Author and writing coach Joe Nassise brings us The Three C’s of Story: Characters, Conflict and Consequences.
His analysis is so simple, it approaches genius. Nassise lays out three elements:
- Characters must have goals
- Goals must be in conflict with each other
- There must be consequences for failure (stakes)
Stories are about people who do; they think, feel, decide and act
The majority of stories are about single individuals with a specific goal. Whatever your cast of characters, they are the core of story that readers care about, not the plot or the setting.
Nacisse emphasises character goals under his first ‘C.’ The characters’ goals are the engine of the story. Without something to strive for, to have, hold or achieve, they just drift. While some authors can make drifting through life entertaining, most of us can’t.
The opposition must have a goal as well. Otherwise the antagonist becomes a cardboard cutout, not a credible opposition at all.
Conflict is the bed rock of story. As we like to say, without conflict there is no story, just a series of (dull) events. Conflict can take many forms, it’s not all explosions and spaceships. Love triangles, professional rivalry, family jealousy, generational differences. Add your own list here.
These are the stakes, the flip side of goals; what are the stakes if the goals are not attained? Consequences are generally outcomes that must be avoided. Failure to achieve goals should make things worse. Nothing loses reader interest like a ‘so what?’ outcome.
It doesn’t have to be life or death. It could be a lifetime of penury married to Mr Collins (yes, collect a sticker), missing out on a promotion, or losing your trousers at a office party.
Charting the Three C’s
These three ‘C’s provide enough of a checklist to verify almost any story. Mapping characters and their goals, the core conflicts, and the consequences of failure is an acid test too many authors ignore. A really simple chart will do the trick. Try these headings across the top:
- Character – your cast, with a row for each significant character in the story.
- Goal – what does each character want
- Conflict – who are they in conflict with (cross-reference your cast), and what’s the nature of it?
- Consequences – what is the price (stakes) of losing the conflict?
Your protagonist will have multiple rows of characters they are in conflict with and potentially multiple rows of consequences for each conflict. Not all of them have to occur, but the very prospect should raise the stakes and the tension through the story. Dangle those consequences in dire warnings in front of the reader. Readers love a disaster averted as much as a disaster recovered.
If this doesn’t clarify the body of the story, nothing will.
Given that we’re leading on character, not plot, additional layers of conflict between characters will generate further plot ideas.