How to Transform Raw Inspiration Into a Solid Novel Plan

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Inspiration comes in many forms. It may be a lovely tune from your playlist; A stunning vista in nature; A wildly creative turn-of-phrase you overhear in a coffee shop. Nearly anything. Like all creative minds, you sit down to convert this nugget of inspiration into a story.

But then you hit a wall. How do you transform raw inspiration into an actual story? How do you turn inspiration into a novel plan?

How to Transform Raw Inspiration into a Solid Novel Plan

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You incorporate the lovely tune into your character description—and then it goes nowhere. Perhaps you weave a powerful description of that stunning vista, only to have it fall flat.

Or you recreate that memorable turn-of-phrase, ready to put it into the mouth of a character. But nothing else happens.

You might even spend an hour (or month) sketching this character into a fully-formed human being. But the story doesn’t come.

What went wrong? Are you a bad writer? Are you “blocked”?

No. Not even close.

And for a story plan to work, it needs one critical element that will solve ninety-nine percent of your writing problems: A Physical Goal.

The Source of All Good Stories

If you want your storytelling process to go smoothly, you must plan, and you must plan with the one absolutely crucial element of a good story, the protagonist's Physical Goal.

Without a Physical Goal for your protagonist, nothing else can fall into place. It is the first domino to fall. It is the key that unlocks every door.

Recently, Candace, one of my high school English students, approached me with a question. She was struggling to get her story working. She presented me with a notebook full of character sketches and scenic details.

“Her favorite movie is A League of Their Own,” she told me, smiling with pride at the depth of her “plan.”

I skimmed the page, and said, “You’re missing the only thing that matters: her goal.”

Sure, Candace had included the protagonist’s weaknesses, but had neglected to identify and build her outline around the Physical Goal that would be the driving factor of the entire story.

It may seem extreme to put such importance on a protagonist’s Physical Goal, but it is the structural cornerstone of any well-told story.

What Is a Physical Goal

A Physical Goal is something that the protagonist both wants AND needs.

If it's not something the protagonist needs, you may be tempted to get bogged down with indecision like Hamlet.

Also, it's called a Physical Goal because it's something that can be held, touched, or heard. No inner-goals here. Not yet.

What does your protagonist need? What is his or her Physical Goal?

Once you know your protagonist's Physical Goal, here's how to build a novel plan around it:

7 Steps to Plan a Novel Around a Physical Goal

In a well-written story, all elements work together to create a unified vision. They harmonize.

From a planning standpoint, this only works if you begin with a unifying element, and no story element is as useful for telling a unified story than the protagonist’s Physical Goal.

To plan your next story, try taking these seven steps:

1. Give Your Protagonist a Physical Goal

Begin by writing this goal at the top, or center, of a blank sheet of printer paper, or perhaps a whiteboard.

Jot details of this goal around the heading. Add details about the character’s weakness that causes him to need this goal, and why the goal itself is desirable. Goals that are needed and desirable will get a stronger reaction from your reader, because your reader will want them with the protagonist.

2. Identify Two Weaknesses, or Flaws, Blocking the Protagonist

Using the Physical Goal as your guide, create 2 Weaknesses that make achieving the goal practically impossible.

One of those Weaknesses should be Physical—there must be a reason why the protagonist can’t reach out her hand and get what she wants right now. It’s too far away. It’s under lock and key. It’s married to someone else.

Then you need to figure out a Non-Physical Weakness—a reason why she doesn’t believe in her own ability to achieve the goal yet, or her own self-worth, or her own value, and so on.

There must be forces from within, and from without, that block your protagonist from achieving this goal.

(Note: At this point, you may be screaming, “What about non-physical goals!?” Don’t worry—I’m getting there!)

3. Create the Setting Based on One of These Flaws

The physical setting must contribute to the conflict. It cannot be a happy, rosy place where protagonists of all kin and kind get everything they want.

The Setting, both Time and Place, must resist the protagonist’s pursuit.

Life has to be hell, at least most of the time, whenever the protagonist makes the physical choice to move forward toward the goal and away from safety and comfort.

There can be respites along the way—inns, caves, dream sequences, quiet moments alone, and so on—but no audience wants the journey to be easy. The harder it is, the greater of a response you will get from your reader.

Use the goal, and the protagonist’s related weakness, to plan the setting. Give that lovely tune a haunting twist. Turn that turn-of-phrase into a trigger.

Make that stunning vista matter.

4. Create the Antagonist Based on the Other Flaw

Take a look at the best villains in history, and you’ll find they are fashioned after the protagonist’s weaknesses and fears.

Iago gains the trust of his enemy, Othello, a man who thinks his faithful wife an adulterer worthy of death—only to learn that Iago has been lying the entire time, only when it is too late (Othello).

Not only a strong fighter and Force user, Anakin Skywalker is the living embodiment of Luke’s fear that he will give into darkness and fulfill an evil destiny (Star Wars).

