NaNo Prep: How Understanding Conflict Will Make Your Plot Explode

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November is almost upon us, and in the build up to NaNo, we’ve asked for guest contributors to share their advice on how to craft great stories that will engage writer and reader alike. Today, author Cari Noga tells us why “GMC” should be in everyone’s vocabulary, and how it’ll help drive your plot. 

Fiction is
conflict.

You’ve probably
heard something like that before, and filed it away with other
writing advice. Take it out, shake it off, and prop it up it next to
your coffee mug. Besides caffeine, you won’t find a better buddy on
your NaNo odyssey.

First—a
definition. Conflict is the obstacle(s) between a character and his
or her desire. It varies with novel genre: the enemy agent out to
kill the hero; Mom’s new job that forces the middle-school kid to
move and change schools; the character’s yearning to spurn
expectations and do what she really wants. Conflict is fundamental to
advancing plot, setting it back, twisting and turning it, as the
characters wrestle with their particular nemeses. It’s also crucial
to reader engagement. 

In the best stories, we become invested in a
character overcoming their conflict. We root for them to get what
they want, worry when they seem to succumb, and, above all, keep
turning pages to see which way it goes. Steven James, one of my
favorite writing coaches and a bestselling thriller author himself,
puts it this way: You don’t have a story until something goes
wrong.

Sold? Then how do
you insure conflict? Key to my two NaNo wins (out of four tries) were
the Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) charts I created for each
character during prep week. (See Debra Dixon’s great book, Goal,
Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
for
more on this.) The charts are a grid of nine squares. 

Left column
contains the labels: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Middle column
contains each character’s EXTERNAL goal, motivation and conflict.
In the right column goes each character’s INTERNAL goal,
motivation, and conflict. (Not all characters will have external and
internal, but your protagonist and other major characters likely
will.)

It’s a simple
way to approach what can be hard for new novelists. We typically like
our characters, at least our protagonists, so we want them to
get what they want. That leads to making their lives too easy, which
gets boring for the reader. In contrast, think of Star Wars. Nine
films and 40 years on, they’re still pulling in millions (people
and dollars) to watch the same basic conflict of good guys trying to
save the galaxy from bad guys. Since that conflict is compelling, and
because we care about the characters, we‘ll show up for No. 10,
too.

The GMC charts
help you create compelling conflicts because as you’ll likely see
in the grid, some goals are inherently at odds. In my first novel,
one character, Deborah, wanted to have a baby, badly. Her husband,
Christopher, wasn’t so sure. Presto, external conflict, and a
highly resonant one at that – a couple wants different things. When
I visit book clubs, the different reactions readers have to this
couple’s conflicts make for the liveliest discussion.

While not as
formal as an outline, I’ve found the GMC charts help keep me on
track, too. If (when) the story veers off course, the chart is a
touchstone. Is what’s happening on the page consistent with GMC? If
not, does the story need to change, or the GMC? Does someone’s
conflict need to intensify? Motivation made clearer? Goal denied
longer? Your original GMC decisions can guide the answers.

Your ultimate
goal as a Wrimo is to reach 50,000 words by Nov. 30. Your motivation
will vary. Your conflict: whatever dares to get between you and
those 1,667 words per day. There’s plenty. Armed with your GMC
charts, you’re ready to slay a big one.


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Cari Noga is
the author of SPARROW MIGRATIONS (Lake Union, 2015), and the
forthcoming THE ORPHAN DAUGHTER (Lake Union, May 2018). First written
during NaNo 2010 and 2013, respectively, NaNo was instrumental in
transforming her from an aspiring to a published novelist. A
five-part miniseries adaptation of SPARROW is now in development as
well. She lives in Michigan with her family and enjoys writing haiku
on social media. Twitter: @carinoga