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Monday, July 11, 2022

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Primary Principles of Plot is Story


A plot is more than a "storyline" or "a series of events," and in order to have a solid plot, it must first have these primary principles: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Without these things clearly in the story, the plot will always feel weak or even "broken."

Now, with that said, not every likable story has an amazing plot. This is when we turn to what I consider the holy trinity of writing: character, plot, and theme. Generally speaking, for most stories, 99% of what you write should be touching and progressing one of these things, and often, all three. However, not all of them are evenly balanced for every story. For example, no one would say that Forrest Gump is about a thrilling plot that leaves you breathless and your mind spinning. It's mostly about character. Others may lean more heavily on theme (this is often what makes Pixar's stories tug at the heartstrings). And some, like the thriller, very much lean on plot.

Nonetheless, almost any decent story will have at least the primary principles of plot, which I'll be covering today. This is a part of a series where I lay out the primary, secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary principles of what makes a great one.


Where Does Plot Start?

I love Lisa Cron's approach to plot in Story Genius, where she emphasizes time and again that plot is a series of cause and effect events. On a structural level, this is how plot starts--the inciting incident knocks the protagonist off balance, and from there, the story should follow a sense of cause and effect to the climax and resolution--consequences.

But that's not how plot itself starts.

Often people think stories are about conflict. But that's not where plot starts either. 

In order for there to be conflict, there must be some kind of antagonistic force. It may not always be the antagonistic force in every scene, but a strong plot will nearly always have some kind of antagonism present. Nonetheless, that's still not actually where plot starts either.

In order for there to be an antagonist, there must be a goal, a want. An antagonist gets in the way of the goal. In a sense, if there is no goal, no desire, then there is no antagonist. So I'm going to echo K. M. Weiland and Ross Hartmann: plot really starts with a want or goal. 

This is why I have these principles in this order.

- The protagonist has a want that manifests in a goal.

- Something antagonistic gets in the way of that goal.

- This creates conflict.

- Which leads to significant outcomes--consequences.


Without these things, you don't have a solid basic plot.

You will notice nothing like "inciting incident" or "midpoint" or "climax" are listed. That is because, contrary to what some people say, I feel those things are actually more structural than they are plot. Though that will be explained more when I cover the secondary principles of plot.

In any case, let's start with the beginning of plot, and if you are the type who is already resistant to the concept of your protagonist having a goal, please reserve your judgment until the end. You might be surprised by what you learn. 😉


Your Protagonist Needs a Goal

Everyone wants something, pretty much all of the time. So does your protagonist (even if it's not obvious). Some in the industry feel that the want always needs to be something concrete. I feel that this is a partial truth. The want can be concrete and measurable ("I want to be a lead singer"), but it can also be abstract ("I want to be liked"). In either case, it will manifest in a concrete goal (or even goals). Because, if the character truly wants that, they'll try to get it. 

"I want to be a lead singer" will lead to other more specific goals, such as practicing to become a better singer, making it to auditions, trying to be part of a music group. "I want to be liked" can also lead to more specific goals. In The Office, this is Michael Scott's want and it manifests as a different goal time and again, whether that's organizing a fun run, holding a "motivating" meeting, or trying to get involved in Pam's pregnancy. 

One may even consider that the specific want "I want to be a lead singer" has an abstract want behind it, when we ask "Why?" Why does the character want that? The answer might be, "So I can feel important" (abstract).

In any case, we see that the want leads to specific goals that are concrete and therefore measurable. We know when the character succeeds. The first character succeeds when they become a lead singer. Michael Scott succeeds when others like or appreciate the fun run (and by extension him). 

Often bigger goals have littler goals inside them, as we see above, which are important when working on a smaller structural level, such as in a scene. The goal in a scene may be to nail a song at an audition or to carbo load for a fun run.

Does your protagonist have to have a goal to have a plot?

Well . . . yes . . . if you want a strong plot. But the goal may not be obvious at first glance. And not all protagonists start the story with a clear goal. 

Plus, not all goals are the same type

Some protagonists have aspirational goals: "I want to be a lead singer." And they may be super motivated and go-getters and will already do whatever it takes to get there! Great. But not all protagonists have aspirational goals. 

