Imagine attending a football game with no rules. I don't know about you, but there's a limit to how excited I could get about watching a bunch of men run around with no particular aim in mind. Really, except for the tight pants, it would be pointless.
What makes the game worth watching is knowing your team has a goal, and knowing there's an opposing team aiming to stop them from achieving it. That's what pulls you to the edge of your seat, screaming and pumping your fist in the air.
It's the same when you read fiction. If the writer hasn't told you how to keep score, you have no way of knowing whether the characters are drawing nearer or farther from accomplishing their goals, and little reason to care.
So when you're in the writer's seat, make sure that doesn't happen.
Set a Goal for Every Scene
A story is about a character who wants something, and how they deal with the obstacles that stand in their way of obtaining it. Each scene must move them closer to the goal or farther from it. This being the case, readers need to know your character's goal, or the events of the scene will amount to a bunch of sweaty men running pointlessly on the field.
In addition to the intermediate scene goals, there's an ultimate goal your character is trying to reach. Because your character is growing and changing, that ultimate goal may also change as the story develops.
For example, at the beginning of the movie Tootsie, Michael Dorsey's goal is to raise $9000 so he can produce Jeff's play. As the story progresses, his goal becomes winning Julie's love.
It's best to establish the ultimate goal early in the story, and the scene goals at the beginning of each scene. These don't need to be baldly stated, but they should be clear to the reader.
Big Goal, Small Steps
Just like when you set goals for your own life, the ultimate goal must be broken down into a series of intermediate goals. Let's look at an example.
Jerry has to find a way to get through the wire fence (intermediate goal) in order to get to the open window of the house (intermediate goal) so he can spy on the meeting and discover the villain's plan (intermediate goal) so he can stop it from happening (ultimate goal).
In my thriller Steadman's Blind, Steadman has to learn how to play Texas Hold'em (intermediate goal) so he can win at poker and parlay his small stake into $10,000 (intermediate goal) and buy a place at the big boy's table (intermediate goal) so he can win and pay off his brother-in-law's gambling debt (ultimate goal).
Of course, it doesn't work out that way, and as conflicts arise and circumstances change (a lot!), Steadman's goals change, too, so I had to let my readers know how to keep score.
Goals Lead to Questions
Readers turn the pages to find the answers to story questions that arise. No questions, no page turns. Keep supplying the questions, and as answers are uncovered, introduce new questions.
And all the questions come down to this: Will the character achieve her goal?
Remember that your protagonist is not the only one with goals. Every character that figures into your story has goals they are striving to meet. It's the conflicting directions of those goals that make the story.
The goals give your readers something to cheer about when your character succeeds, and something to worry about when they don't. Mix it up and give them both, but the more your reader worries, the more engaged she'll be.
Storytelling is the revealing of information. The way you deliver that information is known as information flow. In regard to goals, there are three key areas to keep in mind.
- As the writer, you should know all the characters' goals all the time. This drives the story, moving it forward and keeping it on track.
- Readers should know, or at least have a good sense of, the character's immediate and ultimate goals. There will be times when this knowledge is delayed in order to build suspense, but the reader must know the character has a goal and a hint toward what that goal might be. If the writing is compelling enough, the reader will grant some leeway, but that goodwill won't last forever. Give your reader what she needs.
- Characters should always know their immediate goal and believe it will help them to reach their ultimate goal, as they understand it at the time.
Goal Pitfalls to Avoid
Beware the common mistake of thinking the goal is obvious when it's not. Don't spoon feed it to your reader, but make certain they understand your character's goal.
No character should be in a story just because you need them to be there. Each character on the page needs to have their own reason for being there and their own goal to accomplish.
For example, if your character's boat sinks and she's clinging to her last bit of flotsam when another boat appears out of nowhere, it will seem contrived and won't sit well with your reader.
But if the driver of that second boat has come out to check his lobster traps, with the goal of taking a catch of lobsters to market, the scene is more believable. Give every character a goal.
Once your reader knows how to keep score, she can scoot to the edge of her seat and cheer your character home.
Have you noticed how you “keep score” when you read a book? Ever tried to read a story without goals? Tell us about it in the comments.
Use your work in progress or choose a prompt below. Write a scene, making sure each character in the scene has a goal that the reader knows about and that by the end of the scene there has been movement bringing the characters closer to, or farther from, their goals.
Jill wants her dream job as hairdresser to the stars.
Ben wants Melissa to marry him.
Trudy wants to run in the Boston Marathon.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you are finished, post your scene in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.