Social Contracts, The Prestige, and the Subtle Art of Mind-F*ckery

Social Contracts, The Prestige, and the Subtle Art of Mind-F*ckery

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I recently read a book that had some… let’s call them issues. I’m not going to name names, but you guys will probably be able to track it down if you follow my social networks, or if you’re patient enough. But if you do track the title down, keep in mind my comments can be seen as spoilers once you have the context, so choose wisely if you want to find out what book I’m talking about.

At any rate, I mostly did enjoy this book. It had an interesting voice and rapid pacing that did serve to keep me immersed in the reading.

But will I be reading this book’s sequel, which is coming out soon?

No.

I could blame some of the plot issues this book had, but if those were the only ones, the book had entertained me enough to encourage me to (eventually, maybe) pick up the sequel. But no. The issue was a bit more serious.

The issue is that the writer broke her social contract with me.

Some writers seem to be completely unaware of the fact, but all works of fiction come with a reciprocal, unwritten social contract.

The reader agrees to suspend disbelief until the end of the book, trusting the writer’s ability to tell a good story until the very end.

On the writer’s side, there’s the promise of a good story being told, and that any leap of faith taken by the reader will be either explained or rewarded in some way by the end.

I always talk about the plot and characterization in a book being its foundation. Well, taking this analogy further, this social contract of trust and reward basically stands as the reason why the foundation had been laid in the first place. The writer wants to entertain, and the reader wants to be entertained. The social contract makes it possible for both sides to both get and deliver what is needed for this transaction to occur.

My problem with this book is that I spent 90% of the book trusting the writer despite some logic issues in the story, only to be rewarded at the end with “Oh well, the conflicts, the stakes, the choices, and even the supposedly devastating sacrifices as the result of those choices never actually mattered and were all undone by the end.”

While it had been foreshadowed from the start that this was the case, but nothing had prepared me for how little it all mattered in the end.

And so, at the end of it, I, being a reader, felt betrayed. So much so that I’m simply not willing to get back onto that roller-coaster again for the sequel.

So How Do Writers Deliver Their End of the Contract?

The main step, of course, is to tell a good story, which revolves around all the techniques you guys already know.

But if you were to want to write a book that is designed to completely screw with your reader’s minds, it basically comes down to one thing:

Don’t put the mind-f*ck ahead of the story. 

In other words, if you’re putting so much effort into blowing the mind of the reader at every turn, you’re actually harming the story, either by making it predictable, or by unraveling all the meaning you’d put into it.

Or in still other words, put the mind-blowing events into your plot, but don’t make your plot about the mind-blowing events.

This is such a difficult thing to explain without naming examples, so I will name two examples in movies. And to make the point I’m making clearer, I’ll even make the main characters have the same vocation.

I present to you:
Image result for the prestige
and
Image result for now you see me
Before we continue: SPOILER WARNING!!!

Of the two, I think the book I’d read was trying to be The Prestige. And why wouldn’t it?

In The Prestige, the pacing was tight. The conflict was no-holds-barred and take-no-prisoners. The stakes kept climbing. But here’s the thing. The conflict centered around what two stage magicians were capable of doing to each other in the name of revenge. The mind-f*cks started coming when the understanding the viewer had of the events in the story took on a new meaning, once they realized what the magicians were willing to do to themselves in order to win in this revenge game. (Let me just say that those things are more horrific the more you think about them.)

Everything in The Prestige is established, shown, and explained, peeling back layer after layer until the viewer is given clear sight of what they had been seeing all along. In other words, nothing was hidden, save for the meaning of what they had seen, and even that is revealed by the end as the huge twist. If viewers rewatch the movie, they will have a different experience, just because they understand all that’s going on in context. But even knowing the context and twist, The Prestige is still a movie worth watching, simply because the characterization was excellent and the plot in itself is amazing. (Brilliant conflict. Huge and ever-increasing stakes driven by character motivation.)

What the book ended up being was Now You See Me. This movie sets up a conflict, only to reveal it’s a diversion, then sets up another thing, only to show it’s fake. And another, and another, none of which is real. By the third time there’s a plot twist (and I use the term loosely), the viewer’s mind isn’t blown, because the viewer knows that literally nothing that’s happening is actually happening. So stakes? Nada. Conflict? Meh what conflict? We don’t even know what the goal is yet. (If we don’t know what the goal is, we don’t know what is standing against the goal.)

