Storymakers 2015: recipes for sauces of awesomeness in writing (character, conflict, stakes)

LDStorymakers Conference was this weekend, and it was fantastic. I wish I could download everything I heard and saw and share it with everyone–it was inspiring and enlightening and invigorating. In lieu of that, I’m doing a couple of posts sharing some of my favorite thoughts and moments in hopes that it may spark something for someone else too. 🙂

Interestingly, nearly every class I attended alluded to one or more of: Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. I suppose these are pretty prevalent stories in our culture, but I also think this tells us something about the appeal these stories have–there’s something there worth learning from. Also, I heard two unforgivable character sins mentioned more than once: flat-out stupidity (not to be confused with understandable bad decisions) and whining/self pity. An overarching theme of the classes I attended was the focus on character, conflict, stakes and emotion.

Bestselling author Jennifer Nielsen emphasized that characters are the most important element of a story, and that the main character must have clear and desperate goals. She said, “Every scene is a fight scene.” This doesn’t mean every scene is an argument or a battle, but that every scene should be about the character’s struggle (against internal and external forces) to reach their goal. The protagonist must be proactive and have some trait that makes us invest in their story and connect to them emotionally. The antagonist is just as important: a strong, well-developed antagonist (whether human, animal, nature itself, or an internal force) makes for a strong story and for a protagonist who becomes strong in his or her struggle against the antagonist who stands in the way of his or her goals. Every word and every scene in the story must count and move readers toward the climax–the fulfillment of that desperate goal–and it needs to deliver a big payoff. Stick the landing!

Likewise, award-winning author and MFA professor Martine Leavitt said that the biggest mistake she sees in student work is stories with character whom readers don’t want to follow. The character doesn’t have to be “likeable” in a traditional way (think of TV’s House), but they must have a trait that makes us cheer for them (and being pitted against a good antagonist can do that: House is a jerk, but he’s brilliant, and he’s fighting scary, overwhelming antagonists in the forms of mysterious, deadly diseases in others and pain and addiction in himself). According to Leavitt, the main character’s desire (desperate goal) is the engine of the story, as well as its fuel and destination. Everything in a story should be about developing the character and/or their struggle to reach their goal (they may not achieve it–they may learn it’s not what they really want or need–but they and the entire story have to be driven by it).

Agent Victoria Marini said that character and voice cover a multitude of sins, while flat characters and lack of conflict or urgency (stakes) are high on the list of reasons a manuscript is rejected. She emphasized showing, not telling–putting readers in the important action and letting them see it unfold instead of just reporting on it later. This helps develop that emotional connection and interest. She also gave some great advice for keeping a plot moving and the conflict and stakes high: every question answered should raise a new question. By extension, I would say every problem solved should raise a new problem until they all come together at the climax.

That’s it, folks: characters, conflicts, stakes. Obviously there are other issues like voice, grammar, subplots, dialogue, and the elusive but essential emotional connection that also have to come together at some point in the writing process, but this is the heart. It’s what every good query is and what every good story has. It’s why some authors like to write their query early in the drafting/writing process: because you have to know these things to build the rest of your story, and these are the elements that will keep readers reading.

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