Monthly Archives

February 2016

Raise the Stakes in Your Story with Goal, Motivation & Conflict

- writing tips

Stack of Paper by Typewriterby Kelli A. Wilkins

Hi everyone!
Here’s a question for you: What do you want? It can be anything: a new car, to lose ten pounds, or get a fantastic new job. (That’s your goal.)

Now what’s your motivation for wanting that? Prestige? An improved self-image? More money? Great. Now what’s stopping you?

These may sound like strange, soul-searching questions for anyone who isn’t a writer, but authors have to answer these questions all the time. And if you’re a writer, you probably recognize them as: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (or GMC).

Every character moves through the process of goal, motivation, and conflict (often multiple times) in a story. It’s the writer’s job to keep raising the stakes for his or her characters and keep the action moving. Here’s how…

No matter how grand or simple, everyone in a story has a goal. By the end of the first paragraph, the writer must establish what a character wants (goal), who or what is stopping him (conflict) and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get what he wants (motivation). This striving and struggling leads to action, which moves the story along. Each scene in a novel or short story is built around things getting worse for a character, and he or she taking action.

Goals can, will, and should, vary depending on the type of story, but they fall into two categories: emotional (or internal) goals, and physical (or external) goals.

The Viking's WitchAn internal goal is something the character needs or wants. This could be meeting a soul mate and falling in love or healing grief after the loss of a loved one. An external goal is something the main character physically must do, such as steal a magic ring from a dragon, or climb down into a cave to rescue a child. (In my romance, The Viking’s Witch, Odaria’s goal was to escape the townspeople trying to burn her alive.)

Sometimes goals start out simple (buying a house or getting to a wedding on time), and your job as a writer is to make it hard for your character to achieve his or her goal. How? By creating obstacles that force the character to work harder. Find out what the character wants, then throw in a curve and see how you can make things go wrong. (Basically, the worse you make things for your characters, the more they have to grow—and that adds drama and tension to your story!)

But writers don’t just give their characters goals; they must motivate them to reach those goals. Ask “What’s at stake?” for the character. Why do they want this thing? What happens if they don’t get it? If the answer is “Nothing, he moves on…” then you need to up the stakes and get your character seriously motivated. For example, if your character doesn’t get to an important meeting on time (goal), he may lose his job (motivation), and if your super-agent hero doesn’t stop the villain, there may be a worldwide disaster.

Conflict is what’s stopping your character from getting what he or she wants. It’s a complication that adds more trouble to your character’s life. Conflict boosts the action and makes your novel or short story more interesting. Authors can use external and internal conflict (or a combination of both) to enhance the drama.

External conflict comes in many forms, such as a villain blowing up a bridge, a well-meaning secondary character (or an overbearing parent) arriving at the worst time, or unforeseen circumstances such as a flood or a car accident. (In The Viking’s Witch, Odaria’s main external conflict was running into a pack of invading Norsemen. That turned into an entirely new complication for her!)

Dangerous Indenture coverConflict can also be internal. In this case, the character keeps himself or herself from having what he or she wants. (“I can’t go to the party because I don’t know anyone there.”) Internal conflict is self-sabotaging. The character has self-doubts and lacks self-confidence and through the course of the story, struggles to overcome his or her fears.

For example, maybe your divorced heroine tells herself she’ll never find true love, or a disgraced hero cop is secretly afraid of getting back on the street.

Goals can and do change as a story progresses. Some goals are reached (or not) but then a new goal will crop up and replace the old one. Each time your character changes his goal (or reaches it and gets a new one) the whole goal, motivation, and conflict cycle repeats and keeps the story flowing.

Remember, your job as a writer is to keep making your protagonist’s life miserable. Don’t set the story goals too low or make the conflicts too easy to resolve. If your pampered starlet is suddenly broke and living on the street, force her to work at a rundown diner and make her life absolutely dreadful. Show us how she has to struggle to overcome her circumstances and let us know what’s at stake if she fails.

I hope you enjoyed this look at how to get your characters moving. If you’re writing something now, pick a few scenes from your novel or short story and identify the goal, motivation, and conflict. Ask yourself how you could raise the stakes for the characters and enhance the drama—so readers will be hooked!
Happy Writing,
Kelli A. Wilkins is an award-winning author who has published more than 95 short stories, 19 romance novels, and 5 non-fiction books. Her romances span many genres and heat levels. Visit her website and blog for a full title list.

In addition to writing romances, Kelli enjoys scaring readers with her horror stories. Don’t miss her spooky ebooks, Kropsy’s Curse and Dead Til Dawn.

Her writing book, You Can Write—Really! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Fiction is a fun and informative non-fiction guide based on her 15 years of experience as a writer. It’s filled with writing exercises and helpful tips all authors can use.

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