Plot twists are thrown in with little to no real ground work, all to “generate interest.” And in the end, it is revealed that the one thing the viewer thought was real—in other words, the heist and the conflict with the detective—was all fake and that the whole time, there had been an entire other plot that the viewer had not been allowed to see on purpose, and that gets jumped on the viewer from left field with little more than a “ta-da!” in the third act.

This in a nutshell was exactly what had happened in the book. Literally in the third act, we’re not only introduced to this whole other unseen plot, but said plot literally undoes everything in the book, including the relationship between the two leads that had been developed as the story progressed.

So what happens is that once this other plot becomes known, the plot we readers had read—the one we had known and spent time on—doesn’t gain a new meaning. It gains non-meaning. As in, if I reread this book again, I’ll never be able to commit to the story again, because this story literally means nothing now. Nothing I had been shown in the story actually meant anything. The story is defined by what I hadn’t been shown, and in short, by how much the writer had taken my trust without giving me anything of substance in return.

And instead of being mind-blown, I’m just really upset and let down.

So if you are working on a book that hinges on some major plot twists, please do ask yourself:

If my readers reread this book knowing the plot twists in it, will they still be presented with a compelling plot?
Or will everything I set up fall apart because of the way I resolved the story? 

If you answer yes to the latter, you failed to hold up your part of the social contract. It really is that simple. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go rewatch The Prestige. 

Anyone else love The Prestige as much as I do? Anyone else feel as betrayed as I do when plot twists basically undo entire stories? 

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How to Use Framing to Strengthen Your Story

How to Use Framing to Strengthen Your Story

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about framing. A lot of us take framing for granted, but it’s actually such a vital part of our writing. So I thought I’d talk about it today.

We often think of framing in terms of the plot frame. As in how a plot forms the backbone or frame over which the whole story goes. This is true, and as important, but what I’m thinking of is framing, almost in a photographic sense.

Framing has a lot of different meanings in photography too, but what I’m talking about here is aiming your camera so that the contents of your frame (i.e. what will be in the picture) results in a pleasant image. Like so:

When we write, we should be framing the chapters in the same way. See, a chapter isn’t just a number with text after it. It’s actually a snapshot out of your story, and like a photo, the best chapters are framed properly, so the contents do the best work possible toward progressing the plot.

Since I’ve started freelance editing, I’ve been noticing quite often that writers seem to think that chapters should just begin and end, maybe at a set number of pages.

Many writers seem to think that, as long as the story gets told, it doesn’t matter where the chapters start and finish.

In a way, they’re not wrong. Beautifully framed chapters won’t do anything if the story is weak, but then, I don’t really think you can beautifully frame chapters if you didn’t sort your story out first.

The thing is, the framing of one’s chapters can be the difference between a good book and an excellent one. Or even an okay book and a good one.

It all comes back to reader immersion.

See, readers have been trained to “read” certain things in a certain way. For example, a comma makes them pause. Periods make them pause longer. Line breaks mean there has been a change of some sort from one paragraph to the next, whether it’s in location, time, or point of view character. The readers might not yet know what changed, but that line break signals them to be prepared for it, so when the change does become apparent, they’re not pulled out of the story.

Just so, readers are trained to read something into a chapter as well. A chapter is a unit, which follows after the previous one and goes in before the next. The end of the chapter means that the main content of said chapter has been dealt with. Even chapters with cliffhangers. There is obviously still something unresolved in that chapter, but something still happened, and progress of some sort has been made.

When chapters don’t work in this expected way, readers get this vague feeling that something about what they’re reading feels “off.”

They probably won’t even be able to lay their finger on the reason, but more often than not, that sense of writing being off comes either from pacing or framing problems. (And pacing could be a framing problem in itself.)  If chapters aren’t framed nicely, your job of lulling the reader into staying immersed in a story becomes that much harder.

So what are the signs of bad chapter framing?

