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Key concept: Goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes (video)

Key concept: Goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes (video) Key concept: Goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes (video)
In this article:

    As writers, we all strive to create stories that captivate our readers from the very first page. Whether you’re writing a Hot Encounter, a Para-Romantasy, or a Werewolf story, the key to keep your audience hooked lies in mastering the art of storytelling. And at the heart of every great story are four essential elements: Goals, Motivation, Conflict, and Stakes (GMCS).

    In Story School Season 2, Episode 01, Compelling storytelling: Goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes, learn about these four key elements from Wattpad HQ Content Expert Harry Hanson. Take the learnings and apply them to your stories to create your next big hit!

    Goals, Motivations, Conflict, Stakes

    No matter what genre your story is in or how long you want it to be, there are some basic components you should think about before you get started. You do not need to be an in-depth planner to succeed on Wattpad! But thinking a little bit about what your story is about before you start will help you deliver a story experience that will keep readers coming back for every update. 

    Goals, Motivation, Conflict, and Stakes are the building blocks of plot, sometimes called a story engine. While none of these elements are themselves plot events, they create the conditions for plot to happen and to matter to the characters and the reader. Strong GMCS gives a story forward momentum and helps guide your decision-making as you decide what to write. 

    Goals: The external thing the character wants to achieve, the thing they are moving towards. Characters are almost always conscious of their goals. The character does not need to achieve their goal in order for the story to be satisfying, but if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal, they should ideally have some kind of change of heart about it. A character can have multiple goals throughout the course of the story: a big goal that’s broken into smaller goals, or goals that change and evolve in response to events. 

    Motivation: Why the character does what they do. Motivation is usually tied to the protagonist’s characterization and/or an event in their backstory. The goal is the what of the character’s actions, motivation is the why. 

    Conflict: At its most basic, conflict is a struggle between opposing forces or characters. In Wattpad stories, this is usually created by the protagonist having a goal that is blocked by some other force. The friction between the protagonist wanting something and trying to get it is the conflict. Conflict can be internal or external. Stories can lean harder on one or the other, or have a mix of both.  

    • External Conflict: External conflict is when the block to the character’s goal is a person or force outside of their control. The story is about the protagonist defeating or failing to defeat the external block to achieve their goal(s). If the conflict is external, the story has an antagonist of some kind (either a person or a force).
    • Conflict, Internal: Internal conflict is when a character struggles with their own beliefs, desires, and actions. The character is their own block to their goal(s), and the story is about them changing to be able to either achieve their goal(s) or let it go. 

    Stakes: The consequences of the character’s actions, their success or failure. Stakes answer the question, “why do these events matter?”

    The protagonist desires their GOAL because of their MOTIVATION but the CONFLICT prevents them from attaining it easily, which matters because of the STAKES.

    Let’s look at some examples:

    In The Kissing Booth, Elle’s GOAL is to date her best friend Lee’s brother Flynn, her MOTIVATION is finding true love, the CONFLICT arises because she promised Lee she wouldn’t date Flynn, and the STAKES are her lifelong friendship and future romantic happiness. 

    In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s GOAL is to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron. His MOTIVATION is that the ring belonged to his uncle and he feels responsible for it. The CONFLICT arises because Sauron does not want him to destroy the ring and does his best to prevent it. The STAKES are the freedom of the entirety of Middle-Earth. 

    In Notting Hill, Will’s GOAL is to date Anne, his MOTIVATION is love, the CONFLICT is the class/fame difference between them, and the STAKES are romantic happiness. 

    In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ GOAL is to survive the Hunger Games, her MOTIVATION is to protect her sister, CONFLICT arises from the capital wanting to kill her to set an example, and the STAKES are the freedom of the downtrodden districts/freedom from tyranny of the capital

    In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s GOAL is to find his lost son Nemo, his MOTIVATION is to keep his family safe after losing his wife, the CONFLICT is the various dangers in the ocean, and the STAKES are Nemo’s life.

    In Daisy Jones and the Six, Daisy’s GOAL is to become a successful musician, her MOTIVATION is to prove her parents wrong and claim her artistic agency, the CONFLICT arises from her creative and romantic relationship with her bandmate Billy, and the STAKES are her personal happiness and fulfillment 

    In Ted Lasso, Ted’s GOAL is to make AFC Richmond successful, his MOTIVATION is to distract from his failing marriage, the CONFLICT arises because he doesn’t know what he’s doing and has secretly been set up to fail, and the STAKES are the professional reputations and personal happiness of him and his team. 

    For more on GMCS, download our worksheet

    In all cases, the characters’ GMCS is dependent on the type of story the author wants to tell, on the genre of the story, which in turn dictates what kind of plot events will happen. The stakes and tone of The Kissing Booth, for instance, while important to the characters, are not life or death, so it would be tonally inappropriate for a knife fight to break out in the story. That would raise the plot tension, but it would break the fundamental promise of the story so far. Whereas in The Hunger Games, life and death stakes are always on the table, and a knife fight fits seamlessly into the world of the story and into the dramatic tension itself. 

    Good plotting is about deciding what kind of story you want to tell and what kinds of events are on the table. Setting out the GMCS for your protagonist before you begin allows you to create a story where character actions matter to the plot, and the story’s scope, scale, and tone is cohesive and articulated through plot events. 

    Exercise: Try filling out the below GMCS sentence template for your story.

    The protagonist desires their GOAL because of their MOTIVATION but the CONFLICT prevents them from attaining it easily, which matters because of the STAKES.

    What kinds of plot events fit into the story you’ve just described? What kinds of things might happen in this story? Brainstorm and make a list. How do the events you’ve described contribute to the CONFLICT? 

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