Sometimes the goal is to stop something. If the antagonist is terrorizing New York, then the goal may be to stop the antagonist.

Sometimes the goal is to keep things the way they are, and when something disrupts that, the character tries to re-establish the equilibrium. 

Not all protagonists are innately motivated. A protagonist who is highly driven to reach the goal, will be more likely to act on their own, and act more quickly. A protagonist who is reluctant to act or who appears more characteristically passive, may only act when the stakes (consequences) become too unbearable. They may even drag their feet into the main conflict, but they can't stand by any longer. 

Not all protagonists start the story with a strong, overarching goal. Some protagonists already have everything they want or are on course for soon getting everything they want without resistance. All Shrek wants is to live in his swamp alone, and he appears happy that way. Only when that gets taken away, does he have a clear goal: to get it back. Some protagonists have an abstract want, but no vision of how to get it. In Luca, Luca starts off clearly dissatisfied with life, but he has no vision for how to change it until he meets Alberto.

Regardless, the protagonist will usually have a clear goal by the end of the beginning (Act I), which is often what leads to them choosing to engage with the main conflict, which will take us to the middle (Act II). 

In some stories, I feel it's actually more accurate to think of the protagonist as having mainly act-level goals. The protagonist may want something specific for Act I, but when the main conflict hits him, he has a new goal for Act II, and at the end of Act II, he realizes he now wants what is needed, not what he was pursuing through the middle, which may lead to a new goal (more or less) for Act III. Furthermore, if your protagonist is more driven by an abstract want, then the concrete goal of how to achieve that may change through the story (probably at an act level) as well. 

And even if your protagonist doesn't start with a strong goal, he or she should still have scene-level wants and goals of some sort--even if it's to keep things the way they are already going.

Finally, I want to point out that the goal doesn't always need to be something big and grand. It may be to open a lemonade stand or find something to eat. It nonetheless needs to be significant, which I'll explain in the "consequences" section. Sometimes trying to meet a basic need (like getting food) is just as effective, if not more effective, with the right consequences (the character will starve to death otherwise) (and we all feel great sympathy for those who are starving).

I know I've spent a lot of time talking about goals, but I feel this is where a lot of writers stumble and get confused--in part because there are so many different ways this can actually manifest in the plot. 

Goals are critical, not only because they are the starting point of plot, but because they give the audience context for the plot. If there isn't a goal, then the audience can't measure whether what happens is progress or a setback. They are just watching things happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don't know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn't really matter. 

Goals are also useful in that, the more the character wants something, the more you can put them (and by extension, the audience) through h-e-double-hockey-sticks, once they come up against the antagonist.


The Goal Needs an Antagonist

Some say a plot is only as good as its antagonist. This is because the tougher the antagonist, the tougher it is for the protagonist to achieve the goal. A goal without any resistance doesn't make for an interesting story. It makes for a boring one. 

The antagonist doesn't have to be a person. It can be a collective, like a society. It can be environmental and natural, like a pandemic. It can be the protagonist's own flaws, competing wants, and failings. It can be technology or the supernatural. It can be the other half, really, of any of the eight types of conflict (which I'll talk about in the next section, for those unfamiliar with them). 

The point is, the antagonistic force is a form of opposition. I emphasize "opposition" because the antagonistic force is something in the way of the goal. It's not just something annoying or something heckling the protagonist. What it's trying to do opposes what the protagonist is trying to do. If it's not, you may still get "conflict," but it's not meaningful. For a strong plot, the protagonist's goal and the antagonist's goal can't both be achieved in any foreseeable way (though I may argue, on rare occasions, this can be handled well with a sort of ironic twist). 

The antagonist may or may not be specifically targeting the protagonist directly. Sure, it might be very direct, like Voldemort having the goal to kill Harry, and Harry having the goal to defeat Voldemort. Or it may be a step further out, where the protagonist and antagonist both have the same goal, but only one of them can achieve it--such as only one person can come out as the victor in a boxing match. It may be even further out--a massive storm isn't intentionally trying to mess up the protagonist's wedding, but it is. The point is, it's opposing the goal.

In some cases, it may be more helpful to think of the antagonistic force as the resistance or obstacle in the way of the goal. What is stopping the protagonist from simply getting their goal? Their bad singing? Their poor auditioning? The industry saying that people "like you" will never be accepted as a singer? This is true regardless of the kind of goal your character has. If the protagonist is trying to stop something from happening, what is in the way of simply doing that? What do they need to overcome to succeed?