Great storytellers design antagonists with the express purpose of torturing their heroes. You should do the same. Where your hero is weak, make the antagonist strong. Where your hero is fearful, make the antagonist dominant.

5. Create Additional Characters with These Weaknesses in Mind

Ideally, supporting characters help the protagonist with one weakness, but threaten the other. This is because fully supportive “buddy” characters are not nearly as interesting as complicated ones whose interests cross the protagonist’s from time to time.

It doesn’t mean that they have to be at each other’s throats. But if your protagonist is a kid who has been bullied, by giving him a friend who is a recovering bully you create a far more interesting story than other, simpler choices would.

6. Outline Your Story and Discover the Internal Goals

Now that you have a protagonist who is ready to chase something, a resistant setting to have him chase in, an antagonist who will threaten him with life and limb, and complicated characters to keep the conflict fresh, you have the makings of a great story.

I call these the “Domino Details”—the story elements that are all triggered by that one domino, the Physical Goal that your protagonist wants and needs. Every single part of your story is inspired by one unifying idea—and the one thing that allures every reader: Desire.

With these elements in mind, scenes of action (protagonist choices) should come to you quite quickly. If not, get even more specific: What do these characters want from each other? What else do they want? How could these people intersect in everyday life? Do you need other characters to test the protagonist’s desire and flaw further.

7. Discover Internal Goals (Finally)

And then there’s the final planning piece to help you plan and draft: Internal Goals.

But you cannot draft authentic internal goals until you’ve figured out the rest, the Domino Details.

Building a story around an internal goal is extremely difficult, and often comes off to the reader as “preachy.”

I wrote such a story in college—a play about guys sitting in a coffee shop and having “deep” talks—and that’s all it was: Jibber-jabber. Talk. No real story existed because no one wanted and pursued anything.

Internal goals are rarely the impetus for action in real life, either. Even our truest internal goals, like “Getting closer to god” or “Being okay with myself” have physical markers to show us that we’ve reached them. Do you read your holy book and pray every day? You’re probably closer to god. Do you smile with authentic joy despite your flaws? Then I bet you’re getting better at loving yourself.

So plan your story around that first domino, that crucial storytelling cornerstone that will get your next story off the ground.

Begin with a Physical Goal.

Then let inspiration work its magic.

What do you think? How might planning a story by starting with the Physical Goal impact your writing? Let us know in the comments section!

PRACTICE

Share your next story idea in the comments, but do so by using steps 1-3 of the planning technique provided in the article:

  1. Who is the protagonist, and what physical goal does he/she protagonist want? (By the way, you don’t even have to have a name here. If you get bogged down with names and waste hours on Baby Name websites, skip this and call him/her “MAN”/”WOMAN.”)
  2. Identify a Physical Weakness and a Non-Physical Weakness for your protagonist.
  3. What kind of Setting would make pursuing this physical goal particularly hellish?

Post your “Domino Details” in the comments section for feedback. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to at least three other writers.

Happy writing!

You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.

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21 Comments

  1. Linda Mansfield

    Excellent piece. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Bonaventure

    Wow, this article really helped me, thanks! I’ve had an idea floating around and started taking notes while reading through all this and was able to come up with some really great ideas. I’m excited to start my next project now!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Awesome! I love diagramming my story ideas and inspiration into maps or webs. I’m glad the post is helpful!

      Reply
  3. Fadi Abdelhak

    Thanks, David, for these valuable insights. I am presently working on a novella set in the Lebanese civil war. The protagonist does have a few challenges, but I also think of the work as pages from the lives of these characters, with all their challenges and triumphs. I sure can benefit from your advice. I find it difficult to come up with a plot at the start. Rather, ideas come to me as I progress into my writing. That said, this approach has its negatives. It is best to come up with the full plot at first.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Devil’s advocate: What is a plot, if not a series of choices made in pursuit of a physical goal? It’s all how you look at the foundation of a story!

      Reply
  4. Madani

    I write in French. i have just finished writing a novel (four hundred pages) and I am in a dilemma about keeping the digessions i have inserted in the story or cutting them. In my deep heart I am convinced they are necessary but we live in a century of rapidity and readers have nothing to do with details.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Readers LOVE details when they care about the characters affected by them. And care is created when readers want what the characters want – hence, an empathetic goal. Congratulations on finishing a 400-page draft! Good luck as you begin the next adventure – revision!

      Reply
      • Madani

        Thank you, sir.

