Plot Goals ~ Seeing Is Believing

The most essential of essentials in your first scene is setting up your visible plot goal. Did I say visible? Yep. Why? Because if you ask writers what their protagonist’s plot goal is you will often get answers like “she finds love in the end” or “he finally sees his dream realized.” Those kinds of answers are not easy to visualize. They’re not specific. If I were to write that in a movie script, it would make no sense. So, think about how this scene would look on the big screen.

What does “she finds love in the end” translate to visually? Do you see your heroine getting on a plane after quitting her high-glamour NY City job and flying to the jungles of Central America, where her swarthy, ecstatic fiancé is pacing on the torn-up runway awaiting her arrival as a downpour of rain pelts him? You can picture this, right? And so as you think about your entire book, the ending of the story (which you may not have thought about yet), and most importantly the opening scene, you need to be able to formulate a visible picture of a visible goal. Granted, the details may change. Your heroine may end up getting off the plane in Paris instead of Guatemala City, but you need a visible goal for your protagonist to work toward, and it must be hinted at in the first scene, preferably the first page or two.

 Why Should I Keep Reading?

Sounds crazy? Well, I speak truth! I have been to numerous writing workshops taught by the big-name writing teachers and they are in agreement. You can just ignore this if you want, but I’m hoping you won’t (because I think you’ll be sorry). Why is this so important? Because too many novels start off and go on for chapters without the reader having a clue as to what the book is about, what the protagonist is doing or what he/she actually wants, or what the protagonist’s goal for the book is. Without any of that, the reader is going to ask “Why should I keep reading?” And rightly so.

When I pick up a novel, if I can’t figure out just what the heck the protagonist is up to by the end of the first scene (barring the exception of a prologue that doesn’t feature said protagonist), I start getting antsy. I might push myself through the next chapter ever hopeful, but if I still don’t “get” what the book is about, see the visible goal, care for the poor protagonist who has obstacles the size of the Empire State Building in her way to reach her visible goal, then I usually give up. I can’t tell you how many “great” novels I have started (often recommended by friends) that I have done this with. I admit I’m a tough critic (you can guess why), but if I find even a few redeeming things in the first chapter, I will give a weak starting book the benefit of the doubt. But not for long. You’ve got to really reel me in with something—beautiful language, intriguing premise or world, or hooking mystery—for me to set aside my need to know what the protagonist’s visible goal is.

 Five Basic Goals—That’s All, Folks

In a workshop I took with screenwriter/consultant Michael Hague, I noted the point he made that there are really only five general visible goals out there (and he’s speaking about movies—his arena—but this does apply to novels as well). Here they are:

  • The need to win—competition, the love of another, etc.
  • The need to stop—someone, something bad from happening, etc.
  • The need to escape
  • The need to deliver—a message, one’s self, an item, get to a destination (think Cold Mountain with Inman’s need to get home. I picture Nicole Kidman speaking in the movie trailer; “Come back. Come back to Cold Mountain.” A perfect example of a visible goal set at the start and followed through to the end.)
  • The need to retrieve—(think Indiana Jones and just about every action-adventure movie. There’s always a magic ring, a hidden or lost treasure, or it can be a lost love)

 Make It Visible or We Can’t See It

If you write spiritual character-driven novels like I do, it may be hard to figure out the visible goal. I always seem to start with the spiritual and emotional goals like “she finds peace inside knowing she can’t change certain things.” Okay, well that’s a start. And I know as I plot my novels it’s only a start—because I have to then translate that into plot. Visible plot. In my relational drama/mystery Someone to Blame I wanted the reader, at the end, to care for the antisocial, bad guy antagonist Billy Thurber. I wanted “the reader to care for him in the end.” Well, that was vague. But I worked out a visible goal (that he actually didn’t know was to occur, but I did), and when he literally uncovers what he has been searching for (or running from), he arrives at the spiritual and emotional place I wanted him to be in. But I had to come up with a visible goal for him.

But wait—he’s not my protagonist. Does that mean . . .? I hope you have come to the conclusion I’m setting up here, because, yes, not just your protagonist but all your major players have to have a visible goal. If your hero’s goal is to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant, then your antagonist’s visible goal is to stop the hero from reaching that goal. There’s so much more to this, but I’ll leave you with these five basic goals so you can do your homework.

This week, figure out (if you haven’t already) what your protagonist’s visible goal is and make sure you have some hint or even a clear indication of what that is in your first scene and preferably within the first few pages. Often the first goal the character sets isn’t the actual plot goal, but I’ll delve into that more next week. Be sure to subscribe to this feed so you don’t miss this follow-up! And share your comments and thoughts on your scene after you do this.

20 Responses to “Plot Goals ~ Seeing Is Believing”

  1. Matthew D. Ryan January 25, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    I recently came to a similar realization. I was outlining a book and things were not going well. The thing just felt like mush. I started to list goals and tasks for the main characters and things started to fall into place. As you said, all the major characters should have specific goals; this gives them a direction to go in throughout the story.

  2. William H. A. Williams January 25, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Excellent points, especially about visualizing the ending of the novel. I am wondering if these final images must always be action oriented. In THO’ IT WERE TEN THOUSAND MILES I had a strong image of the heroine about to leave the house of her deceased lover. She stands in the doorway, thinks about picking up her journey alone, and recalls the last line of the Robert Burns poem (used in the title) that first brought them together.