When we take this down to smaller structural units, the antagonistic force may not always be the antagonistic force of the whole story. But it is an antagonistic force for that unit. For example, in a scene, a bully may be in the way of a scene-level goal, but the bully may not be the antagonistic force of the overall story. Just as you may have smaller goals in a story, you will have smaller antagonistic forces. Almost every scene should have an antagonistic force--a form of resistance or an obstacle. 

One of the reasons the antagonist is important, is because it tests the protagonist's commitment to the goal, and therefore illustrates how bad the protagonist wants it. The stronger the resistance and the harder the protagonist tries, the more powerful the plot, which leads me to conflict.


The Goal and The Antagonist Lead to Conflict

In some sense, plot is a battle between goals. The protagonist and antagonist want conflicting things. There isn't a foreseeable way for them each to have their desires. Voldemort can't defeat Harry, and Harry also defeat Voldemort. A character can't have the perfect outdoor wedding on a beach, if a hurricane is coming to said beach. Even if the antagonist can't think for itself, it has its own path, its own "goal" (even if that goal is to stay and exist there, like the jellyfish in Finding Nemo). 

This creates conflict. If both boxers want to be victors, they have to fight for the title. 

Often, the protagonist may need to reimagine their path forward or even shift the goal. You can't really stop a hurricane, so maybe instead, the wedding will need to be rescheduled or the character will need to come up with how to make a wedding elsewhere as perfect as possible. This creates a setback. 

The more the protagonist wants something, and the tougher the antagonist, the bigger the struggle. The protagonist takes action to get the goal, but the antagonistic force keeps getting in the way (whether it's a specific person, society, environment, or what have you). This means the protagonist will become more desperate and take bigger and bigger risks to get it. Likewise, the antagonist's obstacles should get bigger and bigger. Why? Because this is what helps make a strong plot--rising action, escalation. (And because they both really want their goals!)

It also helps create a strong character arc as we watch the protagonist struggling to rise to the occasion. As they take bigger and bigger risks, they reveal how they are changing or remaining the same. We want to use the obstacles and conflict to push and push the protagonist to the point where they are thinking of doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do. This is their opportunity for growth. What will they do?

There are eight types of conflict: person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. fate, person vs. God, person vs. technology, and person vs. the supernatural. Though, in some sense, you can argue this is really saying there are eight types of antagonists. Nonetheless, these are your options for creating conflict in smaller structural units, but you have to use good judgment--you probably wouldn't put a supernatural element in a typical romance story. You can learn about the eight types in more depth, should you want.

Meaningful conflict comes from the protagonist facing antagonistic forces in the way of the goal. Technically, you can add all kinds of conflict and still have a terrible plot. In one moment, a bully beats up the protagonist. In another, the protagonist struggles with his own laziness. In another, he is at risk of getting sunburned. In another, he struggles to get his phone to work.

If these conflicts aren't impeding the goal, they are meaningless. They may be interesting for a moment, but they don't really amount to anything, because they don't really change anything. If the conflict doesn't affect a goal or have stakes and ramifications, then it's just cleverly disguised filler--because it doesn't carry any real consequences


Conflict Leads to Consequences

Conflict only matters in that it changes outcomes. If there is conflict and nothing changes, then what's the point? (This only works on rare occasions where the point is to show a lack of change (in which case, it's usually best left brief or summarized).)

This is where cause and effect come in. Plot isn't just random things happening. It follows a sense of cause and effect. Even stories that appear to be about random things happening, will usually follow cause and effect--it's just that the effect is mostly internal, aimed straight at the character arc.

In most stories, the effect will be both internal and external. 

Your protagonist and antagonist are engaged in battle. Great. What is the outcome of that? And why does it matter? 

This is where we get to stakes. Stakes are what is at risk in the story--what the character has to lose. But I like to think of them as potential consequences. This means they should be able to fit into an "If . . . then . . ." statement, even if they don't appear that way on the page. "If Quirrel gets the Sorcerer's Stone, then Voldemort will return to power." "If Frodo gets overtaken by Ringwraiths, then the Ring will fall into Sauron's forces." "If I learn to sing this perfectly, then I'll nail my audition." 

