New Trial Disclaimer: If you feel I’m very very wrong about this, feel free to disregard and move on with what works for you. If you feel I’m only a little bit wrong, add a critique. This is meant to be another tool available to writers that they can use.
Many characters will be driven by something. It’s the rare protagonist who sits in a chair, never wanting something, never going for anything, and never achieves anything. There are reasons that characters move plot along and that’s because they have Goals. Everyone should have a goal, no matter how small. The tavern keeper hopes to sell fifty beers and twenty plates. If he can tell or hear a good tale along the way, that’s great. The villain’s goal is usually nefarious and grand, but the villains we love are relatable and realistic too. How do we keep character motivations focused and grounded? Goals.
Management courses teach an acronym that makes it easy to remember. However, people don’t sit down and outline according to the acronym when plotting their week. Instead, they teach managers how to create and recognize good goals and refine bad ones. Each letter of the acronym is a specific criterion that must be met in order to create good goals. An author can also use this as a tool that can be flipped to show that a character is a poor manager, has grandiose and unrealistic ambitions, or is a poor planner.
Onto the Acronym! A good goal is a “S.M.A.R.T.” Goal. Let’s take a few goals and analyze them to figure out how an author can use this. Common goals include saving the world, rescuing the princess, killing the shark, and retrieving the philosopher’s stone. The first letter stands for specific. Let’s take a look at these goals and see how good they are. The first thing to look at is how general or specific a goal is. When looking at saving the world and rescuing the princess, they’re not very specific. What are you saving the world to? What’s the end state? Where is the princess to be deposited when she is rescued? These can be refined with the addition of a from or a to, but they’re still pretty grand. On the other hand, retrieving the stone and killing the shark have very definite end states that are measurable in a binary status.
Which is good as the second letter stands for Measurable. A measureable goal is one that can be tracked to completion using specific measurements. Not all measurements are numerical and may have simple steps such as put fluffy to sleep, get past the devil’s snare, retrieve the right key, win a game of chess, tiptoe over the troll, and make a potion. Some of these are sub-goals and will also need to be broken down and evaluated. Rescuing the princess and saving the world will absolutely have subgoals as well. Having measurement allows for progression and readers can find satisfaction in progression. A plot that goes nowhere will lose readers. Also, needing a bigger boat and then measuring the new one is not a good example of measurement.
Attainable goals are the best kind. They tie with the specific win conditions and are also don’t require intervention from the gods to achieve. Asking too much of a character is not a problem, but asking them to produce skills and artifacts from nowhere to win an unattainable victory when the climax comes around will turn readers off. In the drafting process, those helping skills and items can be planted in previous chapters. Saving the world from an asteroid may not be attainable if the character’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. However, creating a goal and then making it seem unattainable for one reason or another can be a powerful way to show a protagonist overcoming adversity. Easy quests are boring quests.
The R stands for Relevant and this can be very helpful for a protagonist who seems scatterbrained in what they do. While the primary goal is relevant as it may define the book, sub-goals need to be relevant to the whole goal. If your character fights some ninjas, does a motorcycle jump, wins a game of poker, has a car chase, and woos the girl, it may be really fun to write but will leave readers disappointed when the princess is rescued unless all of those really cool things happened to get the protagonist closer to the princess. Sometimes a non-POV character can go off on a goal that doesn’t seem relevant but will return in a blaze of relevant glory later on in the plot if appropriate.
The final letter means Timely. As authors, we instinctively think in timely goals in that a plot arc needs to happen in a single book without aging the protagonist to death. However, having open ended plots can rob the readers of that measurable progress. This is why time-bomb plots are so popular as something will happen after a set amount of time. Again, this can be played with by the author to end the timer early, have the goal achieved early, or generally wreak havoc with expectations. Having a bomb explode early sends a clear signal about the antagonist, as does having it explode even if it was disarmed. Open ended stories can lack tension and rely on other sources of conflict and plot.
Now that we know what it means, let’s develop a goal a little bit. Save the World from an Asteroid Impact. It is already timely as that asteroid will hit at a set time. However, it’s not very measurable or attainable. A protagonist would need to hijack a rocket, get access to a massive cannon, or infiltrate a nuclear missile site. Each of these has a series of steps that could lead to a heist story, an action tale, or a spy novel. Each of these options could be broken down into further steps that are measurable and relevant to the end goal. For example, a protagonist would need to find a missile site, get past the fences and guards, get past the guard shack and down the nuclear tunnel, convince the missile operators to reprogram and launch the missile, and then defuse the nuclear Armageddon that a nuclear launch can cause.
If your book has a single sentence specific concept, breaking the main goal into smaller goals, and figuring out how to make them seem unattainable can help outliners plan a novel. Discovery writers who are stuck can take a step back and figure out how to guide their characters down the relevant path to achieve a sub goal that helps the main goal.