts.

      1. Yay! So glad I could help a little. Hope the revision goes beautifully for you!


    5. This post is going directly into my "save" folder, so I can reference when I'm feeling stuck. Love the chart! Thanks for sharing.

      1. Thanks for stopping by, Beth! I hope it turns out to be helpful!



    Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)