Friday, November 09, 2018

Goals, Conflicts, & Stakes: Why Plots Need All Three

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A great plot has multiple story elements working in tandem. 

Goal - Conflict - Stakes. They're the Holy Trinity of plotting. They're the pieces that make up every scene and every plot in a novel, and without them, you're likely to find yourself lost in the literary woods trying to figure out what to do or where the story goes.

No matter what type of story you're writing, the goal-conflict-stakes trio is there. A character will want something (goal), there will be something preventing them from getting it (conflict), and a consequence if they fail (stakes).

What trips up many writers, is that all three of these have more than one use. For example, a novel will have both plot and story goals, internal and external conflicts, personal and story stakes. Knowing which one fits the scene you're working on will help you create a much tighter and more interesting plot.

Goals: The Fuel of the Plot

The goal is the driving force of the plot. The protagonist (or protagonists if you have  multiple POV characters) wants something. Probably a lot of somethings. Some of them will be small, such as finding something to eat, while others will be huge, such as stopping a terrorist attack on the White House. Whatever they are, they will determine how the protagonist acts, and that will determine how they plot (and thus 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 typically 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)

These goals work in tandem to create the novel and give the protagonist things to do between page one and the end. The protagonist knows what she wants, then she takes the steps to get there. 

What plot goals are not

Vague thematic statements, such as "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 figure out what happens in a scene.

Think of it like this: Go out right now and find love again. Um, you can't, not really. It's not as if "love again" is something you can go buy at the store. But you can "go to the museum and talk to cute guys." This will hopefully lead to love, and it's an external action a character can do.

That's why trying to ploy with story goals often leaves us hitting a plot wall at page 100. We know conceptually what we want our protagonist to do, but there's no concrete, actionable plan, because we have no goals to drive our scenes--just the end goal.

The story goal is an end desire, and the plot goals are the steps that will get the protagonist to that final desire. 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.

(Here's more on plotting with goals)

Conflicts: Making the Story Interesting

Conflicts are the things standing in the way of the protagonist's goal. These obstacles must be overcome for them to get what they want. Conflicts can be a person, a situation, or a personal struggle. 

Pretty much anything that prevents the protagonist from getting their goal or doing what needs to be done.

Internal vs External Conflicts

Again, there are two types here. Internal and external conflicts. 

Internal  conflicts are the issues the 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 they'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 his family would disown him and her family would kill him for doing it.

External conflict: To sneak off and meet the girl, he has to get past his suspicious father.

Internal conflicts drive the character growth, external conflicts drive the plot. You need both, but only the external conflict is going to hold up the plot and make things more challenging to accomplish. The internal conflict is going to make that plot more emotionally difficult to achieve.

What conflicts are not

Fighting or arguing. Yes, 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.

(Here's more on creating conflict in a scene)

Stakes: The Reason the Plot Matters

Stakes are the motivating factor for the 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 the 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 they can't find the bomb, the school will blow up. If he can't get past the death of his son he'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 the 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 legitimate things for readers to worry about. Story stakes are often 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 his child from the serial killer or save his 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 when either choice gives basically the same reward. 

For example, being torn between two women who are both great women, and you just don't want to hurt one of them. 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. 

Stakes are also not having to decide between two things where the answer is obvious, such as 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, and all options have a consequence.

(Here's more on crafting strong stakes in your novel)

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.

Do you make sure every scene has all three?

Find out more about conflict and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I am bookmarking this post. Right now.

  2. Great post, Janice. I like the way you divide between story level and character level in each case.

  3. Great post. I love how you show the examples for everything. It makes it so much clearer. Thanks.

  4. Laurel: Yippie! When I hear that I know I got a good one written. :)

    Juliette: Thanks!

    Natalie: Seeing examples always helps me, too :) Writing them is also helpful since it forces me to really think about it.

  5. I've been a lurker...and I just have to say thanks. I inevitably get stuck about 100 pages into a novel, even when I know the ending. It's the hardest part of a book for me. Putting a definition on it -- plot vs. story goals -- just made my day.

