How does this ‘conflict, not goals’ thing work anyway?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I wrote a post about character needing conflict, not goals. I received a great question from a reader via email and thought I’d post it – and the response – here so that you can all get some additional insight and join the conversation.

(Note: story details from the question have been removed – but don’t worry, it doesn’t affect the response)

QUESTION:

 

OHHHH MAII GAWD

So, I read that article like a thousand times over, and I’m trying to get in the mindset of thinking this way.

But I’m hitting a wall.

I keep thinking Goal oriented.

Should I just think of a character and give her problems to solve which will in return create a goal?

 

 

REPLY:

 

Hey! Thanks for reaching out.

Yeah, it can be tricky to change your mindset when the ‘every scene needs a goal’ advice is so prevalent. The way I like to think about it is this:

In Act 1, your character is just living (or trying to live) their normal life, even though external problems/forces are starting to disrupt things (to various degrees of success) until…

Act 2A, where your character is finally engaging with this external problem/force but hasn’t really changed who they are (i.e. hasn’t changed their habits/mindset/normal way of approaching things and hasn’t undergone any real personal growth and change) and they aren’t really being proactive, just reacting to things,  until…

The midpoint/reversal throws them into Act 2B and then they start being proactive and drawing on the new skills, resources, mindset, allies, etc they have accumulated on the way. They start approaching things from a new perspective and understanding (even if it’s still early days and they’re only just learning how to use them).

So – that said – it’s hard to give your character goals in Act 1 and Act 2A, because those two acts are really about avoidance of/denial of/disinterest in/inability to engage with the emerging problem (Act 1) and reactive efforts to just survive (Act 2A).

For those two acts that make up the first half of your book, I find it easier to focus less on ‘goals’ and more on ‘conflict’.

Conflict can be problems, obstacles, challenges, physical altercations, arguments – anything that puts the character out of their comfort zone and demands they respond.

So, going back to your story example  – in the first act, ask what conflict is removing your MC from her comfort zone and forcing her out of her normal routine? Don’t worry about giving her scene goals – use the assumption that, in the first act, every scene’s goal is to avoid the problem.

In Act 2A, ask yourself how would ‘normal’ MC deal with the new environment/situation she finds herself in? And then put in her way things that challenge that old way of dealing. If she was always able to defeat her foes by drawing on a magic power, make that power not effective anymore. Or give her antagonists that know how to beat it. Keep putting conflicts in her way that limit her ability to draw on her old way of doing things and force her to grow as a character so that in Act 2B she has to grow and change in order to succeed.

I hope that helps!

 

What about you? Do you also struggle switching your mindset from goals to conflict? Or do you have your own perspective on this paradigm shift that can help our reader/author?

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How does this ‘conflict, not goals’ thing work anyway?

The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Over here, in my part of the world, it is winter. Which means flu season. Which, when you have a toddler in daycare, means lots of sniffly days on the lounge under blankets watching kids shows ad nauseum.

It’s not as bad as it sounds – there’s a lot of quality kids series out there these days and most only go for fifteen minutes. That means a distinct, wholly-contained, discrete narrative in fifteen minutes. And, as a bonus, the really good ones are perfect examples of the four act structure boiled down to its essentials.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the four act structure and have seen me break it down and assess it in detail before – so go ahead, you can skip this paragraph. For the newer readers, the four act structure is (at its core) a three-act structure that has its second act broken up into two components. The second act is still the middle – it’s just a middle of two parts – Act 2A and Act 2B. You can read more about the four act structure (and my take on it) here: go ahead, we’ll still be here when you get back.

So here I was, on another chilled out evening, rugged up in my favourite Basotho blanket with my favourite little man watching another episode of Rusty Rivets. Rusty Rivets is a series about a young inventor, Rusty, and his best friend, Ruby, who invent things and then get into trouble when those inventions don’t go as planned, and then have to use their creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to get themselves out of trouble.

Rusty Rivets

As I was watching tonight’s episode I thought to myself how I really liked that each episode always showed Rusty and Ruby thinking up new ideas, testing them, refining them, and then coming up with new ideas when the others didn’t work (a life lesson I’m always trying to teach my son). And that was when I realised, each episode is a quick lesson in the four act structure.

And what I really like, is that each episode is a lesson in using the four act structure in a medium that needs to hook attention early and keep it throughout. Something that novelists are being challenged with in an era of countless books, short attention spans, and lower tolerances for books that don’t grab readers by the throat and keep the pressure til the end.

