What is a Story Goal?
A story goal – often called a quest or mission – is a key component of any novel’s story arc. It is what drives the narrative forward and keeps the reader turning pages. Most stories open with a stasis (a sense of what the protagonist’s life is like ordinarily) and an inciting incident or trigger (an event that comes to upset the balance of the protagonist’s life). This trigger will leave the protagonist wanting something.
A story goal – often called a quest or mission – is a key component of any novel’s story arc. It is what drives the narrative forward and keeps the reader turning pages.
Nigel Watts, who created the 8-point story arc, explains: ‘In the case of an unpleasant trigger, the quest is often to return to the original stasis; in that of a pleasant trigger the quest is often to maintain or increase the pleasure.’ Of course, it’s not always this simple. The trigger in Girl A by Abigail Dean comes when Lex’s mother passes away and she is made executor of the will; this forces her to face up to the horrors of her past but also presents an opportunity to do something positive with the old family home. Her goal is to get permission from each of her siblings to turn the house into a community centre.
Screenwriter Erik Bork writes that there are seven types of story goal:
- Find and/or secure a person or item(s)
- Defeat an opponent/enemy
- Escape something/someone
- Figure out the truth (then achieve justice)
- Learn how to do something and put it to use
- Convince someone to do something (like love you)
- Navigate a challenging new world/situation
Finding Your Story Goal
Your story goal might have been clear from when you got the initial idea for the book, but if you’re not sure what it is, ask yourself these questions:
- What does my protagonist want (or what is the thing that unites my protagonists)?
- What is my story working towards?
- How does my inciting incident upset the balance of the protagonist’s life?
- What is my core conflict getting in the way of?
It’s important that your goal is specific and concrete. Author Amanda Patterson says, ‘Characters always have abstract story goals. We are always on journeys of self-discovery where we worry about our feelings. This is a given, but never let these become more important than physical goals with deadlines.’ Usually, there will be an internal goal wrapped up in an external goal. In the Abigail Dean example, Lex’s internal goal is to escape the pain of her past, but this is explored in her physical journey of getting the signatures for the community centre.
What if the Goal Changes?
If your novel contains a fair amount of character development (as it should!), it’s likely that the protagonist’s goal will evolve, but there needs to be a sense of continuity. Nigel Watts writes, ‘The quest may change throughout the novel. If it does, however, the subsequent quest should incorporate the former, raising the stakes all the time.’ In the major bestseller Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Bella’s goal changes from persuading Edward to be with her despite the dangers of him being a vampire to escaping another vampire who wants to kill her. This still connects to the initial goal, because the fact that Bella’s survival is in question will fuel Edward’s fears about the relationship.
If your novel contains a fair amount of character development (as it should!), it’s likely that the protagonist’s goal will evolve, but there needs to be a sense of continuity.
When deciding on your story goal, it’s important to make sure the stakes are high enough. Author H. R. D’Costa defines stakes like this: ‘If your protagonist fails to achieve his goal, then bad things will happen. (Of course, the definition of bad will vary according to genre.)’ It might be heartbreak, a career failure, a loss of integrity or the destruction of humanity, but if there’s nothing to lose then readers won’t care about the quest. Think about how you can add additional stakes to those inherent in the premise. If the protagonist wants to win a contest, ask who would be disappointed in them if they lose. Could it have ramifications on their career or family life?
Another thing to consider is how long your protagonist has to complete their goal. Masterclass teaches, ‘Imposing a time limit injects a bit of stress and adrenaline into a storyline.’ This could be a physical timeline (e.g., your lead needs to get home in time for Christmas) or a more abstract one (e.g., your lead has to fix her relationship with her brother before he gives up on her).
Positioning The Quest Within Your Chapters
It’s best to introduce your story goal in the first ten thousand words of your manuscript so the reader can become invested in it as soon as possible and so it will feature in the sample you submit to literary agents. If yours emerges much later than this, you have to ask yourself what’s pulling the reader through the opening – usually the stasis and inciting incident don’t take too much time. It can be helpful to consider the difference between story – what happens – and plot – the order it happens in.
The goal isn’t something you can express in just one scene (and it’s rarely overtly stated). The protagonist will usually go on a journey from processing the inciting incident to deciding what to do about it, which often includes a certain amount of avoidance. In Joseph Campbell’s structure template ‘The Hero’s Journey‘, this is called the refusal of the call. Blogger Dan Bronzite puts it this way: ‘Although the Hero may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage he will have fears that need overcoming. Second thoughts or even deep personal doubts as to whether or not he is up to the challenge.’
In the film version of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins initially says he cannot help the dwarves to reclaim their home because the risks outlined in the contract are too high. Soon, though, he runs after them, wielding the signed contract and declaring his internal story goal: ‘I’m going on an adventure!’
In the film version of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins initially says he cannot help the dwarves to reclaim their home because the risks outlined in the contract are too high. Soon, though, he runs after them, wielding the signed contract and declaring his internal story goal: ‘I’m going on an adventure!’ Later in the film, his goal develops and he says, ‘That’s why I came back, ’cause you don’t have one – a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.’ The physical goal of reclaiming the mountain is presented very early on, but Bilbo’s internal goal is explored throughout.
Still from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson
The story goal is supposed to propel the reader through the story; hopefully it will propel you, the author, too! Once you have a quest in place, it should be easy to think of surprises and complications to get in its way and guide your narrative towards its climax, towards the moment when the protagonist succeeds or fails in achieving their goal.