Conflict only matters in that it affects how the protagonist or world will move forward (or not move forward). Stakes project the sense of cause and effect forward, which gives what happens, meaning. It also gives the plot more cohesion. 

Michael Scott thinks if he can make this fun run work, then he can redeem himself for accidentally hitting Meredith with his car (which led to people, including Meredith, disliking him more). If it's a failure, he'll be even more hated and lonely (and he fears that above all else.)

Stakes make the goal, antagonist, and conflict significant. The goal may be something as simple as starting a lemonade stand. How important is a lemonade stand in the grand scheme of things? Not very important. But when it has a bunch of consequences tied to its success, it can become very. When a lemonade stand is the only way for a little girl to raise enough money to pay for her beloved pet's surgery, it becomes pivotal. When said pet is an emotional therapy animal, and without the surgery, the pet could die, making sure the lemonade stand is a success becomes critical. Now a simple goal that may have seemingly simple obstacles, matters a lot. Because of the consequences. The cause and effect

The stakes don't necessarily need to be, literally, life or death, but they need to be important enough that they could shift the protagonist's world from one path to another. The outcome doesn't just change that one moment, it changes a trajectory. Michael Scott will be on the trajectory of hatred and loneliness if the fun run fails. If the pet dies, the girl's life won't be the same after. In a sense, you could say it's a figurative "life or death" because one path is then traveled over the other ("life vs. death").

The audience wants to know why this plot matters. They want the stakes on the page. Why should they care? Project forward the sense of cause and effect, and you'll be much closer to hooking and reeling them in.

Stakes also play into motive. Why is the protagonist taking this path? This action? Because she believes it will result in a desirable outcome. She believes it will lead to some kind of success. 

Now, with all that said, not all outcomes in a plot are foreseen. Sometimes the outcome of a conflict ends up being something totally different than expected--in fact, this surprise is also great at reeling in the audience. They wonder, What will little Suzy do now? This is why I called this section "consequences" and not "stakes." Even unforeseen consequences change plot. And strengthen plot. By definition, the term "stakes" is used for things at "risk." But not everything at risk actually ends up a reality.

For the sake of this series, think of it like this:

Stakes = potential consequences (projecting cause and effect into the future)

Ramifications = actual consequences

This is sorta like the difference between "tension" and "conflict." Tension is the potential for conflict, while conflict is the actual "fight."

You can even use stakes to set up the audience's expectations, and then deliver ramifications that are unexpected. The protagonist gets the goal, but it actually leads to his destruction, for example. Just be careful that you aren't being "surprising" by de-escalating, instead of escalating, or it will feel like the story is full of empty threats. Deliver something equally powerful, or more powerful, than expected, if you are going to go that route.

Just as there should always be more tension than conflict in a story, there should always be more stakes than actual ramifications. This is because there are a lot of cause-and-effect potentials, but only so many actual outcomes--you can't travel down two paths going opposite directions at the same time. This also means you will need to brainstorm more consequences than the plot will actually follow.

Admittedly, sometimes not being able to see where something is leading and going, or even understanding what a goal is, is interesting too, like a bit of mystery with a sense of uncertainty, when done well, but this is an exception, not a rule of thumb, and should only be used sparingly and kept brief. It might be intriguing for a while, but it won't be enough to sustain a proper plot for a whole book, or even a whole act.

Likewise, you can sometimes make some tricky choices to create a twist, but twists will be for another day.

After all, these are the primary principles of plot. There is still plenty more to cover. However, if your story is missing one of these, it's pretty much a guarantee the plot will feel weak. If you want a strong one, these are a must. 

Later I'll be back with the secondary principles of plot. 

Get plotting!

Continue to the secondary principles of plot -->


Articles in This Series

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story's Plot!)

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setup, Payoffs, Connections

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists


2 comments:

  1. This has been very helpful. Looking forward to reading the rest of your series!

    ReplyDelete
  2. September C. FawkesAugust 1, 2022 at 6:29 PM

    Hey Greg, glad to hear! I know it really helped me when these things finally clicked. Hope you like the rest of the series! I still have two more posts that will be going up later this month.

    ReplyDelete

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