“‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”
– John le Carré
In a 1977 interview with the New York Times, spy novelist John le Carré explained that his stories began with a single character, and then he’d add another character to provide conflict and tension. Personally, I love this approach. After all, a story without conflict is dull and uninspired.
Once we know the characters, we can give them goals; once they have goals, we can toss obstacles in their paths. But for those obstacles to present real danger, we also need to define what’s at stake.
First, my disclaimer:
The following writing advice/exercises are only my own personal way of preparing for NaNoWriMo and setting up a plot. This is not the only way to plan for NaNoWriMo. If you already have a method that works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments because I’m all for learning how other authors write.
Conflict, as it pertains to writing, can be defined as anything that prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal. That’s it. But the conflict isn’t what makes the story; it’s how the main character responds to the conflict that moves the story forward.
Remember my Little Miss Muffett story? I had to add to the original nursery rhyme because a little girl dropping her curds and whey because a spider sat next to her isn’t much of a story; it’s more like the beginning of one. But what a beginning it is, and it’s a perfect example of Goal-Motivation-Conflict:
Goal: Miss Muffett wants to eat her curds and whey.
Motivation: She’s hungry.
Conflict: A spider sits beside her and scares her, causing her to spill her food as she runs off.
Did she achieve her goal? No. Nor will she until we get to the end of the story.
Now, we can end the story here, with Miss Muffett sobbing in a corner because she dropped her food, which would be a fine ending for a (very) short story. Maybe this is the start of a horror story and this spider is the first of a cluster of his brethren, and she will starve to death because of her arachnophobia. Or maybe Miss Muffett will take action against the spider. However it’s handled, she needs to respond to the conflict until she achieves her goal.
Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Three little words. Know them. Live them. Breathe them. And write accordingly.
So there are roughly four months until NaNoWriMo. That’s plenty of time to get to know your characters, give them goals, and then throw obstacles in their paths. And if you get stuck plotting what happens next, toss in another obstacle and let your character react.