There are quite a few diverse things I can think of:

The chapter doesn’t lead in.
By this, I mean that writers open chapters in the middle of nowhere, giving readers no sense of where the characters are, what’s going on, who’s involved, or even who’s there (which especially becomes an issue when we’re dealing with larger casts).

Unless the chapter follows directly on the previous one (but not too directly, more on this later), make sure your reader can paint a picture in their mind’s eye of what’s going on before anything important happens. You don’t want your scenes to look like they’re happening in white mist. You don’t want talking heads. And you don’t want the reader to exclaim “where the heck did he/she/it come from just now?!” Because all these will pull your readers out of the story.

Nothing happens in the chapter.
This is a common one with writers using flashbacks. Usually, your main plot is the one taking place in the present. That’s the plot you want to progress. If you only have a paragraph of two of a character starting to reminisce, followed by the flashback scene and nothing else, nothing has happened in your chapter. Because even if the memory is fully action packed, your character did nothing in the now while they were remembering the past.

This isn’t to say that there has to be action in the present all the time, but something does need to happen before the chapter plays out. So does the flashback cause a reaction? Does it cause an emotional response? Does it trigger a major decision? Put those responses in the same chapter as the flashback, because in that way, the flashback adds to the main plot in a direct, immediate, meaningful way.

A chapter ends abruptly.
Often, this goes hand in hand with the previous point, but whereas nothing happens in that example, this one is more a case of a chapter ending just as something interesting starts to happen. I’m not talking about cliffhangers here. This is something entirely different.

Chapters, like most plots, have a beginning, middle, and end. Something is introduced, something happens, and there’s a resolution. I find, sometimes, that something will be introduced.

Yeah. Did you just get the feeling that I just left you hanging out to dry with that sentence? That’s exactly what an abruptly ended chapter feels like. The reader knows there should be something coming after, but it’s just not there. The blank space where the chapter ended becomes a gaping vacuum in your story.

A good example of this is a big revelation or admission by a character, and having that revelation be the chapter’s end. This could work as a cliffhanger, but nothing else has happened in the chapter yet. This is bad enough, but when I turn the page, I find that the new chapter doesn’t continue where the last one left off. So… what? Did the writer forget to finish it? Did he/she just not feel like writing that day….?

Takeaway here… write out your scenes, people. Its not the readers’ job to fill in the blanks for you.

Which brings me to my next point.

Glossing over major events.
Ooh… this is a subtle one. I make this mistake most often. It’s too easy. See, we’re taught as writers that we need to skip the boring parts and stick to the important bits. If we don’t, the story becomes boring. So what we do is spend maybe a paragraph to tell the readers something along the lines of “nothing major has happened. X did this the whole time… it’s about a week since you saw him last…”

And then we ease them into the chapter proper, where things are happening. The problem is that we sometimes overdo it. We gloss over too much, and important parts of the story as a whole get lost.

It’s not cool to tell me a character became friends with another one without showing us as it happens. Sure, it’s cool to save the reader from the boring parts, but some things, like growing relationships, discoveries that have bearing on the scene now… those sorts of things… we want to see. If you have to say “so this cool/interesting/important thing happened off-screen,” it really means you’re excluding the readers from your story, which means they’ll no longer want to stay as immersed as they have been.

The chapter ends for no reason.
As I mentioned before, a chapter has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if you split the chapter in two for no reason, it just ends the one chapter abruptly, and starts the next in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, cliffhangers are the exception, but the reason why they exist is to create tension. That said, there are so many ways in which cliffhangers can be done wrong.

Let me count the ways.

Cliffhangers done wrong.
Honestly, I’m not a particular fan of the cliffhanger chapter ending. I don’t hate it. I mean, it’s still as good a writing tool as any. But more often than not, writers use them wrong, in some groan-inducing ways.

Prime examples:

Cliffhangers followed by cop-outs. (Gasp! He has a gun! Oh… It’s a water pistol. *eye roll*)

Cliffhangers followed by glossing over to explain them away. (Oh, you were worried about the bad guy’s bomb going off? Well, while I purposefully weren’t allowing you to look, my genius investigator figured out not only how to magically find said bomb, but he also disarmed it with a toothpick and some bubblegum. Phew!)

