Nov 28 2008
Giving your characters urgent goals will help make your story dramatic and interesting. For example, let’s say John wants to go to prom, but his parents won’t let him unless he does well on a chemistry test. Will he actually go to prom? That’s a dramatic question.
Unfortunately, many manuscripts introduce the character without a goal, hoping that readers will trudge along until the character actually has something to do. Don’t trap yourself into something like this.
CADET DAVIS: In this first chapter, your hero doesn’t do very much except for walking across town and chatting with another character. What’s the point? What’s he trying to accomplish?
AUTHOR: He’s introducing himself and the setting.
CADET DAVIS: That’s what you’re trying to accomplish. What’s his goal? What’s at stake for this character?
AUTHOR: Well, nothing, not yet anyway. In a few chapters, he’ll find out that he has to realize his destiny by going on a quest to stop the villain.
CADET DAVIS: If nothing’s at stake now, why will readers find this chapter interesting?
Unfortunately, if publishers or readers find your manuscript’s first few pages boring, they will not keep reading. From the earliest part of your story, your main character needs to have a goal.
So what do you do if your hero doesn’t know what his main goal is yet? For example, at the start of Harry Potter, Harry doesn’t know that his primary goal is to “go to Hogwarts and thwart Voldemort.” He doesn’t even know that he’s a wizard. J.K. Rowling used temporary goals to tide us over. For example, “read the letter that Uncle Vernon is trying to hide from you.” Those goals made him interesting even though we didn’t know anything about his magical destiny.
What sort of temporary goals work? Anything that has high-stakes for the character. It doesn’t have to be life or death, of course. (Harry Potter only needed to obtain a letter!)
What sort of temporary goals don’t work? Joy rides. If a character is trying something just for kicks, or to have a good time or just because he’s curious, the stakes are probably not high enough for him for us to care. One main exception to the rule against joy rides is that sometimes, deep into a superhero story, you can briefly show the character trying out his new superpowers. That will stall the plot, but that’s mostly OK because we need to know what the hero is capable of. Also, by that point of the story, you better have convinced readers that you have a plot or you are screwed anyway.