I read a lot for pleasure, but I also love to learn how to become a better writer by focusing on what amazing authors do right. Like, when I recently re-read NINETEEN MINUTES by Jodi Picoult, I asked myself Why does this work so well?
(For more writing lessons learned from NINETEEN MINUTES, click here)
Why did this book work so well? It's tough to sum it all up, but I'd say it was conflicting story goals. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell reminds us to not only create conflict, but to create character goals that conflict with each other. Picoult does this brilliantly. How? She embeds conflict into who the characters are.
Hang with me a bit while I mind-map these conflicting character goals from NINETEEN MINUTES:
Character: Peter Houghton
Teen boy/outcast/bullying victim/school shooter
Story goal: stop the torment
Character: Lacy Houghton
Midwife/prenatal counselor/mother of shooter
Story goal: protect her son
Character: Josie Cormier
Teen girl/former outcast turned popular/former best friend to shooter
Story goal: to fit in
Character: Alex Cormier
Small town judge/single mother to teen daughter, Josie
Story goals: protect her daughter; be a good judge
Character: Patrick DuCharme
Single man/small town detective
Story goals: protect his small town, solve the case, bring healing through justice
- The shooter experienced torment every day at school. He just wanted it to stop. Speaking up to authorities only made the bullying worse.
- The mother of the shooter and the mother of the victim, both trying to protect their children. One's a judge who must follow the law. The shooter's mother counsels other parents on how to raise their children.
- The former outcast and friend of the shooter became popular. She used to protect him from bullies, but now she's a silent bystander. Associating with him would damage her need to fit in, but the nuggets of early friendship remain.
- The small town detective often feels like he's too late to save anyone. Justice isn't always within his control. He must discover and unveil the truth, no matter how ugly it is.
What do you think of these character notes? Do you ever pick apart a story and characters to figure out why they work so well? Do you struggle to add organic conflict? If you're good at it, please share your own tips!