Goals And Who Needs Them

illustration by Carl Offterdinger

The more novels I read, the more I realize those that engage me are ones with characters who have goals–both story and scene goals.

In every story, I suspect the author has goals. To entertain, perhaps, or to show a particular truth. On the scenic level, the writer may wish to convey backstory or to introduce a character or to describe the setting.

Those things do mot make for compelling writing. What matters isn’t the author’s goal but the character’s–both for the story and for each scene. If the character is likable or sympathetic or at least one with whom readers can connect, then they will be cheering for him to achieve what he sets out to do. If the character is despicable, a true villain, then readers will be hoping for his failure and an end to his carefully laid plans. Either way, the story will hold the reader’s interest because the goal turns into a question–will he succeed or fail?

The Shark Tank, one of the many “reality” TV game shows, serves to illustrate how compelling this “will he succeed or fail” set up can be. In the TV show, entrepreneurs with something to sell and in need of marketing or distribution stand before a panel of investors who make offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for a portion of the company. Each person has his or her own goal. Will they or won’t they succeed? The entire hour-long show depends on viewers wanting to know who will come away from the conflict with what they want.

A good many fairy tales also illustrate the importance of goals. Look, for example, at “Puss in Boots,” a tale by the French writer. The story begins with a little set up–common in writing up until the late twentieth century. But before long, the story goal surfaces.

Once upon a time there was a poor miller who had three sons. The years went by and the miller died, leaving nothing but his mill, his donkey, and a cat. The eldest son took the mill, the second-born son rode off on the donkey, and the youngest son inherited the cat .

“Oh, well”, said the youngest son, “I’ll eat this cat, and make some mittens out of his fur. Then I will have nothing left in the world and shall die of hunger.”

The Cat was listening to his master complain like this, but he pretended not to have heard anything. Instead, he put on a serious face and said:

“Do not look so sad, master. Just give me a bag and a pair of boots, and I will show you that you did not receive such a poor inheritance in me.” (emphasis mine)

The character in question is the cat, as the title of the story suggests. The overarching goal is for him to prove to his master that he was not a poor inheritance.

In scene after scene throughout the story, Puss formulates a goal, though the reader may not fully understand how his actions will achieve that for which he’s aiming. Take this scene with an ogre, for example.

The cat has convinced the king that his master is not a penniless fellow, but a generous, loyal, landed aristocrat. The king wishes to go to the man’s (non-existent) castle. The cat asks for an hour to make the place ready. Then this scene:

With that he jumped away and went to the castle of a great ogre and asked to see him saying he could not pass so near his home without having the honor of paying his respects to him.

The ogre received him as civilly as an ogre could do, and made him sit down.

“I have been assured,” said the Cat, “that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures as you wish; you can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like.”

“That is true,” answered the ogre very briskly; “and to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion.”

Puss was so terrified at the sight of a lion so near him that he immediately climbed up the curtains, not without difficulty, because his boots were no use to him for climbing. A little while after, when Puss saw that the ogre had resumed his natural form, he came down, and admitted he had been very much frightened.

“However,” said the cat, “I fear that you will not be able to save yourself even in the form of a lion, for the king is coming with his army and means to destroy you.”

The ogre looked out of the window and saw the king waiting outside with his soldiers, and said,

“What shall I do? How shall I save myself?”

Puss replied: “If you can also change yourself into something very small, then you can hide”.

And in an instant, the ogre himself into a mouse, and began to run about the floor. Puss no sooner saw this but he fell upon him and ate him up.

Puss, who heard the noise of his Majesty’s coach running over the draw-bridge, ran out, and said to the King:

“Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabas.”

In the end, the cat not only secures for his master a title, fine clothes, the esteem of the king, and a castle, but also the hand of the princess in marriage. Clearly, he succeeds in his story goal.

Stories that wander about, with things happening to the main character rather than the main character wanting something and going out to get it, scene after scene after scene, are the kind I can easily put down or which might even put me to sleep.

Stories with characters that want something–now that’s a different situation altogether.

So here’s the question: does your character have a goal in each scene? Does mine? I’m in the process of doing a revision, and one of my steps this time around is to identify my point of view character’s scene goal. If I can’t, then I need to do some serious re-writing.



Filed under Characters, Plot, Structure

2 responses to “Goals And Who Needs Them

  1. Loved this post, especially the concept of POV characters having a goal for each scene. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Dee.I appreciate your feedback. I should have given credit to Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, the source for the idea that each scene needs a goal.


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