Writing

Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: CONFLICT (PART 1)

signpost-conflict

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about goal, motivation, and conflict and how they work together to fuel your story. Today we’re moving on to the final of the three.

Conflict comes down to who is standing in your character’s way and what your character will have to endure to achieve their goal. Today I’m going to talk about the who.

Every story needs an antagonist, but not every story needs a villain. A villain is “bad.” An antagonist is just someone (or something) who’s standing in the way of your main character achieving their goal.

This sounds obvious, but there are, surprisingly, a lot of ways where we can go wrong with this part.

I’m going to give you the most important elements that you need to get right about the antagonist.

  • Our antagonist needs to be stronger than our protagonist at the start of the story.

If our antagonist isn’t stronger, then the story isn’t going to be very exciting. Our protagonist will succeed too easily.

  • Our antagonist’s goal needs to be in direct conflict with our protagonist’s goal.

Think about this like two people playing tug-of-war. There’s no way they can both win that match. Whoever pulls the other across the line first, wins. The other loses. We need the same win-lose scenario in our book. If we don’t have it, our conflict will be weak.

For example, if we’re writing a mystery, the protagonist wants to catch the murderer and the murderer wants to escape. Only one of them can succeed.

In Star Wars, Luke and Darth Vader were fighting over who would control the universe, the rebels or the empire. Only one of them can succeed.

  • Our antagonist needs their own equally strong motivation.

“Because he’s evil” is not a motivation. If we want to create an antagonist who’s more than a cardboard cutout, we need to understand why he’s fighting just as hard as our hero to achieve the goal.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Christopher Vogler, and he says “The villain is the hero of his own journey.”

Our antagonist is trying to do what they think is best in the same way that our main character is trying to do what he or she thinks is best. Even if they’re a true villain, they usually won’t see themselves as the “bad guy” because they can rationalize their actions, the same way we can often rationalize away our wrong actions if we’re not careful.

To your antagonist, it’s your main character who is the “bad guy,” the problem that’s standing in the way of achieving their goals, desires, and dreams.

What about society, nature, or self as the antagonist?

You can write a story like that. Castaway with Tom Hanks or Andy Weir’s The Martian both have nature or an environment as the antagonist. Those stories are much more difficult to write though.

Understand you’ve created an additional challenge for yourself, and make sure that you amplify your conflict. The risk with stories where the antagonist is the self, society, or nature is that there won’t be enough strong, urgent conflict on the page or that the conflict won’t be clear enough to understand and follow.

One thing that can often work is to choose a figurehead if your antagonist is self or society. Choose someone who will represent those antagonistic forces and give them a human face. Katniss in The Hunger Games was fighting against a decadent, oppressive society, but the human face of that was President Snow.

I’ll go over these external forces more in the next post where I talk about what your character needs to endure to achieve their goal.

Do you have other tips about antagonists or conflict that you’d like to share?

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Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Using Whom in Fiction

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Deciding whether to use who or whom is one of those tricky areas of writing. How do you keep track of which word goes where? The answer is actually pretty simple: who is used as a subject, while whom is used as an object.

One way to remember when to use these words is to look at the words being referred to or the words that could fit in the same spot. For example, you would use whom in the same place you would use him or them. On the other hand, you would use who in the same place as he or she. It’s not always that simple, but that’s a good way to remember. For example:

Who:

“Who ate the last piece of cake?” I asked. “It was supposed to be mine.”

(If you answered that question, you’d answer “He ate the last piece of cake” and then point your finger at my father-in-law.)

Whom:

“To whom does this cell phone belong?” asked Mrs. Rodriguez.

(The answer would be “The cell phone belongs to him.”)

However, in one of my first posts, I talked about breaking grammar rules. In fiction, you can probably safely use who in most cases, but you could use whom in dialogue to show a character that is pretentious or an old-school English teacher.

Do you have any tricks for deciding when to use who or whom that you would like to share? If so, add it to the comments!

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is Commonly Confused Words of the Month (I Could Care Less).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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Creating Single-Author Box Sets: Part One

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityOne of the important elements of a successful indie author career is putting out as many products as possible (without sacrificing quality). The more items we have for sale, the better our chances that someone will stumble upon one of them or find one that interests them. Box sets are a great way to increase the number of products we have for sale without too much additional work.

I hope you’ll join me today for my regular guest post at Fiction University where I’ll be starting my mini-series on creating box sets.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Homophone of the Month: Complement vs. Compliment

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Most of us learn to speak the language before we learn to read it. As such, it’s no surprise that, when two words sound the same, we sometimes have a difficult time telling them apart. Usually these words are spelled differently but pronounced the same way. We call these homophones.

