This post is part of my ongoing-series about prepping for and surviving NaNoWriMo. Click here to find the rest of the series as it goes live.
Last week, I was talking about characterization and using a character’s motivation to set the main story goal. This week, I want to go into this goal and its close buddy, the inciting incident.
For me, this order of doing things, of exploring the character before deciding on the goal, makes sense because I’m more character-driven. If you’re plot-driven, you’re probably going to want to decide on the story goal first and then create characters that will make the story of achieving said goal interesting. Both approaches work fine, especially if you pay attention not to sacrifice your character strength for your plot, or your plot’s strength to preserve character.
But the point here is that, if you want a decent shot at finishing NaNoWriMo, your story needs a goal, and it’s going to be incredibly helpful to know what that goal will be before you start.
But What Is This Goal I Speak Of?
Let me just get this off my chest quickly: I’m not talking about those highly nebulous goals writers have for their stories, like “I want to teach children that it’s okay to dream big.” or “I want to write about homeless people.” Nor will I go into why I don’t (and probably won’t ever) agree that such an approach is a good idea for genre writing. (I’m looking at you, Mark Twain, who stuffed up a perfectly good Arthurian time-travel tale with your incessant preaching.) Really. Don’t get me started on that.
Instead, I’m talking about the goal that forms the heart of your story itself. That thing that a character sets out to do, and the reason why readers keep turning pages to find out whether that thing comes about.
In other words, the goal is the reason why a story should be read. A good example of a goal from books is Frodo’s goal of destroying the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.
Or it can be an unstated (at least in the story itself) goal of the characters falling in love in your standard romance. Or of a character needing to move on, such as in Under the Tuscan Sun. But it’s worth noting that often these goals tend to come with another, stated goal, and often come secondary to that stated goal. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances moves into an old, nearly decrepit house in Tuscany, and somehow needs to overcome the language and culture barrier in order to fix it up.
So why is the goal so important to me, coming second to (or maybe even standing even with) only characterization? Because the story’s goal is its entire point. And every other plot aspect to a story has the goal at its foundation.
If you approach plot by structuring according to the three-act structure, or according to beats a la Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, the goal is still the lynch pin you’re building it up around. For example, the dark night of the soul, that moment where all hope is lost and the character has to dig deeper than ever before in order to succeed… What does that hope center on? The hope that the main story goal will be achieved. And what must the character succeed at? Yep. The goal.
The inciting incident is the moment that acts as the catalyst of setting the goal and so kicks off the story after the character introduction.
The conflict in the story is anything and everything that complicates or makes the goal impossible to achieve.
The stakes of a story are the costs associated with failure to attain the goal.
And back to the three-act structure: What’s the climax of any story about? 90% of the time, it’s going to be about the last big push to try and achieve that goal. The rest of the time, it’s about a major decision about that goal, or a major failure to achieve the goal.
Even the themes and messages from your story will be rooted in either the goal itself, or in the discoveries that characters make as they go after the goal.
In other words, the goal is everywhere and it’s everything. And as soon as you have readers caring about the characters and their journey, the goal and the success or failure at achieving it forms the major question that drives the readers to keep reading. Will Frodo destroy the One Ring? Will Frances succeed in fixing the house and will she find happiness again?
Depending on the genre, setting this goal to be impossible and dangerous enough can be a major driver of a story’s tension. Take Katniss’s goal of surviving in The Hunger Games. But this also plays in with the conflict and stakes, which I will still get into.
At any rate, knowing your goal, even if you’re a pantser like me, gives you something to write towards. A point that pulls your writing forward and prevents you from waffling around too much, trying to find a direction for your story. (Although in saying this, I will admit that most of my rough drafts are focused almost exclusively on finding the goal in the first place. Yes, I’m secretly that character-driven. And that much of a pantser.)
How Does One Set the Goal?
There are a myriad of ways in which to do this, so I’ll list a few.
1) Like I mentioned in my post on characters, you can let the goal come out of your character’s motivation. Think of your character and the type of person they are. What kind of goal would they set in a given situation?
2) Write without setting the goal and hope for the best, or write a rough draft specifically to discover the goal. (Although realize that this probably will require you rewriting the entire thing once you’ve found your direction.)
3) Decide first thing what you want the goal to be and build the concept, scenarios and characters around it.
4) Look at your main character again. Decide what goal would create the most internal (and/or external) conflict for a character, push them to (or beyond) their limits, and/or provide the greatest measure of character growth.
5) If you’re going with a genre that has an inherent, unstated goal (like the happily-ever-after in romances), what goal would you like to set (and state) that will act as a nice backdrop to, and will help create conflicts for the unstated main goal? A good example of this can be found in the movie You’ve Got Mail. Two characters have been anonymously chatting online and they’re obviously made for each other. Problem is that they actually know each other in real life and hate each other because one’s goal is to put the other’s family business…out of business.
These are approaches I’ve taken to set goals in my stories, but I’m sure there are more ways that I haven’t thought of.
How do you find your story’s main goal?