Nancy: Goals and Conflict, aka Everything Old Is New Again

This might or might not be an accurate depiction of me upon realizing I’ve done it again.


I like to say that I can be taught. That I can learn from my mistakes. That writing, like life, is a process, and part of that process is continuous improvement. Yes, I like to say I’m getting better, but then I do things that make a liar out of me.

Case in point: I’ve been working on the next book in the Harrow’s Finest Five series, Three Husbands and a Lover, for those of you keeping track at home. This is Percy’s story (Captain Lord Granville), who is the group cut-up, thrill-seeker, and all around flirtatious cad. But I knew, from the inception of the series, that all his light frivolity was hiding a dark inner life. This is crunchy stuff, the kind a writer likes to sink her teeth into. But it took a few bites for me to get there.

In the pre-discovery phase of the book, which is when characters with some vague motivations, snippets of conversations, and partial scenes float around in brain, untethered from each other and any kind of story logic, this was a very different story from what it is today. And that’s fine. That’s why I do discovery work – to excavate and sift and reveal a few tiny gold nuggets per metric ton of crap.

Turns out our heroine, Finola, had a goal in the initial story iteration. It was a good, strong, “close-your-eyes-and-you-can-see-it” goal. But it didn’t have anything to do with Percy, who didn’t yet have a raison d’être of his own beyond “get Finola in bed.” Which is, on some level, a goal of each of my characters. It wasn’t unique to Percy or that dark inner life he’s leading. When I dug around a bit more in his past, I discovered he already had the whisper of a concern popping up in the previous books in the series. I was able to flesh it out, tie it to his dark mental state, and mess with it by bringing Finola into his orbit in pursuit of her own goal that would get in his way. Yay, cross-purpose goals! That way lies conflict, which pushes along the core narrative, which is the beating heart of story!

As you can imagine, it all went swimmingly from there. Each time I sat down at the keyboard, it was all unicorns and rainbows and environmentally-friendly ticker-tape parades. Ahem. Or not.

About a month ago, as I chugged past the midpoint of the story, I stopped and looked behind me and realized Percy’s goal was gone. Disappeared. Hadn’t made an appearance on the page since somewhere around the first midpoint some 40 pages earlier. The good news: I had an explanation for the severe writer’s block that plagued me for about a week. The bad news: 40 friggin’ pages without the hero’s goal! At least Finola’s was still there, and she was using it to blow up Percy’s life, which is often fun for a heroine to do. She just wasn’t blowing up his goal because, you know, he’d stopped worrying about that all-important, I-must-have-it-or-I’ll-die! aspiration 40 PAGES AGO.

The first step toward fixing a story problem is admitting you have a story problem. The second step is identifying what the issue is. The third step…well, not gonna lie, the third step is often hell. But we are writing craftspeople. We have a writer’s toolbox, and inside it are tools! In this case, I reached in and pulled out the perfect one to help me get Percy’s goal back into the story and make sure Finola’s actions to achieve her own goal were going to stop Percy at every turn. Behold, I give you the conflict lock box, described here by Eight Ladies mentor Jenny Crusie. Below is a snippet of my version of the conflict lock box, truncated so as not to show all the spoilers in the story.

(I beefed up the text in example because, while I understand the context of short phrases, it’s not that easy for someone else to follow the plot that is unbeknownst to them and see the blocks that way. But you get the idea.) I continued the box with the remaining major actions/reactions of each character, and went back to my pages to see when, where, and how I needed to work in Percy’s goal and his pursuit of it. Now I’ve written forward with both main characters’ goals at the forefront of my brain so as not to lose track of them again.

But wait, I wasn’t done! Because in making my conflict lock box, I saw that I was heading down a well-worn path of writing snafus with my story stakes as well. I have a very bad habit of having the character actions result in non-escalating stakes at each of the major turning points. Turning points are there. Resultant consequences appear. Stakes are stated. They just tend not to get more dire and arc ever more dangerously from previous stakes at previous story junctures. In fact, I’ve written about this bad habit of mine before on the blog in a post about Daniel and Emme’s story (no spoilers here, because the story changed dramatically after this post).

I don’t know why I do this. Perhaps a love of my characters that makes me over-protective of them? Regardless, I needed another table to correlate the turning point actions/reactions for each character to the stakes they caused, and make sure they were getting into deeper and darker territory every time. It looks a little like this, also truncated:

I used these tools to get Percy and Finola’s story back on track, although I continue to return to the boxes to shore up conflict blocks and escalating stakes. It’s a process. But at least I’m heading toward the final act of the first draft and should complete it by mid-April. After that, I’ll give it a few weeks’ rest, and then I’ll “only” have revisions to complete. Nothing bad or stressful or soul-crushing ever happens during the revision process, right? Nothing but good times ahead, right? What could possibly go wrong?

What story elements are you making, breaking, or fixing this week?


5 thoughts on “Nancy: Goals and Conflict, aka Everything Old Is New Again

  1. Probably all of us, except maybe Nora Roberts, go down the same rabbit holes time after time no matter what we think we’ve learned. I know I do. The words I delete! It’s unbelievable. And then there was the time, I’m sure I reported this during our spell in McD, when I was at the RWA conference, attending an early-morning Q&A talkfest with Jenny and Patricia Gaffney. Someone from the audience asked, now that they both had written so many books, did it get easier? And Patricia Gaffney threw her head back and laughed so hard I thought she’d have a hernia, and Jenny dropped her head on the table with such a thunk I thought she’d have a concussion. It took them a few minutes to recover. And so I surmised from their reactions was that, no, it doesn’t really get easier.

    I’m having my same-old on the current WIP. Lost the conflict. Lost the stakes. Can’t find the conflict. You know. The usual.

    • I know ‘the usual’ far too well, Kay! I think some books are easier to write than others, and some aspects of writing get easier the more you do it. But then you work on a book that just stops you cold and you wonder if you’ve forgotten how to do it. Come to think of it, I think I hit that point at least once on every project, even the ‘easy’ ones!

  2. I thought I was doing OK until I went back and looked at the beginning of my manuscript and realized that the bargain that Nate and Susanna make at the very beginning pretty much falls off the page after the first three chapters. So now I have to go back and figure out how to resurrect that somehow. It doesn’t help that I got a great idea from my son about what to do in the story, but the bad part is that it’s sort of derailed me right now. And I’m just at the halfway point. Now I’m wondering what’s going to happen in the rest of the book!

    • Not knowing what is coming is the part that would derail me. I have to constantly update my (loose and brief) outline as changes occur in the story, or I totally lose the thread. Good luck in getting back on track, which might become easier once you’ve had some time to cogitate.

  3. Pingback: Nancy: Happy April and Accountability! – Eight Ladies Writing

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