Sometimes basic is best. Getting back to basics. Basic black. Basic humanity.
And so it is with writing. Every now and then, often in one of the revision stages of a story, it’s time to get back to the basics – the point, the goal, and the conflict of a story. That means it’s time to reach into the writer’s basic toolbox and pull out some old favorites to identify festering plot holes, shore up weak conflicts, and fix leaky sinks. Okay, maybe not that last one.
This lesson presented itself to me when I recently found my Harrow’s Finest Five book 1 revision slowly circling the drain (what is it with me and sinks today?). I was dissatisfied with the story stakes. As I read the manuscript, they didn’t seem to be escalating, further complicating heroine Emme’s life, and leading her to an inevitable clash with consequences of her own making.
An author has options at such times. Crying. Chocolate. Booze. Cyring into chocolate and booze. But I’ve heard it can actually be more empowering to use TOOLS. Powerful, writerly tools. In this case, I opted for the tools and pulled the conflict box out of my toolbox to see why my revision had gotten stuck and my story felt flat.
If you’ve followed either this blog or Jenny Crusie’s Argh Ink blog for a while, the conflict box might sound familiar. It captures the high-level, over-arching, book-long goals of both the protagonist and the antagonist.
This allows you to see, at a glance, whether you have a conflict ‘lock’. Does one character’s goal fly in complete opposition to the other character’s goal? If so, you have a conflict lock. If not, you probably need to go back to the drawing board.
Going deeper with the conflict box, you can also check your conflict lock and action/reaction pairs at each turning point, creating a row for each major story event. Reading through each row, you should see an action/reaction pair that makes sense and shows a continuously complicating cause and effect trajectory. Using the color coding to see how this happens, the box looks something like this. (I’ve included a just a few action words just to give you the gist of it while avoiding full-on spoilers, but a descriptive phrase or whole sentence in each field is usually necessary to capture the plot points and character actions.)
So, I have a conflict lock and cause and effect trajectory. The plot appears to have forward momentum and things get more complicated for each character as the story progresses. But looking at actions and reactions distilled down to brief sentences allows me to see that while there are stakes accompanying each action/decision point, the stakes seem pretty interchangeable, at least where the heroine is concerned. The stakes should escalate. They should drive the reader closer and closer to the edge of her seat. The deep, dark night of the soul has to get deeper and darker.
My conflict box, or at least reading back through my manuscript with my conflict box beside it, helped me see an additional problem. This is one I might not have recognized six or even three months ago, before I delved deeply into Lisa Cron’s Story Genius writing method. I know, I know, I talk about it all the time! But it’s been dominating my approach to writing and revising lately, so there’s no avoiding it. And one of the things Lisa hammers into our heads with her books, workshops, and courses is that story is not the what that’s occurring in the plot (although the what has to be in there, growing and deepening with each scene). It’s the why. Why does the protagonist do what she does? Why does she react to the antagonist’s actions the way she does? Why does it matter to her, and therefore to the reader? And how do these external things, these plot problems, force her to deal with her internal misbelief and pain?
The great thing about gathering tools into your own writer’s toolbox is the ability to dig through it to find, use, discard, or reconfigure each tool and approach as you need it. In this case, I didn’t want to lose the clarity the conflict box had given me, but I did want to make sure each action/reaction pair – including the escalating plot points I’ve had to tweak – tie into that why. At each turn, I want to make sure I know not only what the action/reaction pairs are, but also what the stakes are and why they matter to my characters. So I reconfigured the conflict box to meet these needs, and it looks something like this.
With all of this information distilled into the box, I can now identify weak points in my conflict and character trajectories. I have tweaked the internal and external stakes at the box level, and am now identifying where I have to tweak the manuscript itself. I really didn’t cry (very much). There was minimal chocolate intake, and whiskey consumption was held until after 5 PM most days. Because when I really needed to focus and dig and fix this damn thing, I had lots of handy-dandy tools in my writer’s toolbox, just waiting for me to remember I have them and really should use them early and often in the writing process.
Yes, there’s a limit to how many courses a sane person can take and craft books a busy writer can read, and it’s important to recognize when collecting tools is keeping you from actually using them to, you know, write stories. But the more you know, even if you’ve just been picking up tips like sites from this one, or Jenny Crusie’s or Chuck Wendig’s blogs, the sooner, faster, and more confidently you’ll be able to recognize and fix problems in your manuscript.
Have you had to go back to basics for your writing recently? What are your favorite go-to tools in your own toolbox? Do you think my reconfigured conflict box might be a helpful addition to your tool collection?