A story is just a recounting of people doing things. Nothing is ever done without a goal in mind. Seriously. I just checked facebook for any new posts (even though I had just checked it three minutes before that.) Pointless? Yes. But did I have a goal? Yes. I wanted to entertain my brain, which was struggling to figure out how to phrase this. Did I achieve my goal? No. It’s time for another NFL game or something.
Anyway, the point is that everything that people do has some sort of goal. We go to the store to get food. We get out of bed to get things done. We get into bed to get rested. Since a story is a recounting of people doing things, then every story inherently has a goal. In every story, every story, the characters have a goal they’re trying to accomplish.
So, if every story inherently has a goal, why do people make such a big deal about it? If it’s already there, why should you waste time worrying about it? Because not every story goal is a good story goal. The story about me checking facebook didn’t have a good story goal.
What makes a good story goal then?
A great story goal is:
My goal of entertaining myself was not admirable. Your hero’s goal should be admirable because it will make your readers care if he achieves it or not. They won’t care if I get myself entertained. They will care if Frodo gets the Ring to Mount Doom.
My goal of entertaining myself was also not concrete. There was no one point I could envision where I knew that I had been entertained. I wasn’t looking for a specific post that I loved, or trying to reach any particular level of ‘entertainedness’. Let’s look at it another way. Frodo’s goal in the Lord of the Rings was to destroy the One Ring. Tolkien didn’t chose to make Frodo’s goal to “fight Sauron” or “protect the Shire” or even “walk off his holiday fat.” None of those goals are concrete. When have you fought Sauron enough? How long are you supposed to protect the Shire, and from what? And exactly how much fat did Frodo put on this holiday? If he burns that off, is that enough or should he go for more?
Abstract story goals never leave the reader (or the hero) with finality. The hero never really wins, he just kind of continues to exist. A concrete story goal though (like, cook the Ring) has an exact moment of accomplishment. When Frodo throws the ring into the mountain (sure, that’s how it goes down) we know that the story is over. The battle has been won.
How do you come up with a concrete story goal, though? I’ve heard it said that a great story goal should be achieved in a single, photographable act. Frodo destroys jewelry in a volcano. Tirian frees Narnia. Peter Pan kills the scallywag Captain Hook. The achievement of a story goal is a single action.
So, is your story goal simple and photographical, or is it… not? Is your hero trying to fight the cliché adults-dressed-in-white dystopian government? Or are they trying to destroy the final vial of a mind-controlling serum? One is concrete, one is not. One is a killer story goal, one is a story goal that will kill your novel.
Centered on Your hero
Finally, a good story goal is centered on your hero. The Lord of the Rings would have been an awful story if it had been told strictly from Gandalf’s perspective. (Okay, so yes a little more of Gandalf’s dry humor couldn’t hurt anything, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) A Lord of the Rings centered around Gandalf would have read something like this: Walk Frodo to Moria, fight fantastic beasts and armies until the story randomly ends. Similarly, an Avenger’s movie told from Nick Fury’s perspective would have been lame: Assemble the Avengers, get them to stop bickering, watch them fight to save New York City on the big screen while eating popcorn.
Your hero has to be at the center of the resolution of the story goal. If he’s not, he’s the wrong hero.