  6. Great post! This helps alot. Thanks for posting!

  7. This post was so helpful and clear. You are a natural teacher. Thank you so much!

  8. Great post! I've had a lot of trouble identifying my conflicts/goals in my story, because my character secretly wants love but she doesn't realise she does ;) So her obvious goals at the beginning are to NOT be pressured into loving again.

  9. Megan: Glad I got you to de-lurk :) And you just made my day. I was very excited about this post and I'm thrilled it's resonating with folks.

    Summer: Most welcome!

    Suzie: Thanks! I do enjoy doing it.

    Trisha: That's one of the harder things to plot. I think you just gave me next week's Friday post. How do you use unconscious goals?

  10. I find it hard to have the conflict in scenes connect to the story goal in a way that builds logically too the climax. Sometimes I feel like I'm just making shit happen just because it has to. It starts to feel like a delay tactic.

  11. Just for clarification, and at risk of appearing very stupid, would a character-driven novel only have personal stakes since the story goal is about character growth and there's no world shattering consequences if the character doesn't change?

    Again, another helpful post, even if I do end up having to ask silly questions!
    - Sophia.

  12. this! Great break down between story and character.

  13. Great post! Goals mess me up every time. This is really helpful. Thanks.

  14. You know, I just realized this is the only blog I have a particular folder for, just to save the posts. I have dozens in there!

  15. Brilliant post.

    It gave me a lot to think about.

    Thank you yet again.


  16. I'm definitely keeping this on file. I think I might look it over for every major scene from now on.

  17. I wish I'd had this post on hand a few years ago. The story goals vs plot goals is exactly why I hit a wall with my first major project. I knew exactly where I wanted it to go with story goals, but I was struggling with how to get there. I've started doing more plotting out with my current projects, but this explains why what I'm doing is helping me make progress and adds in a few things I hadn't fully thought about. Great post!

  18. Sophia: Not a silly question at all :) Sometimes, yes, sometimes, no. It depends on the story itself. A lot of YA fiction has very personal stakes and not a lot of major story stakes because the story is about a coming of age topic. But there can still be story stakes that aren't world-shattering.

    In Deadline, the protag finds out just before his senior year that he's dying, and decides not to tell anyone so he can pursue every dream and live his last year of high school to the fullest. The story stakes are all about what he wants to become before he dies, his personal stakes are about those individual goals he sets. There's a bigger picture, but it's only big to him and those close to him. It's not about the world, but *his* world. Does that make sense? Stakes don't have to be action-movie huge. They just have to matter to the protag.

    The world-shattering consequences might just be your protag's world, not the whole real world. "World-shattering" is subjective here. Does that help? Let me know if I need to go into something more.:)

    Sherri: Thanks!

    Jane: They are tough. It took me a long time to work this all out myself. It wasn't until I figured out there were levels to goals that things stared to click into place.

    Wen: Oh cool, I have my own folder :)Thanks!

    Misha: Thanks :)

    Paul: It works even on minor scenes. If you keep this in mind in every scene, it makes it a lot easier to keep the plot and story moving and keep readers reading.

  19. This is, yet again, an amazing post.

    I am just now getting better with stakes, and figuring out how to separate the personal goals with the story goals. Something I've never heard mentioned though is: "Good stakes force the protag to make a choice where both choices have a bad consequence." This is huge. This makes so much sense to me.

    Could you explain why both choices have to be bad? I feel like I have a murky understanding--suspense is created because the protag has to make a choice, and either way he's going to loose something. But why wouldn't choosing between two wonderful women be a good example? He has to choose, and in doing so, hurts one of the woman he cares for. He also might wonder if he's made the right choice.

    Something else I am struggling with is doing plot layers. Not subplots, separate problems for the main character unrelated to the plot, but causing them extra trouble. I love reading really layered books, but I find when I sit down to write a book like that it feels like I am diluting the stakes and conflict of the main plot instead of sharpening it. Any thoughts?

