Successful writers establish long-term writing goals for themselves and long-term story goals for their protagonists and then set out to complete a series of short-term goals they believe will move them and their characters to success.
Goal setting is not always as simple as it sounds. In teaching plot and from the plot consulting work with writers all over the world, I have found that self-professed “pansters” balk at setting goals for both their protagonists and themselves. If you are a writer who likes to write by the seat of your pants with little pre-plotting or planning, you likely have no difficulty in seeing the big picture of your story but may find yourself breaking down when it comes to filling in the steps how to get there. However, just because the task proves difficult for you is not to say that you are off the goal-setting hook.
Plot Your Protagonist’s Goals
Goals provide motivation. Obstacles create tension. Potential loss promises transformation. Concrete goals with formidable obstacles and significant potential loss create the dramatic action plot of your novel, memoir, and screenplay. Stated goals stimulate excitement and page-turnability to your story. The dramatic action the protagonist takes to fulfill her goals forces her to stretch and grow and change toward her ultimate transformation.
A general and abstract long-term goal: “to be happy” leads to a vague and meandering story. Instead, be specific. What does the protagonist of your story believe she needs (goal) to make her happy?
A specific and tangible long-term goal provides specific action the character will take to achieve her goal.
The long-term goal needs to be tangible and quantifiable. In other words, the reader or movie-goer must be able to determine in each scene when the character is moving nearer to her goal and when she is drifting further away.
Setting goals for your protagonist goal demands a clear vision of what the protagonist desires on a concrete, attainable, specific and quantifiable basis. These goals much be within the protagonist’s capabilities of achieving (of course you will develop all sorts of antagonists, both internal and external, to interfere with her success). However, the more well-defined the protagonist’s goal at the overall story level and scene-by-scene the more grounded the reader in the story as she knows what is at stake and has a vague idea of the direction in which the story is moving. Often, the protagonist’s goals change or shift after the major turning points in your story. The more challenging the goal makes for a more exciting the story. A goal gets the character moving. A goal gets the story moving, too.
Give the protagonist something to do she believes she in incapable of doing but must do for the good of not only herself but for the good of her family and community at large.
Start the Story with a Dramatic Question
Is she going to succeed at accomplishing her goal…. or not? Will he succeed…. or not? Send the protagonist on her way by giving her specific short-term steps necessary to answer the question – dramatic action plot. Let her actions define her – character emotional development plot. A concrete goal gives protagonist action so the reader can react to what the character does rather than merely follow her internal monologue.
Plot Your Writing Goals
1) Whether your goal is to finish the first draft of your novel, memoir or screenplay or write the final draft or submit the completed manuscript to an agent, decide on a deadline to reach that long-term writing goal.
2) On your day planner, mark a big red X on your deadline day and write in your concrete long-term goal. Example: by June 21st, I hold in my hands the completed first draft of my manuscript (NOTE: best if the goal is written in present tense. The mystics say time is non-linear. If that’s true, it means your goal has already been accomplished and you only need catch up in real time.)
3) Work backwards on the calendar. Count the number of days between today and your deadline that you can realistically write. (Do not count the holidays that you do not believe you can/will write or any weekends or other days not available for your writing)
4) Ask yourself how many words, pages you normally write in a day.
5) Estimate how many pages in your entire first draft.
6) Where are you now?
7) How many pages left?
8) Calculate how many days total needed to write the pages left at the rate you currently write. ( In other words, divide the total number of pages left to write by how many pages you plan to write each day will give you the total number of days needed to accomplish your long-term goal.)
9) Subtract the number of total days needed from the total number of days between now and your deadline.
10) Mark a daily writing schedule in on your calendar in pen. The concrete task of scheduling times and goals for each writing day makes you more realistic about your writing goals, allows you to visualize your writing life in relationship to the whole of your life and gives you realistic short-term goals necessary to achieve your long term goal. An added bonus in creating goals for yourself makes you better at creating concrete goals for the protagonist and other characters in your story.