External Conflicts and Goals

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to editExternal conflicts deal with conflict outside of your protagonist. That’s the villain, the earth quake, the monster. Your character may grapple internally with how to handle the conflict, but the object of conflict itself is not happening in your character’s head.

External goals are the obvious goals that drive the story forward from the inciting incident on. Ralph’s medal, destroying the one ring, ect. It’s a tangible item or other person that’s easy to identify, and while it drives the plot, it’s ultimately secondary to the intangible changes made within the protagonist along the way.

That tangible object and conflict is going to vary genre by genre. In an action story, it’s going to be the villain and the thing central to the villain’s plan. In a love story, it’s going to be the character of desire, in a crime story, it’s going to be the criminal, often with the object being sought a victim whose time hasn’t yet run out.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll get into the external conflicts from several different genres that are outlined in Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, along with some examples of my own.

Things that I do when I should be writing

I am working through my page proofs for Venus Rising. Theoretically, this is the easiest part of the publication process. All I’m supposed to do is read through and make sure there are no formatting glitches. It’s too late to change content, the copy edits are finished, this is just a last look through.

But it’s the last look through! If I  miss something now there’s no going back. Everyone will see the mistake in print.

So…I’m procrastinating. It’s amazing the things that feel like they must be done right now when you have work you’re nervous about doing. Here’s the last few things that my brain has demanded must be accomplished now.

  1. Writing this blog.
  2. Getting organized for girl scouts next year by researching all the possible brownie badges, figuring out how many meetings to dedicate to each, and setting a calendar complete with lesson plans for each troop meeting for the 2017/2018 school year. (OMG, I am officially crazy)
  3. Send long, rambling emails detailing my plans to the poor, unfortunate adults from my daughter’s brownie troop.
  4. Consider ways to improve my daughter’s school. Do they know there’s an eclipse coming on a school day in August? Maybe I should connect them with this business that sells really cute, cheap, eclipse glasses. Maybe the eclipse should be a PTA event.
  5. Write up detailed plans and send them to the unfortunate members of administration and PTA
  6. Consider all that’s wrong in the world and how it could be fixed. Write long, rambling letters filled with ideas and plans to all the appropriate politicians.
  7. My house should probably be clean.
  8. Groceries would also be good.
  9. You know, Bella’s room should be reorganized. When was the last time she played with this? Let’s list everything for sale on craigslist.
  10. Realize a lot of these toys are educational and could be used in fun learning activities. Come up with a detailed summer curriculum and schedule for my daughter by researching all the fun events happening in Athens, all the camps we’re considering, travel plans, and academic skills.

Someone send help….


Plot Driven VS Character Driven

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

In The Story Grid, Shawne Coyne takes a moment to discuss the differences between plot driven and character driven stories. In brief, a plot driven novel focuses on external problems whereas character driven focuses on internal problems. It’s very tempting to divide these into hard and fast categories, like saying all natural disaster movies are plot driven because the conflict is external.

That’s just not true. For example, look no further than zombies.

Zombies are Man VS Nature in its rawest form. Replace zombies with forest fires, earth quakes, tidal waves, giant meteors hitting the earth, or insert natural disaster here, and you’ll feel the same sense of hopeless dread against a force that can’t see reason and cannot be stopped.

Some zombie fiction is almost entirely plot driven, like World War Z. In others, the zombies themselves are almost window dressing to large scale, character driven dramas, like The Walking Dead.

Very, very rarely is a story 100% character or plot driven and successful. A viewer/reader/whatever has to care whether the character lives or dies to willingly follow them through the zombie wasteland. How much they care is a sliding scale. But there has to be something, otherwise the entire plot falls flat. Conversely, stories that exist almost entirely in a protagonists head, a protagonist without some kind of external goal, are incredibly boring. (We’ve all had to read those issue books in schools).

All stories balance character and plot as a driving force to pull the reader through the novel. How much of each is going to depend on audience, genre, and the writers personal preferences. But both sides of the equation have a lot to teach an aspiring writer.

Character Goals

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

Every character starts a story with a goal. Example: Rapunzel wants to see the lights, Ralph wants to be a hero, Hiccup wants to prove that he belongs in his Viking village. But what your character wants and what they need are seldom the same, and the thing they want is a misguided attempt to fill a need. In most cases, your characters goal is external, but it reflects an intangible desire they can’t quite say.

