Constructing Your Story Goal

When you’re constructing the Story Goal for your novel, how concrete does it need to be? Does it have to be something your protagonist can do all by himself? Or is it enough if he just helps out? Is it enough that he was just a cog in the wheel?

Amadeus posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hey Randy,
I’m a teenager writing a fantasy novel, which is the first in a series which looks to be about three books. The protagonist is an eighteen-year old guy, whose hometown is ransacked, and he’s captured, which is the first disaster. That’s when he makes the choice to fight against the tyranny to try to defeat it, but is that a good enough Story Goal? Is it enough emotional payoff for the Good to beat the Bad, even if the lead character has little or nothing to with it himself? What if he’s wounded while his friends win the all-important Final Battle? I just don’t think it’s enough for Good to win over Evil–it’s too impersonal. The lead character has to defeat the Villain himself. What do you think?

Randy sez: Your Story Goal needs to be something that is possible for your lead character to do, possibly with some assistance. But he needs to be in on it in a major way.

Example: In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Frodo’s Story Goal is to throw the Ring into the Cracks of Doom. He makes this decision at the Council of Elrond. Notice that his Story Goal is NOT to defeat Sauron. That is his Ambition (and it’s the Ambition of most of our good guys in this novel).

But defeating Sauron is abstract. (I define an Ambition to be abstract.) What does it look like to defeat Sauron? It could look like many things — cutting off Sauron’s head, or vaporizing him with an atom bomb, or feeding him a live grenade and letting it explode. You can photograph any of those. You can’t photograph “defeat.” That’s too vague.

Frodo’s Story Goal is concrete. You can photograph throwing the Ring into the Cracks of Doom.

So Amadeus, your character has a fine Ambition — to battle tyranny. Now you need to turn that into a concrete Story Goal. What will it look like for him to battle tyranny? Will he become a commando and destroy the crucial bridge? Become a witch doctor and learn to bring back every dead warrior to fight again? Learn the power of the Grzazaga Force and use it to destroy Castle Ytrtrtr? Develop the power to belch fire and then kill the tyrant while entertaining him with a fire-eating act?

Only you can decide what your Story Goal for your lead character will be. But make it as concrete as you possibly can. Make it something you could photograph. Something that any intelligent observer could see and report back on.

I don’t think it’s enough to just send your hero into battle, get him wounded, and then let the victory be won while he’s recovering in the hospital. If you go that route, you chose the wrong lead character. You should have chosen the guy who actually blew up the bridge, raised the warriors, destroyed the castle, or killed the tyrant.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

7 Comments

  1. Jonathan Cain October 5, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Just to briefly play devils advocate, I think it COULD be ok for your main character to not be the ultimate “winner”, because that sometimes happens in life. Also, it would be an interesting twist on the Character fails” story archetype where the goal is reaches but not by the hero.

    I agree with Randy though in regards to the fact that your main character has to be a big part of your story though, and to do that, if the character is not actually there, he will almost necessarily have to have a story goal to which your ultimate battle is tangential. I think it would work, but might need some developing.

  2. Melissa Prado October 5, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    @Jonathan: To go along with that… I think if the main character is not the one who achieves the main victory in the story, he/she better at least have some sort of internal revelation or personal accomplishment aside from the ‘ultimate win’ achieved by the other characters.

  3. Jordyn October 8, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Hi, I’m new to this blog and thought I’d add my 2 cents.

    It might be okay if your main character is injured and then watches the events so that we can still feel attached to what is going on. My question is why wouldn’t you include him in the final battle? If it is because you secretly favor another character over your MC or have difficulty writing fight scenes (I have experiences both of these problems) you might want to rethink that plan.

  4. Tessa Quin October 8, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    Completely unrelated to this post: I received your E-zine today and you totally sold me on Tim Ferriss’s book. I would have loved to buy the book through your link, to support you, but since I live in Iceland and shipping + VAT costs are high, I ended up buying the Kindle edition. Perhaps you should include the Kindle link, too, since Kindle is becoming so popular? I honestly don’t buy books anymore if I can’t get them on my Kindle!

    Randy sez: For simplicity, I include a single link, since anybody can get to any of the versions from any of the other versions. I receive that pesky affiliate fee from Amazon no matter which version you buy, since Amazon tracks that sort of thing. This is why I love e-books–you can get them anywhere right away. Hope you like Tim’s book! There are a lot of good ideas in the book. I’m already doing many of them, but there are still plenty that never occurred to me.

  5. Neil October 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    I have a follow-up question here. I can see that the story goal should be reached by the end of the story (or not reached if you’re writing a tragedy). However, what happens if it turns out that there’s another goal that would fulfill the ambition? Or, alternatively, reaching the goal doesn’t actually fulfill the entire ambition?

  6. Thom L. December 14, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    There seems to be a recuring theme in that new stories enter the mind as you are writing something else. I have found that this is good and has helped me be more creative. What I do as a new story pops into my head I get on my laptop and creat a quick outline, including a story title, what the whole idea is, etc.. When I go back and look at the list, at times I don’t remember the story until I read my outline and it all comes back to me. I have about 10 of these at this time and will get to them in the future.

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