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?
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!
Share your next story idea in the comments, but do so by using steps 1-3 of the planning technique provided in the article:
- 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.”)
- Identify a Physical Weakness and a Non-Physical Weakness for your protagonist.
- 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.
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.