This article, written by Colleen Thompson, is from the October 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
As wonderful as it would be, as writers, to have every word leap flawlessly from our fingertips onto the page, we sometimes get the sense or we receive feedback indicating that a scene we've written isn't working. When the reason for the issue—or a solution—isn't immediately apparent, I've found it helpful to go back to the building blocks, using lessons learned from author Debra Dixon's how-to classic, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (Gryphon Books for Writers, 1996) to jumpstart the troubleshooting process.
Clarity of goals
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” —Kurt Vonnegut
The character's goal, his/her need or desire, is the true backbone of the story. If a scene feels aimless, ask yourself if you've clearly communicated what the protagonist hopes to achieve. An external desire, such as victory in some contest, the acquisition of a skill, or escape from danger is something tangible, whereas an internal desire, such as independence, acclaim, or fear, is emotional and often hidden, sometimes even from the character him/herself.
Though the character's purpose, as well as the scene's, may not initially be apparent, the author needs to know the purpose, at least when going back to revise the scene, sharpen it, and give it clarity and focus. Other goal-related weaknesses may occur when other characters in the scene have no apparent needs or desires, leaving them to float as aimlessly as dust motes.
Though not every character's goal must be known to the reader, the author should consider these goals carefully. Think about how each character’s goal might serve the scene or the story as a whole if an antagonist or any other character were acting at cross-purposes or in opposition to the protagonist because of a conflicting goal.
Takeaway troubleshooting questions:
- Is it clear what the protagonist of this scene wants?
- Do I know what every character in this scene wants?
“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”— Archimedes
When a character's motivation—his/her reason for needing to achieve the goal—are strong enough, the writer can move the mind of the reader to accept nearly anything the character does to achieve this goal. The trick is convincing the audience to fall under the spell of the character's desire, to give this desire both plausibility and an urgency that resonates without becoming a hyperbolic bludgeon. (The audience will eventually succumb to adrenal fatigue—or perhaps eye-rolling—if the main character is saving the universe from annihilation or dangling off the edge of a precipice by his/her fingertips in every scene.)
As with the goal, motivation may be external, making it easily perceivable by other characters, or internal, playing out within the realm of character emotions, some of which may be deeply buried. To cite a well-known example, in the movie Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker's goal of rescuing the princess and aiding the rebellion (a call to adventure he initially resists) is an externally motivated goal that receives impetus when his aunt and uncle are slain by Imperial stormtroopers. Though Luke wouldn't be able to articulate it, he's also driven by a hunger for adventure, romance, and the yearning to connect to something larger.
To turn up the heat on a scene's motivation, ask yourself what circumstances would make your protagonist want or need to achieve the goal more urgently? Alternately, what could more strongly motivate the antagonist, or any other character in the scene, to thwart the main character, often in the pursuit of his/her own goals?
Motivations must not only be believable but broadly relatable to an audience. To achieve the latter, work on strengthening the link between the characters' motivations and one of what psychologist Paul Eckman referred to as basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, and happiness. Though moviegoers viewing Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time will never find themselves in young Luke's identical situation early in the movie, they are able to connect to his sense of loss, his terror, and his fury, and they can put themselves in his situation, imagining themselves behaving heroically (even if in reality, they'd run screaming to hide out in the desert caves) to fight back against this wrong.
Takeaway troubleshooting questions:
- Are character behaviors adequately and plausibly motivated?
- To what universal human/reader emotion does this motivation relate?
“…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” —William Faulkner
Whether it's among rivals for a prize, characters struggling for survival, or a host of other familiar variations, conflict is the accelerator that drives both a story and a scene. Within the larger structure of a novel, some scenes will require a heavier foot than others on that gas pedal, but every scene needs to contain some element of tension to keep it from falling flat.
When a scene feels too static, it's often a relatively simple task to, at least metaphorically, “put another bear in the canoe,” creating another complication, crafting a betrayal, or shortening the timeline available for the completion of the goal. To prevent the conflict from feeling arbitrary, check to see if it's closely related to the protagonist's or another character's goal and if motivation is apparent or alluded to, even if it's to raise questions about what the reasoning might possibly be.
Conflict is also essential in revealing the real character beneath the veneer. Anyone can put on an act when things are going smoothly, but under enough pressure all sorts of flaws are exposed. Put enough pressure on an individual in the form of conflict and character transformation may occur, allowing the protagonist to achieve the goal—or perhaps to recognize it as unworthy.
Takeaway troubleshooting questions:
- Does the scene contain adequate and relevant conflict?
- Does the conflict serve to motivate character growth?
Many novelists come to take for granted the concepts of goal, motivation, and conflict, just as drivers take for granted their preferred mode of transportation when the engine's running smoothly. It's during a breakdown that it's worth going back for a peek under the hood—or even taking a few moments to sketch out a GMC schematic to help you once more get all the basic parts back in alignment and get both your scene, and the novel it's a part of, running smoothly once again.
- Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, Debra Dixon, Gryphon Books for Writers, 1996.
- "Writing 101: Internal Vs. External Conflict," Writer's Ink: the Official Blog of Shannon Curtis, 11/13/2013.
- Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, Paul Eckman, Times Books, 2003.