Cliffhangers being the entire point of the chapter. If your whole point is to get from the beginning of a chapter to the cliffhanger, and nothing else happened on the way there, you’re probably doing it wrong. And finally…

Cliffhangers.
Happening.
Every.
Bloody.
Freaking.
For heaven’s sake.
Please make it end.
Chapter.

One more thought. If you’re writing a book with multiple points of view, it’s probably not a good idea to use a cliffhanger chapter ending if it’s going to tempt the reader even a little to skim over, or entirely skip, the other characters’ points of view until the cliffhanger’s resolved.

Chapters are too long or too short.
This is where pacing comes in. As I mentioned before, readers read chapters as units of a story. But further than that, the speed at which a reader gets through those units influences their concept of the book’s pacing. Shorter chapters=faster pacing, longer chapters=slower pacing.

So what happens if you have a whole bunch of long chapters with one thing happening after the other in quick succession? It feels wrong, because the chapter rate clashes with the story’s actual pacing. Just so, too many short chapters will jar if your overall story unfolds at a slower rate. In such a case, it might be a good idea to look for this specifically, and combine or split chapters accordingly.

Framing your chapters is a subtle art. So subtle, in fact, that most people completely forget to do it, but most framing issues are simply solved. All it takes is adjusting the aim and focus of your chapter ever-so-slightly.

Can you think of any other ways for chapters to be framed wrong? Any of my examples a pet peeve of yours? 

NaNo Need-to-Knows: How to Avoid Writer’s Block When You’re a Pantser

Hey everyone! Today’s vlog post will be the last one I’ll be posting on a Friday for a while, because each post for November will be about advice and/or encouragement for that specific week of NaNoWriMo.

If you’re here for my monthly goal update post, click here.

If you would like to see links to all of the post in the NaNo Need-to-Knows Series, click here.

The script I used to record this vlog follows the video.

NaNoWriMo can be a dream and a nightmare for writers who fly by the seat of their pants as they write (henceforth referred to as pantsers, pantsing, etc.) On the plus side, NaNo seems almost designed for people who don’t want to plan, because we’re encouraged to just let go and write every step of the way.

On the negative side, if you paint yourself into a corner, it can be a disaster. In order to write 50,000 words in a month, you have to write an average of 1,667 words per single day. This might not seem too bad, but if you get stuck, the words needed to get back to par stack up really fast.

A lot of people try to prevent this by planning ahead and going into NaNoWriMo with something akin to a step-by-step guide to their book.

But we’re pantsers and that’s not what we do!

So what do we do?

We get stuck.

Often.

And this is frequently what we call writer’s block.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can “borrow” a few things from the plotters and adapt them to help us along.

The big thing I see as an advantage of plotting is that plotters know where they’re going with their book. Pantsers have this way of thinking that this is boring, but really, they’re just looking at it wrong.

See, just because we know where we’re headed doesn’t predetermine how we’re going to get there. And the getting there is really the fun part.

So it helps to go into NaNoWriMo with a few things settled in our mind. Knowing the main character(s), and their goal, conflict, and stakes is probably the best way to not get stuck.

However, if that smacks too much of plotting, you can get away with significantly less. How do I know? I’ve done (and won) NaNo by going into it knowing precisely one thing:

The climax of the story.

If I know what the big event or reveal will be at the end, I can use every scene before that point as a stepping stone to it. So if I get stuck in a scene, feeling like I don’t know where it’s going, I can then direct the scene towards progressing the in a way that brings me closer to the climactic point. And hopefully by then, I know enough about character, the goal, conflict and stakes to figure out how to make that progressive step forward. (But again, it does help to know all these before you start writing.)

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What do you have to know before starting?

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Conflict and Stakes

We’re rapidly heading for the end of October and I have a lot of ground to cover, thanks to a really ill-timed internet outage. So today, I would like to talk about conflict and stakes together. (Sorry if that makes my post run long.)

If you would like to check out the rest of the NaNo Need-to-Knows series, please click here.

So why are the conflict and stakes of the story so important to me that I would focus on them for my final NaNoWriMo  preparation post?

