People who have attended one of my workshops over the past few years have probably heard me refer to “goblin pirates riding space sharks” as an example of what not to do. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving, and even though it’s a real-life example that was paid for with blood, sweat, and tears, I feel like the experience was FULL of lessons that I both learned and share with others. And today I’m going to draw once again from that seemingly failed book, because at the core, there’s one question I could have asked that might have prevented lots of pain and suffering. And that question is:
Is this a real book? Or is it just a cool idea, or a collection of cool ideas?
Now, mind you, I did ask myself this. In fact, I went through and did what I thought was the process of plotting out the whole book, scene by scene. I wrote 80k words—how could I do that if there wasn’t a plot?? Plus, I’d written books before. So it’s not like I didn’t know what I was doing, right?
Then I went to pitch the book. I love pitching books in person, even though it can be a little nerve-wracking beforehand. I’ve done it several times. This time felt different though. So I went to lunch with author Bradley P. Beaulieu, someone who is not just a friend, but someone who I think really gets this stuff (and you should totally check out his Patreon, he gives a TON of good advice there). And I told him I was kind of feeling more petrified about pitching this book than I should have been, but I couldn’t explain why. He did what any good friend would do: He asked me the hard questions. By the end of lunch, I knew I was in really, really big trouble.
Mind you, I still went forward with the pitch. I’m not a quitter! But… I started to get the idea that maybe I was having such a hard time figuring out my pitch because I had no idea what my book was about.
Sure, I could go scene to scene and describe what happened. But what was my story ABOUT? Why should people sympathize with my characters? What was the heart of my story? I knew I SHOULD be able to ask that question…but I couldn’t (I didn’t admit that at the time to anyone, but I’m pretty sure it was obvious).
I pitched the novel to Josh Bilmes, who is a fantastic agent and honestly, handled it like a champ. He asked for some pages, but I knew he was just being nice—it was pretty damned clear this book was broken in SOME way. He probably knew right away what was wrong, but I was still somehow convinced…maybe I really sucked at pitching. Maybe I just wasn’t good at expressing my idea… I sent him my first 20 pages, and he sent me back a lovely personalized rejection.
I was a bit sad, even if I wasn’t surprised, so I did what you do and went to my BFF for consolation. And like a true friend…well, he was pretty blunt.
“Well, why didn’t you just add space sharks in there along with the goblin pirates and space ships and penal colonies and coming of age and father-daughter reunion and deep sea monsters and magic-that’s-science…?”
After telling him to go f*ck himself, I sat down and thought about it. And…well, shit. Hidden in his wise-assed remarks was some sagacity. Namely…
I had all kinds of cool shiny stuff in my book. But it didn’t take the place of an actual plot. My characters traveled and did stuff, but really, WHY?
Well, just like the chicken, of course. To get to the other side of the world. But WHY? Well, because my character had something to prove. WHY? Because no one likes her. Because she doesn’t fit in. Because…Because… she has daddy issues. And there are goblins and a giant octopus! Did you see the giant octopus??
Thank God, Mr. Bilmes did not get to the giant octopus part.
See, the thing is, everything that was wrong with the book could all be traced back to that big question. WHY? And at the point where I couldn’t answer that question anymore, I knew things were broken. My answer to “why” ended being, “Well, if there is all this cool shit in this book, how can a reader NOT like it?!” The answer to that is simple: If a reader can’t connect to your protagonist in some way, no matter how much cool shit there is in your book, they aren’t going to be engaged. I had a lot of good ideas, but I was missing a plot to connect to the reader, a plot that would make everything in the book have a reason and that would give the reader a reason to keep turning pages (other than, “OK, EVENTUALLY something is going to make sense here…”).
How can you make sure your book has a central plot and is engaging to readers, and not just a collection of cool ideas?
Well, asking yourself “why?” is a good place to start. Why are my characters on a quest? and go from there. Be specific. “Why is this one particular character on a quest to find this PARTICULAR thing?”
One way to help with this is to look at your story in terms of GMC—Goal, Motivation, Conflict. What is your character’s Goal—specifically. Not just, “My character wants to be loved.” By whom? What does this love look like? Can she touch it? If not, you need to look really hard at that goal.
What is her Motivation for wanting that specific goal? Why does she want it and not something else? Why is that the only thing that will satisfy? A way to twist it a little is to ask, why is SHE the right person to want that goal?
And then finally, what is the Conflict? What gets in the way of your character getting the goal. This needs to be something strong enough to sustain a whole book (or whatever length fiction you are working on). Can it be cleared up with a conversation? Then it’s not a strong enough conflict. Why is this the worst opposition your specific character can face? What is it about THIS conflict that makes it the RIGHT conflict for this character, for this story? What does your conflict look like? Sure, a book can be written where the antagonist is “society” or some vague concept…but are you at that point as a writer where you can do that? What is the visual representation of this concept, that readers can identify? In most genre fiction, the antagonist is defeated at the end. What does that LOOK like? How will readers know the defeat has happened?
Now, you can BS your way through this and answer the question, “What is my story’s GMC?” and think you have an answer. This is why you need to be really specific. Push the boundaries. Don’t settle for the easy answers. No, really, why DOES your character want to prove themselves? This will help you come up with your character’s backstory, and will make events in your story make sense. Being specific will also help make your character sympathetic, because readers will understand why they are going after this goal, instead of just going along for the ride to see what happens. Having a really strong motivation will deepen your character and make them real. And it will be clear to the reader why they are reading the book, why they SHOULD read the book.
The other thing having a strong GMC will do for your story is give it a razor sharp focus, so you as the writer will know exactly why everything is there, why everything is happening. You’ll be able to tell when things go off the rails if you can’t say, “How does this scene direct my protagonist to her goal?” or “How does this feed her motivation?” or “How does this get in the way of her specific goal?” If you can’t answer those questions about the scene, then it might not belong in your book.
Limiting the events and scenes of your book to those that only directly feed your main character’s GMC will make it very hard for those extraneous ideas that just seemed cool to take over the story. Because readers want more than just embellishment. They want to go on a real journey with your characters that matters. They want real stakes, they want real reasons they can relate to for going on this quest. They want to know WHY. And if you can’t answer that…how can anyone else? This is how I found out my book was actually just a collection of actions and reactions without a really core element of “why does this matter?”
Of course this isn’t the only way to make sure your book is on track and has a point, but it’s a starting point if you’ve found yourself stuck. And authors don’t always ask themselves these questions at different times in their process. Some will get a crappy first draft out and then try to identify what the point of it all is. Some will start doing this before they get a single word on the page. It all depends on you and what works the best in your process so YOU can get your book written.
GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain