As I’ve emphasized in both this post and this podcast, our characters’ goals ought to play a foundational role in everything we write.
With that in mind, POP QUIZ—what is your protagonist’s primary goal?
The most common response will likely be similar to the [must] section of your manuscript’s logline. In other words, that your character’s primary goal is what she must accomplish.
That’s a perfectly fine response generally speaking, but, when examining a manuscript more closely, that answer both lacks temporal clarity and ignores the multi-dimensional nature of goals themselves. That is to say, there’s no apparent deadline, and characters with any sort of definition will also surely have more on their minds than just one singular goal in most situations.
What am I getting at, then? I’m talking about striking a balance between short, medium, and long-term goals: what they are and how they’re interdependent.
With that in mind, let’s deconstruct each type of goal, beginning with the most over-arcing.
A common criticism I’ve heard shared between critique partners is that the action on the page seems “far away” from what the story is really about. In other words, the character’s short- and medium-term goals aren’t clear enough to readers (or, in some cases, we as writers ourselves). Because of this lack of clarity, it’s difficult for readers to understand what any one scene might contribute to the narrative arc as a whole.
In order to properly address this criticism, we have to first understand our characters’ longest-term goals. Again, let’s consider our logline, but this time include the entire relevant construction.
[Character] must [act] before [deadline] or face [consequences].
Earlier I mentioned that the goal component to the logline is what the character must do. Why, then, have I bolded the deadline and consequences aspects of the logline instead?
Simply put, the [act], [deadline], and [consequence] components of a logline are inextricably tied; together they comprise the foundation for what I’ll call our goal pyramid. If we only have a sense for one or two of the three components, we’ve got a line or a dot instead of a pyramid, and remember: our goal is to work in three dimensions, no fewer.
Once a three-dimensional long-term goal has been established, we can then move on to establishing our characters’ medium-term goals. These often become the centerpieces of our subplots, or the checkpoints that characters must reach along the way to achieving (or failing to achieve) their long-term goals.
It’s key to note the connectivity, then, that exists between medium- and long-term goals. Can our characters priorities shift over the course of a manuscript? Of course they can (and, I could argue, they should!), but ensuring we create three-dimensional medium-term goals that are relevant to our characters’ long-term goals helps to solidify the connective tissue necessary to prevent the dreaded “sagging middle.”
I’ve found the best way to ensure our medium-term goals remain strong and relevant is to ask myself these questions when developing them: what must the character do to take an incremental step toward achieving his long-term goal? When does he have to do this by? What new goal or challenge will arise if he succeeds? What new goal or challenge will present itself if he fails?
Asking ourselves these questions when creating medium-term goals can actually put us on the same path of discovery our main character will follow. This can only serve to create empathy between us and our characters, which, if we can live the experience alongside our characters, our readers can, too!
So how many medium-term goals should our manuscripts have? That’s really up to us as the writers. I’ve run into advice that suggests the implementation of three-chapter arcs, wherein a subplot is introduced, explored, and then resolved over the course of three chapters, respectively. This can certainly be an effective strategy (especially if one knows what new subplot will arise as a result of the resolution in the third chapter in a given set), but I’ll be the last one to say this guideline should be followed strictly.
It’s your story. Where medium-term goals are concerned, do what you need to do to make it work for your characters and yourself.
Short-term goals are the smallest building blocks of our plot. The achievement or failure to achieve these goals also lends some of the best insight into characterization as well. Since there are more short-term than medium- or long-term goals in a given manuscript, they provide readers with the greatest number of opportunities to observe our characters’ reactions to adversity.
In other words, short-term goals are just as, if not more, important than the other two varieties.
Fortunately, short-term goals can be approached similarly to medium-term goals. What are our characters doing on a chapter-by-chapter, a scene-by-scene, or a paragraph-by-paragraph basis to work toward their medium and long-term goals? What will happen if they fail? If they succeed?
If you’re noting a pattern here, it’s because there is one: following the same questions provided in the section on medium-term goals can help ensure our characters’ short-term plans remain as three-dimensional as their higher-level wants and needs.
Maintaining a balance across all of these goals—especially once we factor in the short-, medium-, and long-term goals of our supporting cast as well—can be a challenge. Rising to the occasion and making sure each scene has apparent goals for each character will help keep readers focused, however, and focused readers remain interested readers.
I’ll do a more thorough exploration of this topic as part of a future episode of the writescast, so be sure to stay tuned to my Twitter feed and the writescast’s Twitter feed for more information!
Thanks as always for reading.