        Reply
    • ANNIE EVE

      Hello, Madani, I’m just very happy to see someone writing in french asking questions on this page ! What a fabulous opportunity to meet and share ! I’m french and I published my first novel on amazon (ebook) in 2016. Working on my second novel -the following story with the same caracters but a new antagonist (heroe ?). Your question is relevant. I’m struggling also with the necessity to keep some details or disgressions. Let me know how you are resolving things. I will be happy to share with you. You did a good job ! My God 400 pages ! Congretulations and see you soon… 🙂

      Reply
      • Madani

        Hi, Annie Eve
        A great pleasure for me too. You may ask why I do not seek on a french forum for somebody with whom I could share I would PERHAPS answer that I chose this page to improve my English. It’s somehow true, but the “true truth” is that I have dreamt to write since I was a child but something I cannot explain stucked me. The spark arrived when I first read my first novel in English Jane Eyre of Charlotte Brontë ( I read many English novels since). I am fond of the 19th century French literature and 19th century literature likewise.
        You Know, Balzac said one day : some critics find my characters description too long and when I shorten them, they say they are not clear enough.
        I have written many novels but published one only. The reasons? Too long to explain.
        As for as digressions are concerned Victor Hugo said : If you don’t like digressions “skip” over them when you read my books.
        To resolve this problem, if problem it is because a friend said to me that the 21st century readers have no time to lose on digressions, to resolve this problem I ‘ll follow David H. Safford suggestion: “Readers LOVE details when they care about the characters affected by them. And care is created when readers want what the characters want – hence, an empathetic goal. Congratulations on finishing a 400-page draft! Good luck as you begin the next adventure – revision!

        Reply
  5. TerriblyTerrific

    I think I may need to work on developing my story more. Thank you.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      I love planning stories. Then when I sit to write, I have a sense of where I’m going. BUT – don’t be a slave to your plan! It is only there to get you started, or keep you relatively on-track. The plan is not your Master – it is your Partner.

      Reply
  6. Whitney Shaw

    This helps me as well. I hope to progress in my story telling. I love to write fiction about Native American Indians. I have Cerebral Pasly and a learning disability I may not know where quotations, or periods need to be. But i just love to write, i just write for a hobby. I really do enjoy writing, I am actually working on one that i never finished.

    Reply
  7. Charles Hine

    Hi David,

    I’m a novice writer and really found this article interesting as I see that it’s something that is obviously missing from my own writing.

    I was wondering if it would be possible to give some examples of physical goals from well known literature so that I have an idea of how a physical goal appears in context and the relevance that the physical goal has to the wider story.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Great question! Here are 2 examples, one from a film, and one from a novel:

      “The Wizard of Oz” – The story is built around a series of physical goals, but the primary ones are this: Oz and Home. First, Dorothy must seek out (on a physical journey) the physical place of Oz, where the physical wizard lives. Then, she transitions to wanting Home, and pursues physical things like ruby slippers and the Wicked Witch’s broom to get there. Always, the story is founded on physical pursuit, and uses this foundation to establish deeper themes.

      “The Great Gatsby” – Keep in mind that Gatsby, not Nick, is the protagonist, and it is Gatsby’s goal that drives the story. Jay Gatsby has one (obvious) goal: Daisy, a physical lover. In order to get her, he uses his physical wealth to manipulate physical objects and people: His mansion, his neighbor and the narrator (Nick), alcohol, clothing, other people, and so on. Few novels accomplish so much NON-physical beauty in as few words as “The Great Gatsby,” and yet from 30,000 feet, the novel is simply a love story about a man who fell in love, wants the girl back, and sets out on a crusade of physical deeds to get her.

      (Symbols are often used to foreshadow physical goals, or clue us in to non-physical goals that appear later. Entire essays can be, and have been, written about the “Green Light” of “Gatsby,” and the power physical objects can have on the non-physical elements of your story.)

      This is a good exercise: Browse your bookshelf or DVD library and try to summarize, in a sentence, what the protagonist wants.

      Cinderella wants physical freedom.

      Huckleberry Finn wants the same thing – but in a vastly different circumstance, and (eventually) not just for himself.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  8. TheJoeGreene

    I had accidentally done most of this while setting out the basics of my first novel attempt. Thanks for ordering in such a way that it makes more sense and I can fill in the blanks.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Good for you! I made a comment below that I’ll repeat for your sake: Use the plan until it stops helping you, then plan again. Don’t be a slave to your plan. It is your Partner, not your Master. Good luck!

      Reply
  9. Debra johnson

    My Characters physical goal is trying to find meaning in her life after an accident and failed surgery left her unable to walk very long and without pain now. This is also based on a true story, my problem ( dilemma) is getting all of these great ideas to write about during the day, and not, repeat NOT, when I have laid down and am drifting off to sleep.

    The beginning of this story starts. “I never thought I’d be into video games, watching or playing them. But that’s where I see my life now. Thanks to an accident and failed surgery my action filled days are limited to a computer screen.”

    So far thats all I have… need to work and expand the story, character plot and of course what her goal physical or otherwise are.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      I think it’s great that you’re writing from personal experience! The goal you’ve listed, “trying to find meaning in her life,” is definitely a non-physical one, which you seem to understand.

      As you try to find a goal for your protag, don’t forget that we tend to find meaning in our life from very simple things: How our job is going, how our relationships (marriage, friendships, parenting) are going, and so on. And when one of these goes terribly wrong, a quest or journey can begin to make things right – and from that, meaning is discovered.

      Good luck!

      Reply

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