Plot – obstacles should work against external goals

Some synopses I read have a lot of conflict against the character, but not necessarily many obstacles against the character’s external goal.

There’s a significant difference. The primary conflict and tension in a story should be things that work directly against the heroine’s external goal. They shouldn’t be just annoyances here and there. The conflict should be focused against what the heroine wants to accomplish in the story.

For example, Sarah is a pop music singer whose external goal is to get her picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Her mother’s getting married for the fourth time, and Sarah really doesn’t want to be involved in all the planning for something that will probably only last a year or two. Their strained relationship erupts in arguments every few weeks.

Sarah’s dog is sick, and she has to go to the vet all the time. The bills are adding up.

This new guy in town is cute, but Sarah’s interested in her career and not a relationship.

In the above conflicts, none of them work against Sarah’s goal of getting her picture on Rolling Stone. They’re all just annoyances in her life.


Sarah’s mother’s wedding is the same day as a huge gala where Sarah hopes to talk to some bigwigs at Rolling Stone. Sarah’s relationship with her mother is strained already, but now her mother’s asking her to give up the biggest schmoozing party of the year for her fourth marriage, which probably won’t last more than a year or two.

Sarah’s dog is sick, and one day while she’s walking him, she meets one of the editors of Rolling Stone in the park. Her sick pooch proceeds to get sicker and sicker when Sarah wants to talk to the editor and make a good impression. Then her dog upchucks all over the editor’s Nikes.

There’s a new guy in town who’s cute, and he’s a photographer for Rolling Stone. Sarah immediately latches on to him to try to get him to talk to editors at Rolling Stone. However, the guy is used to women using him in order to get to his colleagues at the magazine, and he won’t give Sarah the time of day because he sees through her. The problem is, they start to like each other for themselves, but Sarah can’t prove to him she’s honestly in love with him and not trying to use him, and he can’t trust her or know if she’s telling the truth.

In each of the conflicts above, they directly impact Sarah’s external goal of getting onto the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Look at your own character’s external goals, and the conflicts in your story. Do the conflicts work directly against the external goal? If they don’t, how can you tweak them so that they do?