  3. Dane Zeller January 25, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Susanne,

    I wrote a novel whose main character broke all the rules. Hmm…would that be me? Yup, I didn’t know the ending when I started the book. I am the anti-outliner, anti-storymapper who uses his first draft to understand the whole of the story. I’m sorry, I’m just wired that way.

    Oddly enough, I had a critical scene in mind before I started the novel. That scene drove the beginning and middle of the story. Of course the ending wasn’t perfected until the fourth draft. You’ll be happy to know that it was related to the first scene of the novel. I just did it backwards.

    Visible goal for all characters? Interesting. I’ll keep that in mind for my next book.

    Thanks for making me think about it.

    • cslakin January 25, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that. You’ll hear me on my soapbox a few times this year as we go through Writing the Heart of Your Story about the absolute need to plan your novel in advance so as to avoid wasting months or even years of your life. But I won’t get into it here. Just be forewarned!

  4. Laura Bennet January 25, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks Susanne. Very helpful. Even in my personal experience manuscript, in which I’m telling a story, I keep asking myself if there is enough conflict and what the goal is at the end. You’ve given me some specifics here to work with.

  5. Linda A Janssen January 26, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    I was having a hard time figuring out how my WIP novel’s storyline fit into Michael Hague’s 5 plot goals you mentioned. Then I realized that my storyline deals with ‘the need to overcome’ the situation the protaganist is in (dealing with grief), thereby setting herself up ‘to win’. This helped me visualize how I could insert the ‘visible plot goal’ into my first scene in a credible fashion. Thank you!

  6. JJ Toner January 26, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    Hi Susanne,

    My editor keeps hammering this point. I expect it’ll get through my thick skull eventually 🙂
    Those five general visible goals don’t seem to cover revenge as a visible goal. I can see how you might shoehorn revenge into one of the others by calling it “winning” or “delivering” (a message), but I would have thought it needs to be added to the list.

    JJ

  7. Mark Beyer January 26, 2012 at 5:39 am #

    Well said, Susanne. Joseph Conrad famously said of his task as a writer: “I need to make you see!”

  8. caroline owen January 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Hey!This is all very useful.I realize more and more that even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I really haven’t come across a group this real, bringing out the nitty gritty of writing and giving it a pulse so strong.I think some quality time with your likes sussanne would unravel the mystery of my writing career. Because then, I’ll have the guts to present my work for review.More and more the writer in me is being resuscitated. I have written scores of poetry, 2 novels and one film script but gave much thought to the villain at all. In my mind, they are incorrigible and don’t deserve salvation and the heroine gets victory in the end, even if only through another generation….

  9. Lorna January 27, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Thanks Susanne:)
    I needed to hear that today. When you shared those 5 goals…it became clear to me what needs to happen so my main character has a goal that’s visible!
    so thanks!

    Lorna

  10. Carol Ryan January 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Great advice. It also applies to memoir.

  11. Diana Hockley January 28, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    An excellent article with great advice. Now I might need to tweak a few sentences in the first chapters of my new novel which I have been procrastinating about for some time!

    Thank you for sharing this advice 🙂

    • cslakin January 28, 2012 at 7:57 am #

      Thanks, Diana. I hope you will subscribe to the blog and follow the weekly posts. We’ll be going deep into the heart of the story all year, and the first five months is just on the first scene!

  12. Pat Amsden January 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Hi Susanne

    I took Michael Hauge’s workshop last year and it was good to see his goals restated so well. I suspect as a reader you’re actually more forgiving than I. I probably won’t make it past the first chapter if I don’t find something there to draw me in and keep me reading. The question is do I manage to do this in my work?

    For anyone interested there are some free short stories to read and the first chapter of my novel. If you don’t think I manage to deliver let me know!

    Pat
    http://www.patamsden.com

  13. LK Watts February 3, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    Thanks for the 5 tips. I’ve yet to write my first work of fiction but when I do I’m sure this blog will help.

  14. Erica February 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    I will be making character goal sheets now… thanks!

  15. Nick Thacker February 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    Great post!

    I’d heard Dwight Swain’s advice about writing to a “visual” scene, but this definitely goes a step further. I’ll start incorporating the advice into my own fiction!

    Thanks for the advice!

  16. Glen Strathy February 9, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    I agree with you about the importance of the Goal, though I’m not sure it’s always required in the first scene. Sometimes, there’s a mystery about the Goal. The first scene may revolve around a lesser goal, while the main goal is only revealed gradually.

  17. richard hebert August 15, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    I am very new to writing fiction. My story’s my main character, who is a thief, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is blamed for the murder of a young girl. The cops want him, the girl’s grandfather ( who is a gang boss) wants him, and the people who had the girl killed want to find out what the dead girl told him. My main character wants to know why all this has happen to him,and why was he set up in the first place. I don’t know if this a good idea for a story, but I am working on it anyway.

    • cslakin August 15, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

      Sounds like some good elements. For the best help, get my books the 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and the workbook. Then answer all the questions in the workbook as you brainstorm and develop the idea into a strong concept and get those pillars strong. If you need help you can hire me to go over your ideas and outline.

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