Ralph’s external want is a medal, but it’s driven by an internal need for acceptance. But acceptance of others isn’t nearly as important as him accepting himself. Once he accepts and becomes proud of who he really is, everything else falls into place, and he realizes the medal never really mattered.

Shawn Coyne breaks this down into plot lines. Storyline “A” is the external want the character is after, storyline “B” is the abstract need they are trying to fill. The very best conflicts (which drive the story) occur when the two conflict. Example: Ralph gets his medal, but at what cost? He feels even worse about himself than he did when the story starts.

The conflicts can occur on a few levels.

Inner conflict. This is your character’s fight with themselves. Example: Ralph’s inner battle with himself as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he is a bad guy, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

Personal Conflict. This is your character’s struggle with other people. It can be with an antagonist, but it’s often also with those they care about. Example: Ralph and Felix goals are in conflict with each other. Ralph needs to leave the game to get his medal, Felix needs to get Ralph back to save the game. Vanelope and Ralph both need the same medal to accomplish their goals, they resolve their conflict by teaming up, but are soon in personal conflict again when Ralph tries to save Vanelope from herself. King Candy and Ralph have a personal conflict, clearly, and the two fight to the death in the climax of the movie.

Extra-Personal Conflict is a conflict with something larger than an individual or yourself. For example, in Wreck it Ralph, Ralph has a personal conflict with Felix or Eugine, but he has an extra-personal conflict with an entire society that sees him as a bad guy and treats him with disdain. An extra-personal conflict tends to be with society as a whole or a force of nature. A natural disaster or zombie story narrative is an extra personal conflict.

So breaking this down further into the five major conflicts, you’ve got…

Man VS Self- Inner conflict

Man VS Man- Personal Conflict

Man VS Society- Interpersonal Conflict

Man VS Nature- Interpersonal Conflict

Man VS Technology- Interpersonal conflict

Most stories contain a mix of inner, personal, or interpersonal.

The First Act

Before I get into the next chapter of the story grid, I’m going to deviate a bit to give some important background.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, most stories start with a slice of the protagonist’s life. In the heroes journey this is called “the ordinary world.” The slice of life (or beginning exposition) establishes some very important things for your character.

Who they are.

What is normal (because you can’t appreciate the abnormal until you know what has changed).

What they want.

What they have.

What they can lose.

There’s a reason one of the first lines of the Pixar story spine is “Every day….One day…”

I put together a video talking about what needs to be established in the slice of life for a creative writing class that I’m taking. Note: I know that the scene from Lilo and Stitch is not actually part of the slice of life, but it was either that or the first 15 minutes from Up, and I wanted to be a productive human today.

Once the slice of life is established, the next major plot element is the inciting incident. This is the incident that kicks off the story. This is often tied to the call to adventure, but not always.

Here’s a few of my favorite examples of inciting incidents.

Things happened in the story before each of these events, but for most, that was establishing background. You could argue, for instance, the inciting incident for Big Hero 6 was Tadashi dying, or Tadashi convincing his brother to try nerd school. Or in Frozen, Elsa being born, hurting Ana, getting locked up, or for Wreck it Ralph, the anniversary, the creation of the game, ect. But the difference between those instances and the inciting incident is that they are used to set up the slice of life. Elsa hurting Ana was used to explain why she spent every day locked up and was afraid of her powers, not to explain why she froze the kingdom. Tadashi dying could arguably be considered an inciting incident since Hiro’s personal goal was revenge for his death, but Tadashi dying isn’t what kick starts the story. It’s this moment when he activates Baymax, and Baymax realizes his microbots are active. Until this happened, Hiro didn’t know his brother needed to be avenged. Instead of kicking off the story, Tadashi’s death explains the slice of life. Why every day, Hiro sat in his room, isolated from his friends, until one day….

The inciting incident isn’t what establishes the character’s goals, that’s what the slice of life is for. The inciting incident is the thing that sets them on the path to achieving those goals. In Hiro’s case, what he wants (revenge) and what he needs (to connect with someone and grieve) are two very different things, but this moment is what puts him on the path to achieving both.

After the inciting incident, the story truly begins, and that moment is called crossing the threshold. This is when they leave the ordinary world, their slice of life, and everything begins to change.

Here’s some of my favorite examples.

Character goals tie into act one in a big way, so next week, I’ll be sharing what the Story Grid has to say about establishing character goals.


Arch Plot, Mini-plot, and Anti-plot

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

According to The Story Grid, the next step after establishing your stories genre is to establish which type of plot structure  you will be using to drive the story forward.