So, what does this lesson in the four act structure look like – and what does it mean for us who use it in longer forms of narrative (like novels and scripts)?

Hook comes before the Status Quo

In my interpretation of the four act structure, each story (and act) begins with the status quo before moving to the disturbance. And that still holds true – but rather than locate the story’s hook with the disturbance, this new approach puts it up front in the status quo. In this approach, the hook is a point of interest that happens in the world of the status quo. It is interesting, but not unexpected or unusual.

In the  Rusty Rivets episode where a robot skunk is on the loose, Rusty is attending a flower show festival with his mum. The festival a point of interest within his usual world. It’s noteworthy – it stands out from the regular routine – but it’s not unusual or out of the comfort zone. It’s the difference between a festival (lots of fun and excitement, but in a comfortable/’I’ve seen this before’/’I know what this is about’ event) and an alien invasion (exciting, but also terrifying in a ‘I’m completely out of my depth’ kind of way). One’s the hook, the other’s the disturbance.

In Hunger Games – the hook is the day of the reaping. It’s noteworthy and interesting, but not unfamiliar. Compare that to Prim being called and Katniss volunteering – that’s noteworthy, interesting, terrifying, and something that upsets the status quo and sends things on a new trajectory.

And that’s kind of the point:

  • The hook is something interesting about the status quo/normal/business-as-usual world – it’s a bright point but it doesn’t change the status quo and doesn’t elicit any change or need for development in the protagonist. It serves three purposes – i) to get us interested in the story, ii) to hint at the disturbance and/or story conflict, and iii) to show the story world and the status quo and the protagonist’s characteristic moment.
  • Unlike the disturbance, which is the thing that interrupts the status quo and threatens to throw the normal world off balance and the protagonist out of their comfort zone.

In the Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character, Major Cage, getting deployed to active combat is the hook. And one that really pushes the envelope as far as hooks are concerned – because it does seem to teeter on the edge (no pun intended) of becoming a disturbance. It is a dramatic shift in the status quo and normal world of the protagonist and it pushes the protagonist out of his comfort zone.

edge of tomorrow

And maybe, if the story was a war drama, it would have been the disturbance. Except this is is a sci-fi movie, so we know that things haven’t really disrupted the status quo. A military desk officer being deployed to active combat is still within the realms of possibility in this story world – the event is an annoyance to the protagonist and threatens his comfort zone, but doesn’t threaten his worldview of what is or isn’t possible. That comes when kills an alpha alien and gains the ability to reset time every time he is killed. That’s the disturbance.

LESSON: Put your hook up front and use it to show the normal world and the protagonist’s motivation and armour/critical flaw.

 

Keep the initial response short

The initial response to the disturbance (typically a refusal of the call to action) in the long form of the four act structure is designed to show the protagonist’s inner conflict – to show that engaging with the disturbance/story problem is not an easy decision or one within their comfort zone.

There a hundreds of reasons why a protagonist won’t engage with a disturbance – it doesn’t directly affect them, the personal stakes aren’t high enough, they don’t have the skills or resources or opportunity to engage, the risks of engaging outweigh the risks of avoidance, etc, etc.

If you’ve done your job in establishing the hook and status quo, you shouldn’t need to spend too much time on this initial response. The refusal should be logical/reasonable given all that has come before.

In Rusty Rivets, Rusty doesn’t engage because his mum steps in to deal with the skunk. In the episode about the super sticky glue, he doesn’t engage because he is literally unable to move. Both reactions are brief and quickly followed by a push towards the first plot point/the point of no return/the undeniable push for protagonist engagement.

In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial response by Major Cage is to become a passive spectator. He gets reset and reacts to the same scenario and dies and gets reset again. It’s shown in a kind of montage – emphasising that he is stuck in this new reality and that his reacting isn’t getting him anywhere. It quickly changes when he meets Emily Blunt’s character, the Angel of Verdun,  and we get the sense that now the real story is starting.

The ‘passive spectator’/’react only’ characterisation that is at the core of the initial response. It’s only when the protagonist starts to actively engage that we move into Act 2. Readers and audiences want to get to this part quickly – they like warming up to a story, but once they get a feel for the world, the protagonist, and the story problem, they start getting impatient to get to the ‘real story’ – to know what thread, out of all the many possible threads there are, will be followed. Don’t hold out on them – get to Act 2 quickly.

