Secret Ingredients: Goals, Stakes, Urgency & Conflict

If you’ve been writing long enough you’ve probably heard of GSU, which I believe was first coined by ScriptShadow. I also like to add in a ‘C’ to the end. These are four of the core components of a great scripts (though, of course, there are more). But if you have these four, you’re already on the right track. Before you write each script, each act, each scene, ask whether it has GSU&C, or at least some combination of them.

GOALS

Everybody wants something. Love, money, power, attention, happiness, a shiny new cape. Something. There are two types of goals: internal and external. Some kind of physical item or glorious resolution (a suitcase full of money, escaping from prison, climbing a mountain, finding the Ark of the Covenant), or a personal shift that brings about a positive outcome (fall in love with a fireman, gain acceptance from the chess club, overcome a fear of chopsticks). A character with a goal is an active protagonist, and active protagonists are A Good Thing. Everybody wants something. Make that something clear at every opportunity.

STAKES

The stakes of the story are what your character has to lose. If they don’t overcome that fear of chopsticks, they’re never going to win the sushi eating contest and the $1m prize! If they don’t find true love they’ll never be happy! By showing that our character has everything to lose, you’re also showing that they have everything to gain. Make your audience perch on the edge of their seats hoping that your active protagonist is going to reach that shooting star. Establishing stakes is key to keeping the audience engaged in the fate of your characters.

URGENCY

What’s the time limit on when your character can complete their goals? Tomorrow? Next week? 20 years? By adding in urgency, you can up the ante and ensure your readers are gripped by your tale. Establish ticking clocks whenever possible so that your goals and their stakes aren’t too wishy-washy (that’s a technical, screenwriting term). Ticking clocks can come in many forms, with the most obvious (perhaps even cliché) one being the bomb timer. Throw in mini-clocks whenever possible to ensure your read isn’t boring. Instead of “we have to find that donkey!”, make sure it’s “we have to find that donkey before sundown or he’ll be lost forever!”

CONFLICT

One of my favourite elements of any script, and one of the most vital, is conflict. As much as we like to have characters banter all night long, it’s better when they don’t see eye to eye. Figure out what your active protagonist wants, and then make sure everyone else wants the opposite. Now your main character has obstacles, and leaping over a hurdle is far more tense than simply walking along the track. Conflict is the beating spine (yes, beating spine) of a top notch script. It boils down to three simple words: Make. It. Harder. (That’s what she said).


The more you write, the better you’ll get at infusing scenes with these elements. These aren’t the only things you need, but they’ll darn sure help.

For some extra homework, pop in your favourite movie on VHS (people still watch VHS, right?), and see if you can spot these elements. (“We have to reunite your parents before the photograph is wiped or you’ll be lost forever, but Biff wants your mother instead!” — GSU&C in Back to the Future).