As a writer, I know how hard it can be to write both good characters and a solid plot. For many of us, it feels like we get one or the other.
The plot should be more than just a bunch of events. But for many writers and storytellers, plot is where they fall flat.
And the most important piece of the plot is your story goal.
No matter how good your setting or characters are, if the story goal is too weak, nobody will remember your work.
There are a lot of ways your story goal might fall flat:
- Too vague
- Too boring
- Depends on someone other than the main character
- Doesn’t have a precise moment when the story ends
These are widespread mistakes that many authors and filmmakers struggle with. So let’s take a look at how you can avoid these pitfalls and build a bulletproof goal for your story.
What is a Story Goal?
A story goal is what your characters want.
In most stories, this can be one of three things:
- Something to get
- Something to avoid/kill
- Something to learn/discover
Define the Moment
Think back to your favorite movie for a minute. What was the story goal? When did you know they achieved (or did not achieve) it?
[Spoilers ahead, feel free to skip any bullet point for a movie you haven’t seen]
- In The Lord of the Rings, the story goal is achieved when Gollum falls into the lava.
- In Little Women, the story goal is achieved when Mr. March comes home and they have a merry Christmas together.
- In Avengers: Infinity War, the story goal is lost when Thanos snaps his fingers.
Every story should have a moment when your reader knows it’s over.
As a writer, the problem with my stories has always been the story goal moment. The characters know what they want, but there’s not a big moment when the story goal is achieved.
How do you change this? Here are some tips that have helped me in the past:
- Change the story goal to be more specific. Instead of the boy learning how to love his mom, the story goal could be to hug his mom, or to say “I love you.” Instead of saving the world from going hungry, the goal could be to save one character’s life.
- Weave in a subplot. In my first novel, the story goal was anticlimactic. So I added a subplot. Instead of the MC coming home from her journey and being happy, she comes home to find out that her cousin is about to commit suicide (foreshadowed earlier).
- Start over. If all else fails, get a new story goal. Brainstorm new ideas for at least ten minutes, and pick the one with the best “story goal moment.”
Raise the Stakes with Death
According to one of my favorite books about writing (Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell), a story has three main types of death.
- And Emotional / psychological
The most obvious of these is physical death. If failure means your character will die, your story goal is that much stronger.
For example, Bert wants to race in the Iditarod. If he fails during the race, the elements could easily kill him. (The story goal picture is the moment he crosses the finish line.)
Professional death is a bit harder to write, because it has to be tied to an emotion. If Jane gets fired from her dream job, that’s professional death.
Best used along with emotional death, professional death is when their dream career is shattered, they lose their job, or they get demoted. This can cause feelings of worthlessness and depression.
Emotional / Psychological Death
Used mostly in romance, literary, and inspirational stories, emotional death can be devastating.
Emotional death might look like:
- Verbal and emotional abuse
- Being laughed at
- Losing hope
By using all three of these deaths (physical, professional, and psychological), your story goal will have stakes.
Stakes will make your story goal interesting.
And the more that your characters have at stake, the better your story will be.
Depend on the MC
(For those who don’t know, MC stands for Main Character. The narrator is usually the MC.)
Okay, so at this point, you should have an idea of what your story’s “moment” is, and what types of death you can use to raise the stakes.
It’s time for the final check.
Does your story rely on the MC?
Many stories rely on someone other than the MC. (Lord of the Rings, for example.) However, I don’t recommend this unless you have a great reason for it.
The sidekicks should stay sidekicks. Again, unless you have a great reason that you’ve been foreshadowing, don’t rely on someone else.
The MC is the main character for a reason. They need to be the person who achieves the story goal.
That means they should be the one to do the final deed. They are the person to kill the monster. They defeat the dark lord. They kiss the girl. They score the winning touchdown.
(In the rough draft of my first novel, the MC got knocked out. While she was unconscious, her best friend defeated the villain. Not good. Don’t do that.)
This is their story, after all. If it’s not their story, why are they the main character?
If you’re struggling to come up with a way for the MC to save the day, here’s some ideas to get you started:
- Kill the sidekicks and have the hero face the bad guys alone (forcing them to do the work)
- The MC could give a crucial item to put towards the story goal (for example, paying for a surgery, or giving their life in order to kill the bad guy)
- The story goal can’t be completed by anyone else (maybe the MC has memorized the passcodes, or is the only person who can survive the villain’s magic)
- If nothing else, switch to a new main character.
Story goals can be tough to write. But with the right tools, you can make your story goal so compelling, readers won’t be able to put it down.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these points in the comments. Thanks for reading and I’ll post again next Sunday.