Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (All protagonists have a goal), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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We know that the protagonist must have a very clear goal at the start of the story, something he or she desperately wants but can't yet reach. Here is an example of the kind of external goal a writer might create during the development stage of a story. (female speaker: Dan ditched a promising career as an environmental lawyer to take a lucrative job at an investment company that specializes in oil futures. He made his move even though he knows the guys at the top of firm are shady, because he just turned 29 and his goal is to make ten million by the time he's thirty.) Do we know what Dan's goal is? You bet, he wants to make $10 million.
That is pretty darn clear. What's missing is the why. We have no idea why he wants the $10 million other than a rhetorical, hey, who wouldn't? But we don't turn to stories to tell us what we already know. We turn the stories to tell us what we don't know and are dying to figure out. And what we don't know here is why Dan wants $10 million. One answer could be that he wanted to buy a lot of expensive stuff. The only problem is it that still leaves us thinking, yeah, but who wouldn't? What's your point? The trouble is right now the answer to why does Dan want the money is basically just because.
And in story, you never want the answer to anything to be just because. So how do we find the real answer? By asking what does having a lot of money mean to Dan. In other words, we're looking for his internal goal. So let's figure it out. And notice that once we do, it completely changes and deepens the plot, including shifting his external goal. (female speaker: Dan spent his life dedicated to helping humanity.
He's worked long hours, and along the way he neglected his wife, his friends, even his own health. Just as his environmental law firm scores a major victory against a big oil company, he discovers that his little girl had a rare and deadly blood disorder and he realizes how much his family means to him. The doctors tell him they've found a cure, but they need ten million dollars to implement it. Torn between his drive to help humanity and his desire to save his daughter, he quits his job and goes to work for the very oil company he's on the verge of putting out of business.
His goal: to make enough money to save his daughter. The cost? He must help overthrow the victory his law firm just spent years securing.) Hey, turns out Dan's real goal was to save his daughter's life. The money is just a means to that end. And his internal goal is to prove to his wife and daughter that he loves them so much he'll do anything for them, which sets up an excellent internal struggle. Which is more important to Dan? Helping humanity or saving his beloved daughter? And is there a way he can do both? That's the kind of premise that really hooks a reader.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots