Goal As Roadmap: Writing Diagnostics VI

Structure comes next on the checklist of evaluating your story premise.  Do you have a specific goal, opposition to that goal, strong character motivation, and a showdown planned for the ending?

Let’s deal with these one at a time, starting with goal.

The protagonist’s goal shapes the story that is to come.  Most of the decisions you make in putting your plot together will depend on the goal.  I suggest that you evaluate the goal along the following questions:  Is it specific?  Can it be achieved right now or in a matter of days or weeks?  Is it worthwhile rather than trivial?  Will failing to accomplish the goal be devasting for your protagonist?

Be honest when you answer these questions.  If you fake, dodge, or trick your way around a solid goal, then you’re only cheating yourself.

Story goals fail when they’re

     *too trivial

     *too vague

Say that your protagonist learns her mother is going to visit her apartment on Saturday.  She wants to clean the place before Mom’s arrival.

Is this a viable story goal?  Not really.  Although it’s specific and within a tight time frame, the stakes are too low.  Remember to always ask yourself if the protagonist will be devastated by failure.

In this example, Mom may shake her head and criticize, but the world won’t end if she finds a cobweb on the ceiling fan.

Let’s try again.  Say that your protagonist learns that Mom has started shoplifting.  Her favorite target happens to be the store where your protagonist works.  The boss is mad.  The protagonist can’t afford to lose her job or keep paying for Mom’s new hobby.  The protagonist wants to sit Mom down and persuade her to stop.

See the difference?

Okay, you say.  My protagonist’s goal is to be happy.

Nope.  Won’t work.  Too vague.

Of course I want your character to be happy at the story’s end.  But why should he be?  How will he achieve happiness?  What will he do to deserve it?

In our culture, happiness is often seen as a by-product of achieving something tangible.  People usually believe that if they only own something, accomplish something, or find something they will then be happy.  Even the minimalist types out there who proclaim that if they can get rid of all their stuff they’ll be happy are still pursuing a tangible, achievable, specific objective.

Sure, I know that we carry our happiness within ourselves.  But if our character has achieved a state of true, zen-like bliss, we won’t have a story to write about, will we?

So make sure your protagonist starts the story with a goal that’s clear, easy to understand, worthwhile, and specific.  Let the reader know what it is right away.

Then if the reader happens to be uninterested in whether the protagonist can successfully assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the reader can toss The Day of the Jackal aside and instead follow Miss Marple as she figures out who killed the body in the library.

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