Simply put, they (along with compelling characters) are what keeps the reader interested in reading the story. If the goal is the story’s entire point, the conflict is what makes the goal uncertain, and the stakes are what makes the reader care about the outcome.

If one is 100% certain of a story’s outcome, what’s the point of reading? This is why we get bored so quickly if there’s just not enough challenges (i.e. conflict) standing between a character and their goal. The easier it is to achieve the goal, the less interesting it becomes, because the book also becomes more predictable.

But Misha, you might say, some books are predictable simply because they fall in a certain genre. Yes and no…

A book being a romance, for example, gives you about 99% of a chance that there will be a happy ending, but then the experience of reading is more about how that happy ending occurs despite everything that stands in the characters’ way. If there’s no conflict, the end just happens, and it’s just not very satisfying to a reader.

So what is conflict? People have this nasty tendency to believe that conflict=fighting and bickering, and you can tell who those people are by seeing whose characters seem to fight all the time about things that could have been solved if they spoke to each other like normal human beings.

That’s the thing. Conflict, in the sense used when creating a story, isn’t about fighting. It’s a counterweight to the story’s goal. In other words, the antagonist and his minions is a source of conflict, but so is the main character’s fear of water if they have to swim in order to achieve their goal. The former is called external conflict, in other words, a challenge that comes from outside the main character. Then there’s also internal conflict, which comes from within the character, and usually takes the form of fear, anger, sadness, self-doubt, etc.

Ideally, you want conflict to come from both sources, because then it’s not just a rote color-by-numbers walk-through until the character meets the big bad for a boss fight. Letting at least some of the conflict come from a character’s heart and soul gives it all meaning. Which makes the reader care.

But neither the goal nor conflict matters if the reader doesn’t have a reason to care about the outcome. This is where your characterization and the stakes come in. Obviously, if the reader cares about a character, they will care about whether the character achieves their goal. But if you want the reader to care the most they can care about the outcome, you also need to give the main character some high costs to failing in their goal.

In other words, your story needs some stakes.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can do this. First, you can make the character’s failure affect a lot of people. This is usually in the form of “everyone dies if the character doesn’t succeed.” Which is good, but not quite the most effective way to join the stakes with your readers’ care towards a character.

No, for that, making the stakes personal is the best approach. It might sound silly, but something as relatively small as “If the character doesn’t succeed, his best friend will die.” often implies higher stakes (emotionally speaking) than “everyone dies.” The main character doesn’t know “everyone” and so the reader doesn’t either. It’s just a reason to care less.

So mix up your external and internal conflicts, and try to make even the high stakes you have feel personal, and you’ll be well on your way towards creating a kick-ass story.

Do you plan your conflict and stakes ahead of starting to write, or do you make them up as you go along?

Before you go, I just wanted to also let you know that Spirits in the Water is making its way around the bloggosphere, and we’re giving away some awesome prizes.

If you would like to see the blog tour stops, please click here.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: How to Maximize Your Chances to Win

Hey everyone! FINALLY, I have the vlog post uploaded and my internet connection back, so I’m going to have two vlog posts this week for the NaNo Need-to-Knows series. I’ll work the blog posts I had wanted to write in over this week and the next as well, because there’s a ton of information I want to share before and during NaNoWriMo.

Anyhow, here’s the video, with the script following below.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost on the eve of NaNoWriMo and we have no idea about who of us will succeed and who will fail at making it to 50,000 words. But I’m specially posting this on a Monday so you’ll have a bit more than a week to follow advice if you’re so inclined. Because this week is the week you prepare.

But you’ve planned your story as far as you’re going to plan it. What more can you possibly need to do?

For right now, forget your story. This week, you need to prepare yourself for NaNoWriMo, emotionally and physically.

Here are my best suggestions and the things I’m doing right now to get ready.

1) Set your strategy.

To win NaNo, you have to write 50,000 words in a month, or an average of 1,667 per day. But if you look at your calendar, you might realize that you actually have fewer days than 30 available. So how are you going to make up for that?

Make the decision now so you don’t worry about it later.

2) Clear your schedule as far as possible.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to make everything else in November go away, but alas, we’re in the real world with its millions of distractions and drains on your time. So what you want to do here is decrease those distractions as far as possible. If you have something due in the first week of November (like say next week’s vlog post), get it done now so you don’t have to worry about it.