For one of my monthly features, I’ll be covering homophones. I’m going to explain the different meanings, and whenever I can, I’ll give you little tricks to help you remember the difference between them. If nothing else, you’ll at least realize going forward that these two words might be confused, and you’ll know when to look up the correct meaning.

Today we will be looking at complement vs. compliment.

According to Merriam-Webster, complement means “something that completes something else or makes it better” or “the usual number or quantity of something that is needed or used.” Below are two examples of the word:

My wife is an amazing person, and she complements me well. (She both completes me and makes me better.)

The ship’s complement of Marines readied itself for battle.

On the other hand, compliment means “a remark that says something good about someone or something” or “an action that expresses admiration or approval.” Below is an example of the word:

My wife complimented me on my shirt and tie combination. (She said it looked good.)

Now to try to help you remember the difference. For complement, remember that it takes at least two things to complete each other, and so the word has two E’s.

What words do you have trouble telling apart? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll make sure to feature them later.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is Using Whom in Fiction.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: MOTIVATION

signpost-motivation

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last time we talked about goal in the triad of goal, motivation, and conflict. This week, we’re going to take the next step by talking about motivation.

Motivation is one of the most powerful forces in fiction. Our readers will follow our characters through anything as long as they believe the motivation.

Motivation is the why. Why does your character desperately want to achieve their goal?

This ties tightly into why the goal is important. It’s what’s at stake. What do they stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal? That’s going to be part of what motivates them to reach it.

What’s easy to forget about motivation is that it comes on two levels—the external, conscious level and the internal, subconscious level. The best stories will have both and they’ll work together.

The external, conscious level is the obvious why.

The internal, subconscious level is the underlying need that your character probably isn’t even aware that they’re trying to fill.

I’ll give you a really simplistic example just to make the difference clear.

The character wants to get a raise at his job (his goal) so that he can buy a bigger house (his external motivation) because he believes that will earn him respect from his family (his subconscious need).

That one’s pretty obvious, but the connection doesn’t have to be blatant as long as the dual motivations work together.

An example that I really like is from the movie White House Down. The main character is ex-military, and he’s in the White House on a tour with his daughter when terrorists attack. The main character’s external goal is to save his daughter and the president from the terrorists who’ve taken over the White House. His external motivation is that if he doesn’t save his daughter, she’ll likely die, and if he doesn’t save the president, the terrorists will be able to launch nuclear weapons and start a world war.

His internal motivation is that he desperately needs his daughter to be proud of him and to prove to her that she can count on him.

Another way to look at this is that the external motivation is our plot and the internal motivation is our character arc. That internal need is the true driving force of the plot, and what our character experiences on the outside forces them along their internal arc and forces them to grow. We are all driven by our internal needs, whether we’re aware of them or not. 

Here’s why understanding the difference between external motivation and internal, subconscious motivation (the need) is so cool.

Your character might fail at their original external goal, but as long as that failure still meets their internal need or motivation, you’re going to have created a satisfying story.

Next time we’ll talk about how conflict interacts with goal and motivation! (If you missed last week’s post about the goal, you can find it here.)

Do you have any other tips about character motivation that you’d like to share?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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How to Punctuate Dialogue

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

It’s easy for fiction writers to get tripped up on when to use a period, where that comma should go, and how to even use all the other forms of punctuation correctly. The truth is, you don’t need to know what every piece of punctuation does when you’re writing fiction. But you do need to know a few important aspects (your proofreader or copy editor can handle the rest).

(If you’re curious about why you should even hire a proofreader or copy editor, stay tuned—I’ll be writing about that soon.)

Today I’ll be walking you through the basics of how to punctuate your dialogue correctly.

Although it might seem nitpicky, incorrect punctuation in dialogue can have a significant negative effect on your writing. Choosing the correct form of punctuation for your dialogue will make your writing smoother, more professional-looking, and easier to understand.

First up is dialogue ending with a tag.

When writing a snippet of dialogue that ends with a tag (a word such as said or shouted), you should end the dialogue with a comma. For example:

“I love watching football,” Chris said.

When writing a question or exclamation, use a question mark or exclamation mark without a comma. For example:

“Do you like watching football?” Chris asked.

(Note that I could have swapped “asked” for “said” and still been correct.)

Next up is dialogue split by a tag.

When writing a sentence that is divided by a tag, use a comma after the snippet of dialogue (even if a comma wouldn’t naturally go there without the tag in place) and after the tag. For example:

“I almost hate being a Redskins fan,” Chris said, “because they haven’t been good in a long time.”

If the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence, use a period after the tag and start the subsequent sentence with a capital letter. For example:

“I love the Redskins,” Chris said. “I’ve been a fan since I was five years old.”

Next up is ending a piece of dialogue with an em dash.