There are three.

The Arch Plot, which is what most stories will fall into. This is your classic plot, the heroes journey, the quest story. Even if your protagonist isn’t setting off to destroy the ring, they have a goal they are striving to accomplish by the end of the story, and the same basic beats exist story to story.

The Mini-Plot focuses on much more internal conflicts. Bottle episodes fall under the category of mini-plot.

The Anti-Plot  throws away all the rules of story telling. The narrative can be fractured, reality and time up in the air, the protagonist doesn’t change. It’s post-modernism at its finest.

For most writers, the arch-plot is your go-to story. There’s an occasional mini-plot thrown in there on the literary end. Anti-plots I can’t help you with. I was exposed to many throughout my years in college, and I always found them to be pretentious. Maybe that assumption was a defense mechanism because nine times out of ten, I just straight up didn’t get the story. But I really don’t see myself coming around on the anti-plot structure.

Can you think of any examples of stories that fall into these three plot structures?

Genre Conventions and Obligatory Scenes

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

In the Story Grid, Shawn Coyne talks at length about the conventions and obligatory scenes in different genres. Writing Excuses Season 11 goes into this as well.

Every genre has conventions. “Specific requirements in terms of the story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward” (Story Grid, 47). The crime thriller is going to have a crime committed, a detective to solve it, and a criminal to commit the crime. A romance is going to have two characters fall in love with each other. Those facts are the conventions.

Obligatory scenes are the specific way those conventions are carried out. For instance, in a romance novel, there’s a first kiss scene. In a hero’s journey there’s the darkest night scene.

The fact that genres and conventions have obligatory scenes doesn’t mean that every single darkest night is the same or every conventional character is the same. It’s the way authors take what’s expected, what’s required for a genre and change it to fit their story that makes the conventions and obligatory scenes work. That moment in Inside Out where Joy is stuck down in the pit sobbing over Riley’s memories works even though a darkest night has been done in literally every movie and story ever written before. But you couldn’t take that moment and put it in something even similar. It wouldn’t have worked in Wreck it Ralph for instance because his darkest night had to feature him wrecking something.

Literary VS Commercial Novels

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

In chapter five of The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne talks about the differences between literary and commercial works, and it’s pretty common sense, but he did have some insights I wanted so share.

So first, a quick primer.Writing Excuses had the best explanation for literary fiction versus commercial, or genre fiction. In literary fiction the focus is on the craft, the word play, the things being accomplished by the text. Genre fiction is all about the story.

There’s a prevailing attitude that literary fiction is better than genre fiction. And in form that’s likely true. But that’s really not a fair comparison because the two have entirely different goals. If a literary fiction novel doesn’t pull your attention to the clever tricks of the words on the page, it’s failed. If a genre fiction novel pulls your attention off the story long enough to dissect the wordplay, then that’s a problem.

Think of it this way. Two people are making their way down a path. One is racing, determined to get their very best time. They are ultra focused on their form, the way their feet touch the ground when they run, everything matters.

The other person is  out for a walk to enjoy the pretty scenery. They are taking the time to look at every plant and flower, smelling the fresh air, basking in the sunshine.

There are similarities between the two. They are both using feet to propel them down the same path. They can learn from each other, use tips and tricks from each other to better meet their goals because the ground rises and falls beneath them identically. But it would be foolish to criticize the racer for not stopping to smell the flowers or the walker for making such terrible time.

The similarities in base form aren’t the only thing that make it tempting to compare the two unfavorably with each other. Literary fiction is what is often taught in the classroom. While literary fiction is still being written, because of the way writing adapts and changes, some genre fiction will become literary fiction as time goes by. Historical context, out of fashion writing styles, and impact of the novel itself has a lot to do with what is viewed as literary. Conversely, a lot of high brow literary stuff was once upon a time looked down upon as over rated genre fiction.

Coyne goes on to explain that within genre fiction, the largest consumers are women. Women’s fiction is historically the best selling fiction genre, followed closely by (and sometimes including) romance. That fact is why pretty much every novel ever written contains a romance regardless of genre.  Authors and publishers want to attract the most possible readers. Recently YA has made some massive waves and is changing the market place, so I’m curious to see what conventions change down the road.

Most helpful to me in this chapter was Coyne’s explanation on how he selected which books to acquire for his publisher by focusing on the recent sales of each sub genre within his genre of genre fiction. You should absolutely check it out in The Story Grid.