If you need to set a date for something and it’s possible to do so, set that date in December.

Also, let go of your TV schedule. Make sure to record the things that are important to you, so you can watch it later, but don’t put yourself in the dilemma of “But XYZ is on…”

3) Tell your friends and family.

This way, you can say, “Can’t, I’m writing my novel in a month, remember?” Which makes it easier to stand firm if someone wants you to go out. (Obviously, don’t turn into a hermit, but if you have a day’s writing quota and winning is important to you, going out might have to wait until you do have time available.)

4) Decide on your priorities and block out an available time slot dedicated to writing every day. And make sure nothing else gets booked in that time.

It’ll be helpful if you knew how fast you write, but if you need to write 2,000 words a day and you take 2 hrs in order to do so, you need to make sure that you have an average of two non-negotiable writing hours a day. Note here: average. So if you really can only do an hour on week days, make sure you have a bigger chunk of time available on weekends.

Doing this ahead of time helps in two ways. First, having a dedicated writing time helps your brain switch over to creation mode faster than trying to steal time at random. Second, you can’t win NaNo if you don’t give yourself enough time. So scheduling writing time ahead can help you ensure that you theoretically gave yourself enough time to write your daily quota of words.

5) Sort Out Your Social Networking.

If it’s important that you post regularly to wherever, schedule as much as possible ahead. If not, go on hiatus.

Yeah I can hear the horrified gasps already. But that hour that just whizzes by every day as you scroll down your Facebook feed? You could have spent it writing. You need to spend it writing.

So pull the plug for a month. (I promise you, it’s actually really nice.) Just let everyone know that it’s what you’re doing so they don’t distract you with worried calls and emails because you “vanished.”

Those are my big tips to gear up for NaNoWriMo. Do you think I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: The Inciting Incident

Continuing on my theme of plot-related need-to-knows for NaNoWriMo, I want to talk about the inciting incident today. What is it? And why is it so useful to know your story’s inciting incident ahead of starting to write your NaNo Novel?

You know that line in book descriptions? “Everything changes when…”

The event that changes things for the character is the inciting incident. It’s literally the event that “incites” the character to set the goal which carries the story.

And if the goal is your story’s point, the inciting incident is then the catalyst that sparks off the story in earnest.

If you think about it from the reader’s point of view, the story’s goal doesn’t exist until the inciting incident occurred. So the introduction has no direction; it’s only an introduction. Direction only happens when the character says (directly or indirectly), “This is what I want to do.” After that, the story is about whether or not that thing is achieved.

But it can’t happen if there isn’t some spark that makes the character set out on their journey in the first place.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have the inciting incident occur as soon as possible. Some people say within the first third of your story, but I personally think that’s too long, unless your story has a slower pace. Others say you must start in medias res, and that the inciting incident has to happen in the first chapter. Which I say is too fast for most genres outside of mysteries (where the incident in question is someone dying or something being stolen) or a thriller. Personal experience says that most of my stories work best with a proper character intro, and the inciting incident occurring somewhere in the first fifth of a book. But that’s because I prefer to emphasize my character arcs. Putting the inciting incident at around 10k words in (assuming I have a 50k book) gives me time to show the readers who the characters are before the inciting incident changes things, which I feel gives those changes more of an impact.

That said, I tend to personally leave it up to the story I’m writing, for the inciting incident to happen when it’s ready to happen.

So why the spiel about where to put it, then?

Because a surprising amount of writers feel like their story is dragging half-way into the book and they can’t tell why.

Often, the reason is that they’ve written half a novel’s worth of words, but nothing’s happened yet. So it’s basically a half a novel of waffling around with no direction and no visible point. Because nothing happened to make the character decide to do something. And as such, nothing is done.

If you know what the inciting incident is supposed to be, you’ll also know if it hasn’t happened yet, and so you can make sure it does happen and soon enough to keep your story from lagging.

Do you pre-plan your inciting incidents? Do you prefer inciting incidents to happen right at the beginning, or at a later point in the story?

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Story’s Goal

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?