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?

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, 
The award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series is now available for free! Click here to grab your copy.

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