Setting Goals for your Story

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.

What I know I don’t know much about so far

Ok, so up front, I am not yet a writer. I can type out some decent emails and am chugging away at my graduate degree, but I’m still trying to get better at writing. For me, that means writing and learning. My bachelor’s degree was in engineering which means that I like to think in terms of systems and hierarchies. If you are someone who may be a future sci-fi writer, this may be of assistance to you.  I am not a discovery writer, I can not sit down at the keyboard without a plot and expect to get anywhere, but I’m also not an obsessive outliner who can plan a scene-by-scene outline. Instead, I’m just learning and trying to figure out what I know I don’t know. Keep in mind that this essay seems to flow in reverse, but when sitting down at a keyboard, it’s very much the order that items are worked.

 

At the very bottom of writing is the sentence. Nouns Do Things. You have subject then verb. Editors hate adverbs, so if you want to throw one in, don’t include it in your first three chapters or first book that you attempt to get published. People dislike adverbs because they are predigested. If someone types furiously, why can’t their fingers fly over the keyboard? Don’t know, pacing? Description and pacing are mortal enemies. If the narrative, via the pov character, stops to describe the scenery, the reader reads it as the character stops to observe the scenery. Don’t stop in an all out sprint or a fist fight to describe what’s around you. Use verbs and direct/indirect objects to pepper just enough description to color a scene without slowing the action.

 

Sentences can fall into a pattern that is called a motivation response pattern. I see apple, I eat apple. Motivations are what exists or is happening in the world and the reaction is how the character responds to that. They can have a thought and think that whatever happening is just swell, or they can run away, fight it, eat it, have sex with it. It’s their reaction. For more on this, check out Oxygen-writer’s Journey Edition by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson for practice and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer for the theory. I may copy over an appendix from Oxygen since the copyright notice lets me copy the appendix which breaks down motivation and reaction lines from the first two scenes of the book.

 

If you have enough motivation reaction units, you may build them into a scene or sequel. A scene is where something goes from bad to worse and a sequel is where the character picks up the pieces and makes a decision. A scene has a two part structure which consists of the try/fails  and the setback. At some point early on in the scene, a goal is stated which is what the character is working towards, this may assist the book goal/plot and scenes work better if they do.  The try/fails are what the character tries to do to get towards the goal but fails in execution due to one reason or another. When there are enough fails, then something really bad happens that throws the character off track almost entirely. This is the setback. When the setback is over, the sequel begins. First the character reacts to the disaster, is faced with a bunch of bad decisions and then picks one. For this in practice, check out Jim Butcher’s first book, Storm Front. He pretty much states that his first book was written using this pattern of scenes and sequels.

 

Next up, if you have enough scenes, you build them into conflict. Conflict is good at every level. If you are decent with dialogue tags, you can make a character’s speech conflict with their body language. If you’re a poet, you can even make sentences conflict with themselves. More importantly, conflict is what drives readers to turn the page. It is what moves and hinders characters and it drives plot. This is why the advice to start the first page with an argument is sound. Arguments are not placid, they have conflict. An info dump that describes the world and back story has no conflict. Two characters arguing about a piece of the world can place the story and anchor the setting while keeping the reader interested. All of storytelling is conflict, all of plot is conflict, if you think your writing is deflated and boring, it may be because you are leaving out the conflict.  This is everywhere, whenever you are reading a good story, stop a second and ask yourself what the conflict is that’s keeping your interest.

 

The conflict reaches all the way up to the plot. There are several different plot frameworks can be used to build stories around. Star Wars and Eragon used Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey, so did Iron Man 3 (I’ll write more on Iron Man 3 and Campbell at a future time, but did you know that the kid was the Obi Wan character?). Hollywood and the speakers on Writing Excuses love the Three Act Structure. The first act introduces the theme, characters, setting, and gets the plot running. The second act trains the heroes into plot/conflict fighting machines by having them go through try/fail cycles to hone their abilities. The second act ends when an attempt to resolve the plot goes terribly wrong and reveals the third act. The final act has the climax, ties up loose ends, and ends the story. The Dark Knight Returns is brilliant because its first act is actually a mini three act story that moves onto the second act of the movie.

 

Now that the small parts are out of the way, there are characters and their voices. Every character should have their own plots and arcs. They should be complete with their own back story, motivations, and way of thinking. All of that boils down to how they see and relate to the world which is their voice. The reason that 3rd person omniscient narrators were run out of town is because the characters could only express their voice through choices and dialogue. With third person limited and first person, the narrative becomes their voice. Everything from the details they notice in the environment to how they describe it is influenced by their character and becomes their voice. For a piece of literature that has perfect use of voice differentiation, I would have to recommend the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

 

Following the characters is setting. The setting is what most new writers work on first and emphasize most. This can manifest in terms of info dumps and drowning the reader in world history while depriving them of conflict. I may write about setting at some point, but every writer can develop a setting and I view the settings to be supports for the rest of the story.

 

Finally, once everything is fleshed out, there comes the Idea. In my opinion, the idea is the driving factor of the book. It is the theme that colors the book and each character has  an idea that shapes their decisions. Some books have muted ideas and rely on plot and characters, which is good, but writers like Ayn Rand wrapped their books around an idea and drove everything in support of it.  However, just because a book isn’t driven by the idea doesn’t mean that characters aren’t. In order for a character to be believable, they need to be self-consistent. The easiest way to make this happen is to find their number one ambition (to fit in, to find a mate, to catch all the pokemon) and filter all their decisions through that idea. If that breaks the plot, then rewrites need to happen. Plot can change, character ideas cannot.

 

There is so much else to learn about writing and I haven’t even covered all the topics that I know I’m shaky on (romance anyone?) , but as I figure things out, I’ll digest them by writing here.