Plotting is all about what characters do to achieve a goal, resolve a conflict, and avoid a consequence. In essence–goals-conflicts-stakes. These three elements make up every scene, and in turn, those scenes make up the novel. Drop any one of them, and the scene (and story) suffers.
Have you ever read a novel that felt like it wasn’t going anywhere? Odds are it had weak or nonexistent goals, so there was nothing for the characters to do or strive for to drive the plot. What about a novel where you didn’t care what happened? Probably a lack of stakes–if nothing bad happens if the characters fail, then why care if they succeed? Or what about a novel where every problem is solved with zero effort and it’s obvious what was going to happen next? I bet there’s no conflict at all to keep the protagonist on her toes and keep readers guessing.
Let’s take a closer look at the three things every scene needs:
Goals drive your plot. The protagonist wants something, and she’ll act to get it. What she does is what the scene is about. How it’s resolved will move the plot to the next scene. She’ll keep wanting and acting until she gets to the final goal (the whole purpose for the book) and then that goal in finally resolved and the novel ends.
There are two types of goals: story goals and plot goals.
Story goals are the larger thematic goals that usually describe the character growth or the idea behind the novel. They’re often more conceptual, and work as a guide in determining the types of plot goals your protagonist will encounter. These goals are not resolved until the end of the novel. You might only have a few story goals in an entire book (main plot + main subplots).
Plot goals are the physical things the protagonist does to achieve those more lofty story goals. These are the scene-driving needs that get resolved early and often and move the plot forward. You might have dozens of goals over the course of an entire novel (main plot + subplots).
Example: A story goal about winning the science fair will result in plot goals that lead the protagonist to winning the fair. She’ll decide on her science project. She’ll do her experiments. She’ll build her display. She’ll present her findings. She’ll compete against those vying for the same reward.
Think of plot goals as the steps a character needs to take to reach the story goal.
Exercise: Find Your Goals
- What is the story goal for your novel? (the one big thing that must be achieved?)
- What are the individual plot steps needed to achieve this goal?
- What other goals might your protagonist have? (subplots or character arc goals)
- What are the major plot turning point goals? (open scene, inciting event, act one plan, midpoint plan, act two plan, climax plan)
While goals keep the plot moving forward, they can’t make a novel interesting all on their own. They need obstacles to keep those goals from being too easily resolved.
Conflicts are the problems keeping your protagonist from getting her goal, and they’re what keeps the novel from feeling boring and stale. They change the plan and force the protagonist to figure out a way to solve the problem facing her so she can get what she wants (the goal).
Conflict can be a person, a situation, or a personal struggle. It can be a direct opposition (such as a bad guy actively trying to stop the protagonist from acting) or an impossible situation (such as a girl wanting to go to school in a land where girls are executed for learning to read).
Just like with goals, there are two types of conflict: internal and external.
Internal conflicts are the issues the protagonist faces on the inside on a mental or emotional level. There’s nothing physically in her way, but achieving her goal will force her to do something she’s not comfortable with. They force characters to make hard choices. Trying to plot using only internal conflicts can make a book feel aimless, because there’s no external problem to overcome to drive the scenes.
External conflicts are the physical things in the protagonist’s way that require action to get around or overcome. They’re problems to be solved. Trying to plot with just external conflicts can make a book feel pointless, because there’s no hard choices to make to give the actions meaning.
Example: For our science fair hopeful, her external conflict might be her nemesis, who’s consistently beat her in every science fair since third grade. In order to win, she has to beat this girl. The internal conflict might have her discover her nemesis’s project got unplugged, and without power, she’ll surely fail. Does our hero plug it back in or not? Is this how she wants to win? She can get her goal (win) but at the cost of cheating (conflict).
Internal conflicts drive the character growth they way external conflicts drive the plot. The internal conflict typically makes the external conflict harder to accomplish. Good conflicts often force the protagonist to make a choice where both choices have consequences.
Exercise: Find Your Conflicts
- What are the core conflicts of your novel? Both external (the big story goal) and internal (the character arc goal)?
- Using your goal steps from #2, what are some conflicts the protagonist might encounter? Who or what is in her way at each step? What hard choices will she have to make?
- How does the internal conflicts make achieving the external goals harder?
- How does resolving the internal goals help the character grow over the course of the novel?
Goals and conflicts keep things moving in interesting and unpredictable ways, but in order to care about what’s happening, readers want to know the cost of failure. And it had better be high.
Stakes are the reasons the protagonist is going to all the trouble of the novel. They’re what’s motivating her to act, the reasons she’s not just walking away, and why she has to act right now and not a year from now. Stakes are the consequences if she doesn’t succeed. The higher the stakes, the more tension you create and the more compelling the plot will be. They’re the “or else” in every threat.
You guessed it–there are two types of stakes here as well: personal stakes and story stakes.
Personal stakes are the consequences the protagonist doesn’t want to have happen because it will hurt her personally. They affect her life and the lives of the people closest to her. Personal stakes are the stakes that really drive a plot. They make the reader care about the outcome as much as the protagonist does. They’re also what’s keeping the protagonist from running away when it gets tough.
Story stakes are the consequence that will happen on a larger scale if the protagonist fails. Often, it’s the consequence for failing the main story goal (the big story problem has an equally big story consequence). This also affects the protagonist, but not always in the same deeply personal way personal stakes do (such as, “the world ends” affects everyone, but something more personal is making her act and risk herself to save it).
Personal stakes are also things that can and likely will happen. Story stakes often are the bigger more horrible outcome, and something the protagonist is trying to stop, but odds are it won’t actually come true. We know the hero is going to stop the evil sorcerer in the end, though he might kill the hero’s best friend before he’s caught.
One thing to remember about stakes: stakes work best when they escalate as the story unfolds. Things should get harder and cost more the closer the protagonist gets to the end. If the book opens with the protagonist’s life in danger, there’s nowhere to go, so you’ll never build enough tension and worry to keep readers reading. If everything the protagonist does has the same consequence, then nothing she does really matters. So if it’s a life and death tale, add in smaller and more personal stakes to keep the pressure on until the life and death part matters the most.
Example: Our science fair hopeful wants to win the fair, and not winning will no doubt be upsetting–but do you really care if she wins or loses? Probably not, since it holds no consequence for failure. But what if she’s on academic probation and her scholarship depends on her winning? Or her acceptance to college hinges on her placing first? Or her nemesis is really an evil supervillain who’s going to use her project to melt the ice caps and drown the world unless the protagonist can stop her (which would change the goals a little, but you get the gist of how this works now)?
The stronger the stakes, the more readers will care about the outcome of a conflict. Personal is usually better, as bad things happening to faceless people rarely make us care. But put a character we love at risk? Then her success matters a great deal.
Exercise: Find Your Stakes
- What is at stake if the protagonist fails (both the story stakes and the personal stakes)?
- What it at stake for the smaller goals along the way?
- Why doesn’t the protagonist want these consequences to occur? Why are they bad for her and those around her?
- At what points in the plot do the stakes escalate? (aim for the major turning points at least)
Stakes are the glue that hold the goals and conflicts together. They make readers care about the outcome of the scene and the characters in it.
Craft strong scenes that build off one another and you’ll craft a solid plot. Strong bricks make strong walls, so make sure the building blocks of your plot are the strongest they can be.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. You can learn more about her at her Website or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
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