Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

The Holy Trinity of Character: Goals, Obstacles and Stakes

A guest post by Art Holcomb

These three components – goals, obstacles and stakes – are nothing short of the holy trinity of character.

Nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – is more important to your character than understanding these three points.

• They are the basis of all characterization.
• They keep your character on track throughout the story.
• They make understanding the motivation of the character easier and clearer at every point in the narrative
• Whenever you get lost in the story, turning back to these three points will get you back on track.

Remember: we want our characters to have the power and inner-life of real humans, so as to better connect with our audience.

This begins with each character having a MISSION in your story – a point that Larry makes to you all the time. Every character must have a purpose, a reason behind every action. They must be moved to accomplish something – whether it is to persuade, obstruct, endear, accompany, reflect, emote or act.

It’s such a simple thing, and yet so many writers get caught up in the need to describe what’s happening, that they completely forget that their characters’ actions require a reason – a motivation – make sense of what they do.

That motivation must be clear to the reader.

Especially since most of the time, a well-written character is not consciously aware of their own motivation, a very important fact to consider when you realize that your hero should undergo some kind of emotional change which leads to their growth in most stories (there are exceptions, but probably not as many as you might imagine!)

(In my practice with my private clients and university students, I drive home this trinity as a basic fundamental of all writing. Regardless of the experience of my writers — which runs the gamut from published novelists/produced screenwriters all the way down to beginning and aspiring writers – we never stop honing and perfecting our understanding of this concept.)

Now, for how you can use this concept in your own writing:

It will take just a moment for you to use this form help you develop the motivations of your own characters. The insights you gain from this little exercise, I guarantee, will improve your writing.

So let’s answer some questions about your main characters, taking each one at a time:




(1) Start with a ten (10) word description of the character:


(2) What is it that your character WANTS:


(3) Now, what do you think this character NEEDS out of life:


(4) What is this character’s GREATEST FEAR:


(5) Now, re-consider Question 3 above: What do you think this character REALLY NEEDS:


(6) Who or what is STANDING IN THE WAY of this character getting what s/he wants?


(7) What does this obstacle look like?


(8) If these obstacles cannot be overcome, what does this character stand to lose? How will this affect this character in a PROFOUND way? Describe that feeling in the character:
(9) Now, how do these answers affect or change your idea of the character?


So . . . Let’s sum up:

Conscious Need:


Emotional Need:


Primary Obstacle:


Real-Life Stakes:


If s/he SUCCEEDS, s/he will feel:


If s/he FAILS, s/he will feel:


Therefore this character’s vital mission is to…


Your NEW ten (10) word description of this character is:
Until next time – keep writing.


ART HOLCOMB is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, fiction writer and comic book creator and is a regular columnist for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, called “The Best Magazine for Screenwriters” by The Los Angeles Times.

He has sold to the STAR TREK television franchise for Paramount Television and worked on projects for Gene Roddenberry and the estates of legendary actors Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. He has also written for the critically acclaimed animation series SHADOW RAIDERS, as well as consulted for video game companies, film production companies and publishing houses.

His short story, The Perfect Bracket with acclaimed novelist Howard V. Hendrix, will appear in ANALOG Magazine in the spring of 2015. A play by the same name is currently under consideration for production by the National Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. A new science fiction/treasure hunt novel (with co-writer Hendrix) entitled The Strewn is scheduled for completion in 2015.

You can read more of Art’s thoughts on the craft of writing at


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Fiction Writers: The Definition and Criteria of Concept

Major content alert: this material can save your story.

It can save you a year of drafting and revising.

It can get you published. 

The following is excerpted from the Welcome Kit for my new $49 Quick-Hit Concept Analysis program.  It’s the tutorial that accompanies the program, and is part of what you pay for.

Consider it my gift to you for the new year.  Because you need to get this before you can go to the next level.



The $49 Quick Hit Concept Analysis

Welcome to what might end up being the most important step in the development of your story. Because right here, at the concept and premise stage, is where many writers come up short.

Most writers begin a draft with a vision for concept and premise in mind. Others don’t, using the draft itself as the search-mechanism to find concept and premise, then retrofitting it into the story in subsequent drafts. The common mistake is to forget to do just that, leaving the story without a clear and compelling concept and premise at its core.

Concept, as it relates to premise, is the vision for the entire story.

If you don’t get this right, if you don’t make it as strong as it can possibly be, then you are already putting your story at risk no matter how well you write it. Concept and premise are the first things agents and editors look for in a story, over and above characterizations and writing voice.

Not every story needs to be “high concept.” But the presence of something conceptual – which is the very essence of concept – adds strength to any story.

Concept and premise are different essences, yet one (concept) feeds into the other (premise). One of the most common shortfalls of rejected stories is when a premise doesn’t promise something conceptual to the story, when it’s all plot with nothing inherently interesting or provocative at its core.

The Definition of Concept

A concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of the story’s essence.

A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story – often for a number of stories, not just your story – built from it.

A concept becomes a contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself.

It is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.

It can be a proposition, a notion, a situation or a condition.

It can be a time or place, or a culture or a speculative imagining.

It can even be a character, if even before the premise itself surfaces there is something conceptual about that character.

Concepts are a matter of degree.  Every story has a concept, the issue then becoming this: how does it contribute toward the reading experience?

The Criteria for Concept

It is inherently, before character or plot, interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, engaging, even terrifying.

High concepts depart from the norm, they exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility.

Not all stories are high concept. Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story.

Concepts promise a vicarious ride for the reader. Taking them somewhere, or placing them into situations that are not possible, realistic or something tense or horrific, something they would not choose to experience in real life.  But will love experiencing vicariously in your story.

A concept can define the story world itself, create its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: a story set on the moon… that’s conceptual in it’s own right.)

In summary, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence.

It does not include a hero… unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (examples: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, a ghost, someone born with certain powers or gifts, a real person from history, etc.). A story is then built around that hero leveraging the hero’s conceptual nature.

It might be helpful to consider what a story without a vivid concept would sound like in a pitch: two people fall in love after their divorce. Period. End of pitch.

And the agent says, “next!”

It’s not a bad story if you can pull it off – the writer of such a story would intend to plumb the depths of characters on both sides of the divorce proposition – but there’s nothing unique or provocative beyond the notion of divorce itself. Which is all too familiar, and therefore not all that strong a concept. If you could bring something contextually fresh to it – like, two people who both want to murder their ex fall in love – then the story has even more upside.

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean.

When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

Concept is genre-driven.

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept (however, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent). Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

If your concept is weak or too familiar within these genres, you have substantially handicapped your story already.

Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts

“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation/proposition)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and find your true love?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based upon a lie, one that its church has been protecting for 2000 years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?” (a proposition)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls.” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties focusing on racial tensions and norms.”  (a cultural arena)

These cover a breadth of genres, a few of them from iconic modern classics in their own right.

Notice than NONE of these are plots. Each is a framework for a plot. For any number of plots, in fact. The are conceptual.

Just remember: concept is not premise.

Rather, it is the reason why your premise will compel readers. Because it is compelling. Fascinating. Intellectually engaging. Emotionally rich. Imbued with dramatic potential. It infuses the premise with something contextually rich, even before you add characters and a plot.


If you’d like to have your concept analyzed and in context to your premise, click HERE to learn more about my Quick Hit Concept Analysis program.

It’s only $49.  As an investment in your story and your career, you won’t find a higher ROI or a better story-jacking opportunity than this.  That’s a guarantee.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)