  20. Jaleh: We must have cross posted :) I did the same thing with my first novel, (and my second truth be told). That's awesome that your plots are coming together now.

    Elizabeth: If there are no consequences, then the choice doesn't matter. You *can* come up with a good plot and stakes revolving around a love triangle (and so many do) but it's also one of those plots I've seen many a writer struggling with. If the ONLY consequence is someone gets their feelings hurt, so what? That's usually not a compelling enough reason to read a book. If hurting the woman he cares for leads to something else, and wondering if he made a mistake has a larger consequence as well, then it could work fine.

    It also plays into why a reader should keep reading. What kind of plot events can you have leading up to that choice? Lots of dates? The plot wouldn't have much to hold up a story, because there would be little to no real conflict. There's nothing to *overcome*, just something to decide. hmmm, maybe I should do a full post on this? I have more to say than I thought, LOL)

    Separate problems are still going to relate to the plot in some way, even if that's small. Otherwise why have them there? If they're there just to cause trouble, odds are they won't feel very important and fade into background noise, very likely slowing your pacing.

    But you can still have other stuff happen in subtle ways. If your protag has an inner conflict, a small problem can illustrate that conflict. Such as, if she has to lie (and she hates lying) to eventually get a major goal, then she might early on be put into a situation where lying would save her, but she doesn't and this causes her trouble. You establish her morality and show how it's affected her. That trouble might lead to something more plot related, even if all it does it make her turn right instead of left and that wrong turn puts her where she needs to be for a plot event.

    No matter what happens in the story, it should in some way affect the core conflicts, either external or internal. It doesn't have to be a *direct* effect, though. It can be a minor nudge in the right direction. Sunday's post on the inciting event may shed more light on this, and I think this will be the next Find Your Plot post. You gave me two great ideas to talk more about! Thanks :)

  21. It came a little late but once again you have blown my mind with new understanding! Thanks for your reply Janice, it was the boost I needed for everything to click into place.
    - Sophia.

  22. Elizabeth: Just found a post I did on layers.

    Sophia: Anytime. There's more on choices to come this week as well.

  23. This is a great post. I'm writing a plot-based YA novel and I was able to use your post to list what the different goals, conflicts and stakes are. Like Sophia, I'm not sure if my story has a story stake, but I'll see if I can come up with one. Thanks for this!

  24. Thanks Janice! This is a fantastic post. I'm using it to double check myself on my "final revision" before querying. Going through each chapter to make sure the goal, conflict and stakes are well-defined so that I keep the reader engaged and avoid soggy-middle-syndrome! So far, it's working great!

  25. Ghenet: Most welcome!

    Nicole: Awesome :) I do that myself.

  26. Tremendous, Janice. Dead on target as usual!

  27. This is a great post. I've never had problems coming up with or identifying goals & conflicts in my storys. I've always thought that the pairing of the two was always the simplest key to creating drama.

    However the 'stakes' element is something that I would never normally think of, which is so crazy because after reading this it feels like the missing ingredient I've always been lacking even though in hindsight it's common sense. Brilliant.

  28. Stakes just might be the most critical of the three. If you don't care, why read? Anytime a scene of mine feels boring, I check the stakes. Almost always I don't have a good enough reason for readers to care what happens.

  29. Thank you for this clear concise review of the elements of fiction. I was struggling to write a concise story goal to describe my WIP and kept branching off into tangents. Now I have a clear structure to organize my meandering description. Clarity rules!

  30. I will be going through my first three chapters to make sure I have these 3 elements, too. Would personal and story stakes correlate with inner and external goals and conflicts?

    1. Mostly, yes. There's some overlap depending on the type of story, but generally the personal stake is tied to the inner conflict and the story stake is tied to the external conflict.

  31. I've been struggling a lot recently with the plot in my current WIP because I have all story goals and internal angst, but no solid external conflict. I've tried to add it in several times, but it always felt extraneous and ancillary to what I wanted to do with the story. I think the examples in this post might have finally shown me how to bridge the gap between the two. Thank you for another great post :)