Updated: Apr 18
What is your problem? It's actually as simple as that.
Every good story must follow a goal, according to the world of fiction writing. And every main character must follow one, too. Throw in some obstacles which create conflict and bish–bash–bosh you have a plot. Except, there is one vital missing identifier to that formula that many a-writer would do well to understand if they want their story mechanics to work to their full capacity. I tend to find that the goal–obstacle is a little 2D in explanation.
Let’s first define the goal–obstacle paradigm that is common parlance in our circles and dissect it a little to see why it can be flawed in its execution when sitting with inexperienced hands.
Goals are what give your narrative drive, something to aim for. Without a goal, the story can end up meandering and rather unfocused. Goals, generally speaking, are a good thing for your story – the protagonist sets off with something to achieve which gives them defined actions to carry out in order to do that. Goals by themselves don’t create narrative tension or plot, which usually means adding in some obstacles to create that tension. Still, obstacles do not necessarily equate to tension, either, when solely relied upon. Here’s why.
In its most basic form, the goal-obstacle dynamic can look like this:
Fred gets up one morning with a craving for peanut butter on toast but finds that he has no peanut butter in his cupboards. It’s a nice, sunny day, and he lives in a pleasant neighbourhood. He gets dressed and heads out for a stroll down to the corner shop to buy some more. He also picks up some bananas and a newspaper while he’s there. When he gets to the till, he finds he forgot his wallet. Lucky for Fred, the guy at the till knows him as a regular and tells him to pay next time he comes in, making a note of his name and address and the amount. Fred leaves the shop and goes home.
Fred has several goals here – the main one being he wants peanut butter on toast. He also has an obstacle: there is no peanut butter in the cupboard. After that, he has a series of smaller goals to achieve the primary goal (go to the shop; pay for the shopping; head home). He comes up against another obstacle, in that he forgot his wallet, but it’s easily resolved. As you can see, this reads more like a series of events rather than a plot, and everything resolves itself without too much effort or stress.
There is no payoff by the end when the attainment of story goals read like a series of events, because they were achieved too easily. That means no sense of satisfaction.
To employ the goal–obstacle dynamic most effectively, circumstances need to be pushed further to the extremes rather than kept within the realms of mediocre. The story’s ambition needs to be stretched far beyond perhaps the initial idea. I encourage all writers to try to reach beyond the limits of their initial ideas and see how far they can take them while still maintaining the reasonable suspension of disbelief.
Let’s say that Fred went to the shop, and they had run out of peanut butter, causing him to grab his car and go to a shop in a much rougher part of town. The initial goal remains, but now we have a new obstacle – this time, one that pushes him out of his safety zone. He goes into the shop, finds the peanut butter and his other shopping but, just as he’s about to go up and pay, a man comes in with a gun and holds up the cashier. Fred hides behind the aisle, frozen with fear.
Fred still has the same goals but, in this version, he now has a problem to resolve that involves high stakes: How to get out of the shop alive and in one piece.
And that is the crux of this post: Goals don’t mean a great deal if there is no story problem to resolve in order to attain them.
The story problem is a unique entity in your tale. Keyword here is The rather than A. Your story will have many problems that arise – Fred not having any peanut butter is a problem, but it’s not THE problem. The story needs one major, high stakes problem to overcome. It is the overarching factor and objective of the whole exercise. In Lord of the Rings, it’s to destroy Sauron, and destroying the ring is the main solution to that problem. In GOT, it’s to destroy the white walkers by uniting the nation to fight together against them. In Child 44, it’s to find the serial killer by challenging Stalin’s murderous system. In the first book in the GAP series, The Real Story, it is for Morn to survive and escape her abuser by outwitting him.
It’s about more than just having a primary goal to attain – it’s about having a problem for which the protagonist needs to find solutions to overcome. Everything and everyone in the story should be centred around moving towards resolving that core problem.
Depending on what type of guy Fred is depends on his methods of handling the problem – will he hide in the back of the shop until the man has departed or try to save the day? This is where the complexities of character and moral dilemmas come into play and add depth to the narrative. Plus, all he’s armed with is a jar of peanut butter, some bananas and a newspaper. How might he employ those in resolving this situation?
If you’re struggling with the goal–obstacle–conflict paradigm in your storytelling and feeling (or being told) that it’s just not gripping enough, try thinking in context of what the major problem is that needs overcoming through the middle and what goals need to be achieved in order to resolve that problem.
And how can a banana fix it?
If you can work that out, maybe you can help Fred out of his predicament.
Now tell me, what is the problem in your story?