Story Foundations

My three favorite writing craft books changed the way I thought about structuring stories, not from a story plotting perspective, but for the emotional journey of the character. Because plot is all well and good (and necessary), but stories are powered by emotions.


Let's break these theories down a bit and combine the important components to make a super tool when first devising a story so you know you have a strong foundation before you start writing.


First, let's cover the basics in these books:

GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland &

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi


GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT

Debra Dixon explains that each story needs a:

Who: the main character

What: the goal

Why: the motivation

Why not: the conflict


She breaks these components into external and internal:

For me, the External side of the table comes more naturally. It's the plot. The character sets out to get a tangible thing that's important to them and faces challenges along the way.


(Side note: Kat Lewis has an excellent thread on Twitter about types of external goals you can check out here.)


The Internal side of this table is what always throws me. Because more often than not, my characters don't *realize* they have some internal desire and then act in a way to get it. Often the story forces them to confront a misbelief and that leaves me confused as to how to fill this out in a useful way.


My critique partners and I like to talk about Romance Reasons when we're reviewing each other's stories. The idea is that the reason is flimsy, but I'll go along with it because it serves the story and I want to get lost in the narrative.

I find I am able to fill out a GMC table in much the same way, but when I get into the thick of writing, I realize what I've outlined here is too flimsy to support the whole story.


I want to add some important pieces from K.M. Weiland to strengthen the tool and hold myself accountable (so I'm not filling out worksheets to procrastinate!).


CREATING CHARACTER ARCS

It's a bit challenging to attribute some of the definitions below because they are so commonly used across craft books, so I'm throwing out that caveat! These ideas are in K.M. Weiland's book, and I've also seen them used widely in others.


K.M. Weiland describes the character arc components as:

The Lie: The character holds onto a deep-seated misbelief about themselves, the world, or both

The Ghost: This lie stems from something traumatic that happened to the character (also called The Wound, which I like better)

The Truth: The Thing the character Needs (as opposed to the Thing the character Wants which is the external story goal). This is also the completion of the character arc.


STAKES

Stakes are an important part of writing a compelling story that is not explicit in these theories, in my mind.


What I often see when I review authors' GMC grids is that the stakes are baked into the motivation and they are often *positive stakes* only. The character wants something and it's going to bring them money/love/happiness, etc. if they get it. Which is great, but not everything!


I've added the question, What happens if the character doesn't achieve their goal? to force us to prove that the character doesn't only want their goal for personal reasons, but that something negative is going to happen if they don't succeed. That's what drives the intensity of the story. If the character fails and is no worse off because of it, the story isn't nearly as compelling as it could be.


Let's combine these definitions with the GMC table.


THE EMOTIONAL WOUND THESAURUS

My favorite part of this book is hidden all the way back in the appendix. There's a Character Arc Progression Tool that ties together the external GMC and the character arc with a blank version to photocopy. Honestly, the book is worth it for that alone (but also the rest of the book is excellent, too!)


Some details I'll include from Angela and Becca to add to our super tool:

Wound: Whatever happened in the Character's backstory that caused emotional trauma

Fear: That Wounding Event causes a fear that the same emotional trauma could happen again

Emotional Shielding: The Character develops a Lie, along with other biases, dysfunctional behaviors, etc. to prevent that emotional trauma from ever happening again. This keeps them from learning The Truth.

Unmet Need: Because of the wound/fear/emotional shielding, the Character now has an unmet need (from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) which creates the basis of the character arc.


PUTTING IT TOGETHER

I hope this was a helpful combination of three strong tools that shed some light on the intricacies of the character arc and how it underpins every piece of the story.


WANT ONE-ON-ONE HELP?

A large component of my developmental edits and manuscript evaluations is focused on character arcs and development. If you're looking to strengthen the underpinnings of your story but don't know how, check out my editorial services. I also offer outline reviews to make sure your story foundation is strong before you sit down to write.

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