You should use an em dash for dialogue that is cut off. Make sure that you don’t use any other punctuation with the em dash. (An em dash is the longest of dashes: – is a regular dash, – is an en dash, and — is an em dash. If you want to know when–and how–to use all these different dashes, let me know in the comments.) For example:

“I love—”

“We don’t talk about Dallas in this household, and you know it.”

Next up is dialogue that trails off. You should use ellipses ( … ) in these situations.

“But I don’t…” He averted his eyes. “I know you hate Dallas. You don’t have to keep reminding me about it.”

What punctuation do you struggle with the most? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll address it in the future.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (complement vs. compliment).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: GOAL

gmc-goal

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The foundation of every functional novel is goal, motivation, and conflict. What your character wants, why they want it, and what they’re willing to endure to get it.

Sounds simple in principle, right? But I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with this, so over the next few weeks, I’m going to walk you through each point. If one of these core concepts isn’t working, your whole story falls apart.

Your character’s goal is their external, conscious desire. It’s the thing they want to achieve over the course of the story.

(We’ll get to their internal, subconscious need next time.)

Their goal MUST…
•      be important
•      be urgent
•      be concrete and specific

Let’s break this down.

When I say the goal is important, I mean that there will be big, negative consequences if your character fails to achieve that goal. In order to reach their goal, your character should have to suffer and struggle, so if the goal isn’t important, your character isn’t going to be willing to keep pursuing it.

I’ll talk about this element a bit more when we get to motivation, but I want to say one more thing about this here—the goal needs to be important to your protagonist, not necessarily to the world. A story about a woman whose goal is to adopt a child can be as powerful and captivating as a story about a woman whose goal is to locate a terrorist cell and stop them from bombing the U.S.

It’s the character who drives the story and so the goal needs to be personal and relevant to that character, regardless of how the rest of the world feels about it.

And if the goal is big like “save the world,” you’ll still need to find a way to make it personal for your protagonist (for example, by showing a person they love who will die if the big, bad thing happens). This is why so many “save the world” movies and books show you the protagonist’s child or wife or husband or brother first. It always starts by being personal, then it becomes business too.

An urgent goal is one your character has to act on right now. If they can wait a few months or a year before pursuing their goal, then it’s not an urgent goal. Another way of saying this is that the goal needs to be time sensitive.

Humans don’t tend to like change. Unless there’s a reason we need to act on something immediately, we’ll often put it off because we’re comfortable the way we are, even if the way we are is actually hurting us. We’re afraid that if we try to change, either we’ll fail and make it worse or the change we attempt will make our life worse than it was before. We don’t trust change.

Concrete is the one that trips a lot of people up because it’s easy to confuse an ambition with a goal. An ambition can’t carry a story because we don’t know what to watch for and we don’t know when we’ve reached it.

Ambition: Get healthy.

Goal: Workout five times a week.

How do you know when you’ve achieved the ambition? What does it look like? It’s too nebulous and the end point isn’t clear. This is why so many people fail in their New Year’s Resolutions. They set ambitions rather than goals.

You know exactly when you’ve achieved the goal. It’s measurable. It’s external. It’s visible.

Right now someone is sure to object that their character’s goal is internal. Even if our character’s goal is internal change, we still need to create a concrete, external signpost of what this looks like to them to achieve it.

Here’s an example. Let’s say at the start of the book, our character struggles with an anxiety disorder and it’s ruining her life. She doesn’t like to leave her house, and her relationships are falling apart.

Ambition: Overcome my anxiety disorder.

Internal Goal: Learn to manage my attacks when they happen so that they don’t spiral out of control and prevent me from doing the things I want to do.

External Sign: Be able to volunteer at the hospital like I’ve always wanted but couldn’t because the blood, wounds, and fear of catching something have always triggered my anxiety.

Internal goals are absolutely fantastic when coupled with an external sign this way because then you’ve got plot and character arc working together.

Extra Tip: One area where a lot of writers get confused is that there’s a big-picture story goal, but each scene also has a goal. Our character is going to have smaller-scale goals along the way, and those goals will be steps to achieving their big-picture goal.

Have you struggled with creating a goal that meets these criteria? Or have you seen now that your book’s current goal isn’t a workable goal at all? Feel free to share in the comments!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Should Fiction Writers Care About Grammar?

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Some people believe that, when you’re writing fiction, you can throw all the rules of grammar out the window. We’ll call this the It’s Not Important camp. They say that grammar is too fickle—the rules of grammar are seemingly in constant flux, and they’re too nitpicky to begin with, especially for fiction writers. Nobody speaks with perfect grammar. Nobody writes perfectly. In their view, what you say is more important than how you say it.

