A few weeks ago, I met a Christian Creative friend at a local coffee shop. As we settled into the conversation and polished off our Tim Horton’s coffees, she said the words that inspired this post: “I’ve gone back to a story I’ve been writing for years, but I’m stuck! I don’t know what to do.”
I like to coach writers whenever I can, so I was immediately interested in learning more about her problem. Usually, the solution is hidden in the information they share about why they’re stuck or how they got stuck. So, I listened a while and then asked: “What’s your story’s main conflict?”
When she couldn’t give a clear answer, I knew we’d found the answer to her problem. Of course, there are many reasons writers get stuck. But, for her, struggling to define the story’s conflict and, consequently, its impact on her character was a big issue. Because I was able to help her, I decided to write this post to help others facing a problem.
To do that, we’ll focus on one aspect of story-writing: conflict. More specifically, we’ll look at using your main character’s motivation to generate the conflict that will take your story to the next level. An in-depth discussion on motivation is beyond the scope of this post, but here are 3 questions that could help you figure out the right recipe for your project.
Is your Main Character’s motivation clear?
Essentially, motivation is what drives us from one state or circumstance to another. It can be an inner motivation (ex. A woman choosing to remain in a bad relationship for fear of being alone) or an external motivation (ex. An agoraphobic scientist chooses to leave his lab after discovering he’s the only one who can stop a pandemic).
Without motivation, our lives would be dull and very little would be accomplished; we would never change. The same goes for our characters. Without a force pushing them to or away from something, there isn’t much for them to do. Also, without conflict, a writer doesn’t have much of a story to tell—at least, not a very interesting one.
Think about your main character. You might have decided their gender, what they wear, their character traits and quirks, where they work, and where they live. All essential elements in character design. But what influences their choices? Specifically:
What does he want to stop (or have happen) at all costs?
For what or whom would he die to protect?
What is his deepest fear? Regret? Joy?
Once a writer figures out the answers to those kinds of questions, and by including them in the plot, he can develop a much more dynamic, engaging story.
Is your MC’s motivation threatened by the story’s crisis?
Every story needs at least one major crisis that creates stress or a turning point for its characters. Without it a story risks being boring, giving your audience few reasons to continue reading.
If you’re stuck in your creative process, or have a boring main character and don’t know how to activate him, why not attack his motivation? Doing that puts him on a collision course with the very thing he fears most. This causes tension and raises the stakes.
Now, you have a story!
Remember Frodo? In The Lord of the Rings, he was tasked to carry the One Ring to Mount Doom where it could be destroyed. He was chosen because he was meek and, therefore, more immune to its corrupting power than the others in his group. But, over time, even he fell prey to the ring—to near disastrous results. Every time he showed signs of weakness, we wondered, “Is he going to fall, too? And what happens if he does?!” That kind of hook will drive your readers to keep turning pages.
Does your MC resolve their main conflict?
When designing your crisis, keep in mind that your MC will need a proper resolution to the conflict he’ll struggle with over the course of the book. This usually means that the MC solves the problem. For example, he stopped the mega-virus from destroying the world, or kept the Holy Grail out of the wrong hands. If the MC doesn’t solve the problem, then perhaps he learns an important lesson that makes the whole experience worthwhile. For example, though he isn’t ready to do it yet, he learns that it is possible to forgive the parent who abused him in his youth. The resolution doesn’t have to result in a happy ending, as long as it satisfies the nature of the MC’s conflict.
The point is, when you get to the end of your story, your reader is going to want closure. They have spent days or weeks reading about the MC and worrying over how they would overcome their trials and tribulations. To some readers, favorite characters are like friends! Writing a fitting resolution allows your reader to end the story on a positive, satisfying note. Help them savor the reading experience. So, spend time figuring this one out. You and your readers won’t regret it.
Conflict is a book’s ‘spice of life’, and our characters’ motivations are the strings writers pull to generate it. When used well, the combination can inspire creativity, while elevating a mediocre story into a great one.
How about you? What story-writing tools do you use to get ‘unstuck’? Please share your experiences.