LESSON: Do the heavy lifting with your hook and status quo to limit the time you need to dedicate to the initial response. Get to the ‘real story’ of Act 2 as soon as you can. 

The difference between Act 2A and Act 2B

Where the initial response is passive reaction. Act 2 is all about active engagement. The first part (Act 2A) is engagement without growth or change. It’s the protagonist acting the way they would normally act, drawing on the same resources, falling back on what they know and have done in the past.

In Rusty Rivets, this is always Rusty and Ruby trying to solve things without an invention (i.e. running after it, sneaking up on it, trying to catch it themselves, etc) or trying to fix the invention that has malfunctioned by normal means (things that any kid would come up with as a solution).

In Hunger Games, this is Katniss surviving using the skills and knowledge she already had back in District 12 – hunting, trekking, climbing, being stealth.

In Act 2A, the protagonist is engaging, but not growing.

Act 2B the protagonist is both forced to think completely outside the square of their old life and draw on the new knowledge, skills, resources, and comrades (mentors, sidekicks, allies) they have gained in Act 2A to make progress.

In Rusty Rivets, this means Rusty and Ruby combine it and design it to come up with a new invention to fix the problem. Which they continue to refine until they get to their false victory.

In Hunger Games, it’s Katniss no longer relying on herself to survive (as she always has), but teaming up with someone else to win.

It’s still active engagement, but it’s engagement that requires the protagonist to do something new (hinting that protagonist is becoming someone new).

LESSON: Act 1 is passive spectating/reaction, Act 2A is active engagement without change, Act 2B is active engagement by trying something new/becoming someone new 

Act 3 is still the same

Yep, it’s still what follows the false victory and dark night of the soul, where the protagonist must use all that has been learned along the way and shed the final remnants of the old self in order to gain ultimate victory and achieve the final goal. Whereas Act 2B shows the protagonist doing something new, Act 3 is the protagonist emerging as someone new.

This is probably more on the lighter side in kids shows – there’s not as much character development (obviously). In Rusty Rivets, it’s always the same ‘transformation’ – Rusty and Ruby trusting their innovative and creative minds and thinking outside the box to use their latest invention in a new and unexpected way (like using the hot air balloon as a cushion to save Rusty’s mum from crashing into the ground). In Edge of Tomorrow, the transformation is deeper and more complex – Major Cage becomes the hero he ran from being in the beginning of the movie even though he no longer has the ‘reset’ ability to fall back on.

LESSON: Act 4 is the emergence from the chrysalis – the butterfly ready to confront and defeat the antagonist in a way that the caterpillar never could. 

The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Everyone has seen them – the pithy pieces of writing advice that can fit on a 940×780 pixel sized square, perfect for posting on facebook and inspiring a new generation of authors. Show don’t tell! Every character should want something! Every scene needs a goal! Wait, what? Every scene needs a goal?

 

I have always struggled with that last piece of advice. My characters are usually pretty clueless at the beginning of the story and are entirely reactionary in the first part of the second act, so goals never really seem to fit. 

Maybe it’s my inability to get past the definition of a goal. A quick google search defines ‘goal’ as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. Embedded in this definition is a sense of knowing, of conscious decision-making with a specific end-point in mind, of a plan or strategy to get something or somewhere. And that just doesn’t work for me.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying – “just replace ‘goal’ with ‘want'” – and that does seem, on the face of it, a nice solution. Everyone wants something, even if it is to just sit around all day in the sunshine ignoring the problems of the world. But even ‘want’ implies a sense of knowing – a want is really a goal without a plan for achieving it.

And, besides, if we focused on building a story around our character’s wants, we might end up with a novel about someone who just wants a glass of water. Not really interesting right?

“But it could be interesting,” I hear you say, “if there was a monster standing by the sink, or if the character had a deep-seated phobia about water, or there was only one glass of water left in the entire world and a hundred other people were bidding for it.”

Excellent points! And I am so glad you raised them! Because, that is what is at the heart of this post – forget about the goals (and the wants) – what every character needs, what every scene needs, is conflict.

