Three Key Questions

To figure out what kind of conflict your protagonist is facing, ask her these three questions. The answers are the keys to her motivation and will drive her actions throughout the story:

• What does she want to accomplish in the course of this story? Just like any real person, a story character has desires and goals, things she yearns to obtain or achieve—love, money, justice, recognition, to hide a secret, to be popular, to conquer the mountain, to win the game, to land a better job, to escape the ghetto, to get out of a jam, to right a wrong, to protect herself or a loved one from danger. She has needs she must fill and dreams she hopes will come true. The protagonist becomes involved in the story for one reason: She perceives that the situation at hand will help her or hinder her in reaching an important goal.

• What is at stake? If the protagonist reaches her goal, her suc cess will have consequences. So will her failure if she falls short. In either case, other people in her life will also be affected, whether for good or ill. What does the protagonist expect these results to be, and how much do they matter to her? How far is she willing to go to ensure the outcome she hopes for or to avoid an unfavorable one?

• Who or what gets in her way? This is where the conflict comes in. The protagonist encounters challenges and difficulties as she struggles to achieve her goal. Some may be imposed on her by outside forces she can't control; others may derive from her own desires and shortcomings.

Ask your other characters these questions too. Conflict arises when the goals of two characters are at cross-purposes. Every character has, to a greater or lesser degree, a vested interest in the situation depicted in the story. Each of them will try to turn the situation to his own best advantage, just as people do in real life. The only exceptions might be those who have the most minor of walk-on parts, who function like props in a scene—for example, the waitress who pours the coffee at the restaurant, or the bystanders gathered around watching the fistfight.

As the characters interact, their separate goals will either mesh or clash. How they respond when this happens becomes the basis of your plot.

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