The Stuff of Stories – Goals, Motivation and Conflict

The Stuff of Stories – Goals, Motivation and Conflict
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When creating a plot for any story, the building blocks of this element are the characters’ goals, motivation and the conflict they face. Goals are necessary to avoid the situation where your characters wander aimlessly throughout the story. They should have an idea of what they want and how to achieve such a goal. Motivation is the reason to why achieving such a goal is so important to each character. Nothing makes the words in a story jump off the page more than conflict. Such conflict can be both external an internal conflict.

To illustrate these points in some detail, let’s use an example of a published eBook, The Secret of the King’s New Clothes: An Illustrated Funny Story for Children by Rohi Shetty. Briefly, this is a retelling of a popular children’s tale, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. In the story, the emperor is a vain man who constantly wants the best clothes. Two weavers come to town promising to make him the best clothes he’s ever seen. They fool everyone in the kingdom into believing that a person can see the clothes only if he or she is smart. A huge parade is arranged for the emperor to show off his new clothes. During the parade, it’s a child who speaks the truth that the emperor is actually wearing no clothes. The emperor is shamed and learns his lesson. Henceforth, he governs his kingdom wisely.

As we deconstruct the story, let’s look first a goals. Analyse the goals of each character in this story. The emperor’s was to look good all the time. He will do anything to achieve this goal to the point of neglecting his subjects. The rouge weavers’ was to make money. They saw an opportunity and took it.

Assume you are trying to create the following story: What may your hero or heroine want? Maybe, he’s a farmer who is on the verge of bankruptcy and will do anything to save his farm. Maybe, it’s a woman who is desperate to find a cure for a crippling disease. Maybe, it’s a detective whose task is to recover some missing files that will prove the innocence of a convicted felon.

Next, let’s look at the motivation of each character. What drives the emperor in Shetty’s story to act in this way? Why does he do away with reason? The answer to this lies in this sentence in the story: ‘Go and bring those two strangers to me at once. They shall make new clothes for the grand procession on my birthday.’ The emperor wants to look his very best for the grand procession on his birthday.

How about your story? Perhaps, the farmer wants to save his farm because he inherited it and it’s been in his family for several generations. It is the woman’s sister who suffers from the crippling disease and if no cure is found soon, the sister will die. The convicted felon is actually the detective’s secret love child and he cannot bear to see this child executed.

The final step is, of course, the conflict. In Shetty’s story, there are many examples of internal conflict: first, there’s the king’s vanity. Then, there are the courtiers and subjects who don’t want to be labelled foolish and, therefore, lie to the king.

In your story, you can create a multitude of conflicts. For example, the external conflict the farmer faces is that there is a company of developers that want the land where the farm is. They will lose a lot of money if they don’t get control of the farm. The lady who is looking for a cure for her sister’s crippling disease is so obsessed about her quest that she is willing to lose her husband. The detective’s love child already knows who her father is and has insisted that she wants nothing to do with him. She is willing to die and will not forgive him for what he has done.

A great tip to make sure that your story moves at the good pace is to add a time limit to everything: the king’s parade was in two weeks. The farmer has one month before the banks foreclose on his property. The sister has a week left to live before she succumbs to her crippling disease. The detective has 72 hours to prove his child’s innocence. Once you have these three things – goal, motivation and conflict – firmly in line, your plotline is all sorted and you’re set to write a great story.


Aneeta Sundararaj and her columnists have been assisting many people tell their stories through her online newsletter (‘Great Storytelling Network’) which is hosted on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’.


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One thought on “The Stuff of Stories – Goals, Motivation and Conflict

  1. Hi Aneeta,
    Thanks for using my story as an example for your masterful deconstruction of the importance of goals, motivation, and conflict in story-telling. You are absolutely right. Also as you rightly say, adding a deadline adds to the conflict and helps to pace the story.

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