This is not to say that there can’t be goals like gaining respect or that internal needs, like managing anger, can’t be satisfied. These add to the texture and depth of any story and can make a commercial story more engaging, valuable, and artistic. But, without a clear goal, a story can lose focus.
Some goal development has been covered in other posts, especially in Problems with the Premise series and John Marlow’s lesson on writing loglines, but here I’ll present 20 questions that might be a good reference and prompt fresh thinking. As usual, work with those that fit your intentions and feel free to ignore the rest.
Note: In many stories, the main character has a goal that changes to the fundamental story goal by the beginning of the second act. That’s fine. It provides a way to ease readers from a familiar world to one that is more challenging. Ultimately, however, the goal is part of the story question that keeps readers turning pages. Will the two lovers get married? Will Ulysses get home? Will Frodo destroy the Ring?
- Is the protagonist’s goal clear? Heinlein wrote that his best writing education came from a Naval Academy course where students had to write unambiguous orders. If anyone could read them in a different way, it was a failed lesson.
- Could one picture capture achievement of the goal?
- Is the value of the goal apparent? Can readers connect with the benefits for the protagonist or society?
- Does failure to achieve the goal carry a price? Will something really bad happen or something important be lost if it is not achieved?
- Is commitment to the goal irreversible for the protagonist? Is there a point where he or she cannot go back and live the life presented at the beginning of the story?
- Is the protagonist the right person to achieve the goal? (This one is tricky. Often it is best if the protagonist appears to be completely overmatched, even the least likely person. Frodo is a great example.)
- Does the protagonist have the agency necessary to achieve the goal? That is, is the main character able to take the actions needed to succeed? (Also, tricky. Actions could include training to get the required skills or dealing with a personal flaw or inducing others to help.)
- Is the goal personal for the main character? Does it connect with a need and carry emotional weight? (The truth about this one does not have to be apparent to the protagonist, but it must become apparent to the writer.)
- Does the goal itself suggest tasks that must be accomplished? Does it create expectations that engage the readers?
- Does the goal suggest obstacles and even seem impossible?
- Can the goal be bigger? Can it mean more and be harder to achieve?
- Can the goal be stretched to cover several levels of Maslow’s hierarchy?
- Does the goal have emotional impact? Either directly or through empathy with the main character?
- Can you list all the contextual information that must be clear to the reader before the goal can be fully appreciated? (For instance, the hero’s reputation or past failures, society’s rules, and consequences for those who have tried to achieve this goal in the past.)
- Is the goal appropriate to the genre and tone of the work? (In general, love stories are not central to horror stories and would be at odds with Poe-esque dread or Lovecraftian grue.)
- Does the goal’s achievement bring a boon to society?
- Does the pursuit of the goal force the character to deal with a flaw and grow as a person?
- Will success require face-to-face engagement between the protagonist and the antagonist, a classic “roll in the ditch”? (Obviously, this is not relevant for every story, but it is always worth considering.)
- Is the goal, as understood by the protagonist, worth the sacrifices and effort needed? (The reader should never think that, if the hero/heroine had any brains, he/she would quit.)
- When the goal is achieved, with it be unmistakable that the main character earned the success? Or will it seem as if luck or outside forces played a hand?
I’ve worked one-on-one with dozens of students as they’ve developed the premises for their stories, and making a goal as good as it can be is the second hardest task. (The hardest is giving a beloved protagonist a real flaw.) The most common problem is the writer presents a goal that’s internal, usually tied to the protagonist’s wellbeing. You can’t take a photograph of that. After that, goals usually need to be tweaked to be more ambitious. And then, the protagonist, as described, is not the best one to take on the goal — which leads to work in character development.
Next time, I’ll present questions on obstacles so you can properly torture your poor protagonist.