And if you have conflict in every scene, you don’t need to worry about articulating the character’s goals or wants. Sometimes the conflict will naturally uncover them – Kasie must sell her soul for the last glass of water in the world (implies that what Kasie wants is that glass of water, also implies her goal (since a plan is involved) to successfully sell her soul and outbid the others), but sometimes it will uncover something else.  Anaiya is secretly playing her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid being detained and executed – this is a summary of the first scene in my book Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). There is no clear goal and even the want is ambiguous – Anaiya’s wants are in conflict with one another. She wants to avoid detention and execution, but she also can’t deny the part of her that needs to make music. It is the conflict (and not the wants) that is more interesting and more critical for the story development.

 

CATEGORIES OF CONFLICT

So, what type of conflicts are there?

I’ve come up with two major categories (I’ve also come up with a range of types – but am leaving that discussion for a future post):

  • Direct threat: Antagonistic force that requires defeating for the character to progress. Can be proactively engaged, but is more likely to be engaged reactively. Must be defended against or pre-emptively attacked.e.g. A fire outbreak closing in on a house. Demands engagement. Can not be avoided. Requires direct combat – either defensive (stopping it from reaching the house) or pre-emptive (trying to put out the entire fire). Must be defeated if the  house and the character are to survive (and the story progress).

    e.g. A super villain terrorising a city. Demands engagement (won’t stop until the whole city is razed to the ground).  Is actively attacking either the character or what is important to the character. Can be proactively engaged (typically the case with superhero narratives, where the protagonist will actively seek out and defeat the evil force), but is typically only engaged when the protagonist (or what they value) is directly threatened.

    e.g. An illness that becomes debilitating. Demands engagement. Is actively attacking the protagonist. Must be defeated.

  • Passive obstacle: A permanent or temporary barrier that requires removal for the character to progress. A challenge to be overcome. A detente between two forces that must be resolved. Must be proactively attacked.e.g. The memory of a dead husband stopping a character from dating again. Doesn’t demand engagement – there are two ‘wants’ in opposition – the character wants to remember her husband and wants to find happiness with someone else. One of the two opposing forces must be (fully or partially) removed for the character to progress, e.g. she could give up on the dating scene, could try to re-animate her dead husband, could undergo hypnotherapy to forget her husband, etc.

    e.g. Two destinies competing for realisation – is she destined to save the world or condemn it to a black hole of oblivion? A detente between two equally-compelling forces. What will she choose? What is required to tip the balance one way or the other (in effect, limiting (partially removing) one of the options).

    e.g. An inability to score the grades necessary to make it into the starfleet academy. There is nothing directly attacking the character, but there is an obstacle that needs removing and a challenge that needs to be overcome. Must be proactively engaged, otherwise the status quo will remain.

 

Interestingly, these two categories can be articulated as either POTENTIAL conflicts or REALISED conflicts. Potential conflicts are those that are hinted at – where the preconditions for actual conflict are present, but the catalyst has not been triggered (e.g. the bomb is present, but the fuse hasn’t been lit). Whereas REALISED conflicts are those that have been triggered and are actively in conflict or opposition with the character or are actively challenging them.

 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

The best thing about these categories is that you can use them in the plotting or revising stages of your novel. A case in point, this is what I get if I apply them to my recent novel, Rebellion (Divided Elements #2):

Scene 1: Anaiya plays her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid detection – which will only lead to detention and execution. There is a conflict within her – part of her revels in her new Heterodox existence, finds joy and inspiration in creating music, thrives in her growing Air identity; part of her is terrified that her Heterodoxy, her blatant flaunting of the strict rules that govern Otpor, will lead to her death – just like they lead to the death of her mentor (and original Heterodox Resistor), Kane 148. REALISED PASSIVE OBSTACLE

The conflict is amplified when her music and presence is discovered by a character from her past. Seeing Kaide brings back painful memories and stirs up uncomfortable emotions of guilt and regret. But, it is his realisation that Anaiya’s realignment back to her original Fire Element has failed that generates the real threat – with that knowledge he could send her to the Execution Pillar. POTENTIAL DIRECT THREAT

 

UPDATE: A reader contacted me via email to talk about their struggles with switching away from the ‘goal’ mindset and focus on ‘conflict’. You can read their question and my reply here.

 

What about you? Do you also struggle to find a character’s goal/want for every scene? Does thinking about it in terms of conflict make it easier? Let me know if you apply this to your own novel – I would love to hear if it works for you!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2


Resistance, 
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You can also purchase your copy of the anticipated sequel Rebellion, for just USD 2.99 for a limited time! Click here to start reading now!

 

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Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict