Goal - Conflict - Stakes. It's the Holy Trinity of plotting. Without those, you have no plot. They're so vital to the structure and telling of your story that you also need them to write a good query or a good synopsis. But knowing what type of goal of what makes a good conflict, let alone a compelling stake, can be a challenge.
One note here... this advice is geared more toward plot-oriented stories. They can still be character-driven stories, but a solid plot is at the core. Literary novels and slice of life novels usually don't follow the same structure. But for most commercial fiction (especially genre fiction), this should help you figure out your plot.
The goal is the driving force of your story. Your protagonist (or protagonists if you have multiple POV characters) wants something. Probably a lot of somethings. Some of them will be small, like finding something to eat, others will be huge, like stopping a terrorist attack on the White House. Whatever they are, they will determine how your protagonist acts, and that will determine how your story unfolds.
Story Goals vs Plot Goals: There's a difference between story goals and plot goals. Story goals are the larger thematic goals that usually describe the character growth or the idea behind the tale. They're more conceptual, and work as a guide in determining the types of plot goals your protagonist will encounter. Plot goals are the physical things your protagonist does to achieve those more lofty story goals.
Story goal: To find love again after a bad breakup. (this is what the story is about)
Plot goal: To go to the museum and talk to cute guys. (this is one thing the protagonist does during the story)
What plot goals are not: Vague thematic statements, like "find love again" or "learn to trust others." Those are great motivators for a goal, and are important to your characters, but from a plotting standpoint, they don't help you. Think of it like this: Go out right now and find love again. Um, you can't, not really. It's not like "love again" is something you can go get at the store. But you can "go to the museum and talk to cute guys." That's why story goals often leave us hitting that plot wall at page 100. We know conceptually what we want our protagonist to do, but there's no concrete, actionable plan.
The story goal is an end desire, and the plot goals are the steps that will get the protagonist to that final want. Sometimes the story goal and the plot goals are the same, especially in more plot-driven novels. Then, those thematic elements often become part of the character's growth.
Conflicts are the things standing in the way of the protagonist's goal. The obstacles that must be overcome for them to get what they want. They can be a person, a situation, a personal struggle. Pretty much anything that prevents the protagonist from getting their goal or doing what needs to be done.
Internal vs External Goals: Again, there are two types here. Internal and external conflicts. Internal conflicts are the issues your protagonist faces on a mental or emotional level. They want that new dress they can't afford, but stealing is wrong. They love the girl, but she's from the rival family you're in a blood feud with. External conflicts are the physical things in the protagonist's way. Things that require action to get around or overcome. Getting past security to steal the dress. Suffering through detox to get clean. Trying to plot using only internal conflicts will leave you frustrated, because there's no actionable thing in the way to overcome.
Internal conflict: Loving the girl, but knowing your family would disown you and her family would kill you for doing it.
External conflict: To sneak off and meet the girl, you have to get past your suspicious father.
Internal conflicts drive the character growth, external conflicts drive the plot. You need both, but only the external one is going to hold up your plot. The internal one is going to make that plot so much harder to accomplish.
What conflicts are not: Fighting or arguing. Sometimes fighting or arguing is required to deal with the conflict but "arguing with Bob" isn't something that's standing in the way of getting a goal. You might argue with Bob as a distraction so your buddy can sneak past him, or beat up the guard standing between you and the cell door so you can escape, but the actual fighting part isn't the conflict.
Stakes are the motivating factor for your protagonist's goals, and why they have to overcome those conflicts right now. Stakes are what happens if they don't succeed. Stakes are bad. Stakes are killer. The higher the stakes, the more tension you create and the more compelling the plot. They're the "or else" in every threat.
Personal Stakes vs Story Stakes: You guessed it -- there are two here as well. Personal stakes are the stakes your protagonist doesn't want to have happen because it will hurt them personally. They'll lose their job, the bad guy will kill them, it goes against everything they believe in. Story Stakes are those things that matter to the world at large. Often, it's part of the story goal. If the cop doesn't catch the killer he'll kill again. If you can't find the bomb the school will blow up. If you can't get past the death of your son you'll wind up committing suicide.
Personal stakes are the stakes that really drive a story. They make the reader care about the outcome as much as the protagonist does. They keep the reader reading. They're also what's keeping your protagonist from running away when it gets tough. What stops them from saying, "Yes, we don't really want the evil sorcerer to take over and enslave the city, but if we take off right now, we can be far away when it happens and we won't have to die." It's better if they can't run because a loved one is being held captive by that evil sorcerer and if they run, that person dies. Personal risk is much more compelling that faceless tragedy. That's why one family dying in a car crash on Christmas Eve hits us harder than millions of people dying of a terrible disease every year.
Personal risks are also things that can and likely will happen. They move the story forward and can be real things to worry about. 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 serial killer in the end, though he might kill the hero's wife or child before he's caught.
Personal stakes: Save your child from the serial killer or save your wife. (consequences to either choice that matter personally)
Story stakes: Stop the serial killer before he kills again. (a terrible consequence, but doesn't really affect the protagonist on a personal level)
What stakes are not: Trying to decide between two different things if either choice gives them basically the same reward (having to choose between things where both sides has a sacrifice is good). Being torn between two women who are both great women, where one of them is going to get hurt and you love them both. Taking a job in New York vs California where you'd have to choose between staying with your friends and family or striking out on your own. It's also not having to decide between two things where the answer is obvious. Pull the level and save the world, don't pull it and everyone dies. Well, duh, you're going to pull the level. Good stakes force the protagonist to make a choice where both choices have a bad consequence.
Having solid goals, conflicts, and stakes will give your story a strong foundation on which to grow. The stronger that foundation, the more you can put on it and the more interesting the final story will be.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. 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.
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