Another camp (we’ll call them the Grammar Police camp) believes that grammar rules are absolute—fixed, unchanging, the Ten Commandments of writing (regardless of type or genre of writing). I always goes before E, except after C, or in words such as neighbor and weigh. The rules are the rules, and should be followed to the letter.

Both of these camps have the potential to hurt fiction and fiction writers if their views are followed. I personally fall into the Be a Master First camp. Those in that camp believe that it’s okay to break grammar rules as long as you’ve demonstrated mastery of the language, because doing so earns you “street cred” in terms of getting away with breaking rules. You’ve shown that you are a master of following the rules and have only broken the rules for dramatic or emphasis purposes. It also means you actually know when it’s okay to break the rules, what rules can or cannot be broken and when, and which rules should never be broken.

Being a master first allows you to create fiction that is clear, easy to read, and approachable.

And let’s face it—showing mastery of the language will make readers much less likely to put down your creative effort and blast you for poor writing on social media and in reviews. The thing that will get you poor reviews the fastest is poor editing. If you want people to appreciate your efforts, you need to ensure that your work is grammatically correct. Your ego—and hopefully your bank account—will thank you.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is How to Punctuate Dialogue.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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How a Novel Is Like a Human Body

how-a-novel-is-like-the-human-bodyBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve come to believe that part of the reason writers can work for years on a book and still have it be unready for publication is because we don’t always understand the different layers that need to go into a great story.

A lot of this happens because most of us learn writing piecemeal. We read a blog post here, attend a writer’s conference workshop there. We don’t usually have someone sit us down and explain the anatomy of a book to us in a 101 type fashion.

(If you’re an experienced writer, don’t click away. This might be a refresher for you, but it might also help you understand story in a new way, or it might simply give you another way to explain it to a newer writer.)

So today I want to break down the anatomy of a story for you using the analogy of a human body. I’m going to start from big picture and work my way down.

Protagonist and Plot

Our protagonist is the character whose goal drives the actions (plot) of the story and whose life changes through those events.

Where this tends to trip writers up is in a fundamental misunderstanding about how the two relate. The purpose of the external plot events is to force the protagonist to change. Throwing random events—however interesting we might think they should be—at our protagonist doesn’t make for a good plot. Throwing events at our protagonist that don’t force them to think, feel, and grow doesn’t make for a good plot. Our protagonist should change somehow through the pursuit of their goal.

The protagonist—with their individual backstory, personality, and brokenness—also needs to drive the plot forward. The choices and decisions they make need to matter. And if anyone else were the protagonist of the story, that plot should play out differently than it currently does. If you could swap your protagonist for someone else without anything significant changing in your plot, then something is wrong.

I look at these like the muscles and bones in a body. If the muscles in a limb atrophy, the limb doesn’t work. If the bones in a limb turn to jello or break, the limb doesn’t work. In other words, if there’s something wrong with the muscles or the bones, it doesn’t matter how amazing the other layers are.

And one is not more important than the other.

Sentence-Level Writing Craft

Sentence-level writing craft is elements like showing vs. telling, dialogue, point of view errors, and so on. It’s what most people think about when they talk about learning to write. It also tends to be what we spend the most time on, especially in the beginning.

In our human body analogy, this is the skin. People can be distracted by the condition of our skin regardless of how strong our muscles and bones are. Like it or not, people judge us by how our skin looks. A kid in high school with bad acne is less likely to be popular than a kid with flawless skin. It can happen, but they have to be absolutely amazing in some other way.

It’s the same with our books.

Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar and punctuation is what a copy editor works on. It’s the small-scale details of commas, typos, misused words, and awkward phrases. Most writers think of this level when they think about hiring an editor. 

If we’re talking about a person, it’s the hair, make-up, and clothes. It’s the polish. In our lives, if we were walking into a professional situation where we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t show up in ratty sweats and bed head, smelling of BO. We’d try to make our best first impression by taking care with our appearance. That’s what good grammar and punctuation do for our book. If it’s not working, readers are less likely to take us seriously. They’ll be distracted by it.

(I spend most of my time on this blog teaching you about the two higher levels, but I want to help you in all ways so I’ve enlisted a regular guest columnist. Starting this Saturday, we’ll have The Editor’s Corner, where you’ll learn about grammar and punctuation for fiction writers.)

Do you have another way of thinking about story that helps you understand it better? Or do you think one level or story is more important than the others? I’d love to hear your opinion!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Indie Choices: To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction University

In traditional publishing, many of the choices are taken out of our hands, including sometimes whether or not to use a pen name. As independent authors, this becomes another choice we’re able to make ourselves based on what we think is best for our situation and our business.

Authors use pen names in a few different ways, so this month I wanted to walk through some of our options and the pros and cons of each.

I hope you’ll join me for my regular monthly guest post at Fiction University: Indie Choices – To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name.

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Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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