*This is an expanded edition of my guest blog post to Southern Writer’s Magazine on December 14, 2016.
Crafting the Perfect Chapter – It’s Elementary, My Dears
Before becoming a stay-at-home-mom, I taught fifth-grade students to analyze writing. I hadn’t given much thought to applying what I taught to my own writing until I substitute taught a fifth-grade reading class. That day, I discovered a crucial concept for every fiction writer.
Students all over the country are forced summarize every chapter they read by looking for these key things: Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
We, as writers, need to zero in on every chapter we write to make sure we can answer: Somebody… wants…. but…. so… then…
How do we do this? It’s elementary, my dears.
To illustrate this concept, I will use chapter eight of George Washington’s Socks. I will assume most my readers have not had the enjoyment of reading this children’s novel, so I will just give a very brief introduction to the story.
George Washington’s Socks
A mysterious rowboat transports five adventurous kids back in time to the eve of the Battle at Trenton where they experience the American Revolution. Through encounters with Hessian soldiers, revolutionaries, and even George Washington himself, Matthew, Quentin, Hooter, Tony, and Katie watch history unfold before their eyes as they see first-hand, the grim realities of war and the cost of freedom.
– Amazon.com Blurb
Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
Let’s break it down:
Who is the central focus of this chapter? This can be one or two characters if you are splitting your story between points of view, but even if there are multiple points of view, a chapter is generally about one person. Who would students identify as the main character for your chapter?
In George Washington’s Socks there are five focus characters, however, chapter eight focuses solely on the perspective of Matt.
This is the goal of the main character for this chapter only. What is it that the character wants to accomplish in this small timeframe? More often than not it is a small goal that builds into something bigger.
For Matt, his initial goal in the chapter was to return General Washington’s cape.
No story is engaging without conflict, and neither is a chapter. What obstacle does the character face? It can be internal or external in nature, but it needs to be plausible and, if at all possible, unforeseen.
Matt’s challenge comes in the form of a captain who believes Matt is a rebel soldier.
This is the reaction to the conflict. What does the character do? What does he/she think? Do they change their goal? What about the supporting characters? How do they respond to the conflict, and how does their response affect the main character?
Matt changes his goal. He goes from wanting to return General Washington’s cape to retreating to the safety of the boat.
This is where a consequence occurs or an additional problem is added to the plot. There could be a hint to the subplot, or a difficult obstacle the character must face, or it could leave the reader with a cliffhanger. Whichever course you choose, the “then” is used as a hook for the next chapter.
Matt’s chapter doesn’t end with him being forced into battle. His “then” is the fatal injury of the only man who can get Matt home.
Combine all the elements and you get:
Matt wanted to return General Washington’s cape but a Captain thought he was a rebel soldier trying to desert, so Matt tries to return to the boat. Then, as Matt is being forced into battle, the only man who can get Matt and his friends home suffers a fatal injury.
Somebody… wants… but… so… then… is a quick, easy summary that drives to the heart of a chapter. Do each of your chapters contain these elements? Could you summarize them in this way?
Even scarier…. could a fifth-grader?
I challenge you to share one of your chapters in this way, and just so I am being fair, here’s my example from chapter one.
Kessara wants to pay off her grandfather’s debt, but she doesn’t want him to find out she had to save the family name again, so she goes to the cemetery at midnight to retrieve her secret stash of money. Then as she is returning to the carriage she stumbles upon a clandestine meeting between two criminals who spot her.
What do you think? How would you break down one of your chapters?
I took a couple weeks off doing only writing prompts while I figured out my new schedule for my blog. My new goal is to alternate between Writing Prompt Wednesday with Writing Craft Wednesday. So today marks the first Writing Craft Wednesday!
Today I am going to finish up our look at GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Here is a list of the previous GMC posts:
Conflict: The Heat of the Story
So what is conflict? If goal is the “what” and motivation is the “why,” then conflict is the “why not.” Conflict is what your character must face in order to achieve their goal.
External conflict often comes in the form of a physical being, usually the villain. The villain causes problem after problem for the hero or heroine. All five senses are engaged when dealing with this maniacal menace. You can smell them, see them, feel them, hear them, and depending one what is going on… taste the blood they draw.
Internal conflict is more subtle. Whatever keeps the hero or heroine from learning their life lesson, that is your internal conflict. Just like anything else internal, it is emotional. Perhaps it is the self-conscious voice which keeps them from seeing their worth. Perhaps it is the guilt of not being there for a loved one when they were needed most. Whatever it is, it evades the five senses.
Why include conflict?
Readers like to see characters tested, run through the wringer, and facing their worst fears. Anticipating an explosion of conflict is what keeps the reader turning the pages.
Besides the excitement conflict brings to a story, it also brings depth and complexity to the characters. It is through conflict characters learn to dig withing themselves, grow and rise to the challenge. Through conflict they become a hero.
Think something is bad? Make it worse.
So how do you make the conflict engaging and page turning? Strife, tension, dissension, and opposition are key elements in creating conflict. Start with making a list of bad things which could stand in your character’s way.
Found one? Good. Now make it worse. Worse? YES! WORSE!
For one of my characters she is potentially losing her house. Initially, I started with the loan belonging to the bank, but then I applied the above principle. How did I make it worse? The loan belonged to a vicious loan shark who will get his money one way or another. Does that create more problems and stronger conflict? You betcha!
The stronger your conflict, the stronger your book.
Think your character has it bad?
Make it worse.
Last week we took an In-depth Look at Character Goals. This week we will examine the why of external and internal goals. At the end of the post you will find application questions to guide you on your way.
What is Motivation?
Goal and motivation co-exist. You cannot have one without the other. In fact, when defining our goal, motivation is taken into consideration. Motivation is the reason why they take action. It is what drives them.
The character wants his goal because of the motivation. It is the why.
Make It Compelling. Make It Urgent.
Motivation is important. It is a major element which helps us to empathize or connect with the character. My motto with motivation is “Make it worse.” This adds to the urgency of the goal.
The great thing about the fiction world is you can do what ever you want as long as the reader understands the why.
Your character has a loan they cannot repay? Make it worse. A bank will repossess your house and the items you own, but what a merciless loan shark would do can be far worse. Imagine how the plot would be different for each of those scenarios. Which story line will be more compelling to read?
Taking Motivation a Step Further
Motivation shouldn’t only drive your overarching goal, it should drive your character’s every decision and action.
- Why did honest Joe steal from the bank? Because his family was being held captive and would be killed if he didn’t.
- Why did the rich heiress choose the even richer rogue instead of the man she loved? Because her family was in financial ruin and her little sister would not be able to receive treatment without his infuse of money.
Give a reason which will make your characters willing to risk anything and everything to achieve their goal. Give them no other choice. A weak motivation leads to a weak story.
One Last Tip
Character motivation needs to match your actual character. Make it possible. Your story can be wildly crazy and believable as long as you have the right motivation.
Would a Union woman cut off her hair, pretend to be a mute boy in a Confederate prisoner camp, and secretly help Confederate men to escape? (If you are a history buff at all, you can imagine the risks that woman is taking. Doing so is completely against her best interest.)
If you give her the right motivation, it could be a completely believable story.
- What is your character’s goal?
- What is their motivation?
- How can you make it worse?
- Is your motivation believable for the character? Would they really make that choice?
- Do your characters have a purpose that moves them toward their goal for the scene you have created?
Share some of your answers in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there any other guiding questions you would add?
May God bless your journey to follow “The Write Call”,
In a continuation of our look at GMC (Goal, Motivation, & Conflict), today I am focusing on an in-depth look at character goals. At the end, I will leave you with some guiding questions to help you develop your own character goals.
Last week we defined a goal as answering two questions. What does the character want? What is compelling them to take action?
Everyone has goals in life. Today my personal goal is to overcome this sinus infection, however, I do not believe you would want to read a story centered around that goal. Why not? For one, it is gross. Secondly, it is not a compelling story that grips at your heart and soul to keep you turning pages.
So what makes a compelling goal?
Think about the stories you love to watch and read. I can guarantee you the main character’s goal is one that is life altering. The consequence of not reaching their goal will negatively affect them in a serious manner. It is for this reason they take action.
For example, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s goal is to save her father from dying in the Beast’s tower room. If she does not save him, her only remaining family member will be lost to her forever. She would be left to live alone and possibly accept Gaston’s proposal. Horror of horrors. These consequences compel her to action. Achieving her goal is worth any sacrifice.
A novel example would be from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet has the goal of marrying for nothing less than love. When the very rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy first proposes, she is compelled to refuse him. Why? Because money would not be worth the life of misery.
The previous examples were external goals. (An external goal is something tangible.) According to Debra Dixon, author of Goal, Motivation, & Conflict, you characters should not want something they already have or want more of it.
To develop a strong character, you must create a goal in which they desperately need what they do not have. Mrs. Dixon describes it best:
Dangle a carrot just out of their reach and make sure they haven’t had a bite in weeks.
– from Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon
Not only should they desperately want it, they should also urgently need it. The more urgent, the better.
In the interest of achieving their goal in time, they will make choices they would not have previously considered. Urgency will push them to make choices that go against their own best interest.
Internal goals reach down into the emotional soul of the main character. It is what they feel. I find that usually the character arc, or what the character learns, goes hand in hand with the internal goals.
One of my characters will learn that real love is not based on what she does, but who she is. Therefore, I have made her internal goal to be feel worthy of love and attention. In the beginning she feels she must earn the love of her inattentive caregiver and subsequently the love of the man she hopes to marry.
This, combined with her external goal, forces her to make decisions which she would never had made before. Some of the choices she makes will have dire consequences. You want to keep the reader wondering if they will ever learn their lesson and achieve their goal, all the way to the black moment a the end.
- What is your main character’s goal?
- What is the consequence of not achieving their goal?
- How can you make them more dire?
- How can you make the goal more urgent?
- What choices would your character have to make that go against their best interest?
- What do you want your character to learn throughout the story?
- What could be their internal goal?
- What makes them desperate for this feeling?
- What will be the consequences if they do not achieve this internal goal?
Share some of your answers in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there any other guiding questions you would add?
The first step to developing a novel beyond the initial concept is to develop your GMC. If you are a newbie like me, you might not know what those three letters represent. Let me share what I have learned.
What is GMC?
GMC stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. These three concepts are developed around your individual characters.
- Goal – What does your character want? What is the reason they take action?
- Motivation – What is driving them to achieve their goal?
- Conflict – Why can’t they have what they want? What is preventing them from learning their life lesson?
Each character you develop will have their own external and internal GMCs. Just in case those old Literature & Language classes are fuzzy in your memory, external means you can touch it or achieve it without emotion, while internal revolves around the emotional.
Here is an example of Little Red Riding Hood’s external and internal GMC:
Debra Dixon does a fantastic job of explaining each aspect in her book Goal, Motivation, & Conflict. In fact her book was so useful, I have included it and links to purchase it on The Write Resources page.
Over the next few weeks I will be using what I have learned from her book to explore more about GMC, but for now, why don’t you try your hand at GMC?
Take your favorite fairy tale character or even your own made up character and share their GMC. You can copy and paste the following into the comments if need be:
- External Goal –
- External Motivation –
- External Conflict –
- Internal Goal –
- Internal Motivation –
- Internal Conflict –