Goals: Concrete, Specific, and Positive

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A goal is the concrete, specific, positive thing the protagonist is trying to get. 

A goal can be anything: getting the girl, making a cup of tea, defusing a nuclear device, whatever.  What’s important is
• how clear the goal is
• how the pursuit of the goal drives the plot
• how the goal shapes and defines the protagonist’s character.

A clear goal is concrete: Not “I want to be happy,” but “I want to live in the house at 485 Pearl Street.”
A clear goal is also specific: Not “I want a religious artifact” but “I want the Ark of the Covenant.”
An effective goal is also positive: Not “I don’t want to do this job,” but “I want to work on the Romance Program at McDaniel College.”

“Clear and specific” are important for plot purposes; the reader needs to know exactly what the protagonist is fighting for in order to follow the story.

But a positive goal is important for both plot and character.  A positive goal will force a protagonist to act because there’s something out there she needs desperately.  A negative goal will force a character to withdraw: there’s something out there she wants to avoid at all costs.  A negative goal is often death to a character because without  action and change, the character dies on the page.  It also makes the character negative and depressing, lacking in passion and drive.

Neg Pos Goals

Example:
Negative Goal:
Betty has been hurt in love before, so she decides never to love again.  When Sam shows up and he’s clearly the perfect man for her, she refuses to talk with him.  Her best friend Gail tries to convince her to give Sam a chance because she knows how lonely Betty is, but Betty tells her no.  Result: Betty is a coward who doesn’t change, and Sam and Gail get all the good action in the plot.

Positive Goal:
Betty meets Sam and knows he’s the One.  Gail warns her that Sam will just hurt her again and tries to protect her by threatening Sam with a shovel.  Betty and Sam persevere and overcome Gail’s objections.  Betty and Sam change and grow and get all the good action, and Gail is the antagonist.

Positive Goal:
Betty meets Sam and knows he’s an insane stalker.  When he refuses to leave her alone, she investigates and finds out he’s a serial killer.  She allies herself with police detective Gail, and together they fight to stop Sam from killing again.  Betty and Gail change and grow and get all the good action. and Sam the antagonist goes to jail.

Note: This doesn’t mean that the protagonist can never say no.  If she’s pursuing her goal and somebody tries to convince her to do something she thinks won’t help, then “no” is a fine response because it reinforces her push for her positive goal.

TroubleshootingIf your protagonist seems whiny or passive, chances are she’s saying, “No” instead of “Yes” as her goal.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

20 thoughts on “Goals: Concrete, Specific, and Positive

    • I don’t think I made the positive/negative explanation clear enough.

      A positive goal is a character saying, “Yes, I want that.”
      A negative goal is a character saying, “No, I don’t want that.”

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      • I got that. And I can work out the pictures, but it takes a bit of work. (‘The other woman must be the antagonist, so if it’s a negative goal, the antagonist is dragging the protagonist towards it against her will . . . ‘, etc.) Just not instantly obvious, like the previous pctures.

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  1. Seren says:

    This is extremely helpful! Ever since I gave my heroine a distinct, positive goal (I even make her say it out loud in the text, although that may have been more for my benefit than hers), she, and the story, have become so much easier to write. The plot is moving, the characters around her are engaging, the antagonist is clearer, everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Leigh says:

    But aren’t negative goals frequently used to show the character’s growth? At the beginning of a novel or a movie, doesn’t one protagonist frequently want something specific (and frequently negative) that they end up rejecting later? In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere wants to buy a shipbuilding company so that he could dismantle it for big bucks. By the end of the movie, he’s rediscovered his inner self, and has had a change of heart. His goal has changed. When he buys the company, he wants to use his skills to make it a stronger company.
    Similarly in the recent spelling-bee themed movie, Bad Words. In that flick, Jason Bateman seemed to have a negative goal that he pursued relentlessly. But by the end of the film, we understood why he wanted what he wanted, and noted that he pulled back from the ultimate satisfaction. He was changed by his pursuit, and by the characters within the movie.

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    • “I want to buy a shipping company so I can dismantle it” is a positive goal. It’s not a morally good goal, but he wants something concrete and he’s going after it.

      A negative goal is “I don’t want to buy a shipping company.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • I had the same thought, Leigh.

      Great post, Jenny. I think what tripped me up at first was the term “good action.” Negative goals are active enough to drive a plot, but the result leads the protagonist to self-destruction (unless he or she changes/overcomes The Thing). Would you agree?

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      • I don’t think negative goals drive a plot.
        For example, the horrible “I’ve been hurt and so never want to love again.”
        That leads to the protagonist saying no to the new love interest. It doesn’t lead to the protagonist starting her own bakery to get away from the love interest. So you end up with a protagonist who says no and refuses to change. Death to story.
        OTOH, if the protagonist who never wants to love again decides to fill her emotional life by baking for people and thus opens a bakery, she has a positive goal of “I want to open a bakery (and love people that way” and she’s good to go.
        Negative goals kneecap a protagonist and therefore, I don’t think they can drive a plot.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Fab & fun to read. In the second Positive Goal example re stalker, I was waiting for the line where Betty & Gail together go after Sam with a shovel. Only to shoo his butt off to jail, of course;)

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  4. ginjones says:

    I don’t know quite how (or if) it’s necessary to say, but something I’ve seen in the context of critiquing queries (something I’ve done a lot of, and queries are good at revealing the plot — and its flaws — in a nutshell) is that the protagonist has to really care about his/her goal.

    What I see in queries that don’t work is that she’s got a goal, i.e., “I sorta’ kinda’ want to get a degree in veterinary medicine, because it’s expected of me.” But then the inciting event comes along — or the hot guy — and it turns out he/she doesn’t really care about the goal, never did, and it’s usually pretty obvious from the way the initial goal is described in the query that there’s no passion behind it. Perhaps a better example that I frequently see is something like the protagonist just wants to do his/her job (ignore that that’s not concrete enough for a moment, because it’s frequently worded in a way that is more concrete), but there’s no energy behind it when the antagonist comes along to threaten the job.

    I think “really wants the goal” might be an element of “the pursuit of the goal drives the plot,” because if the protagonist doesn’t care about the goal, then the plot derails the first time the goal is opposed.

    But I think it’s important to mention, and it’s perhaps also the caveat to “it doesn’t matter what the goal is” — AS LONG AS THE PROTAGONIST CARES ABOUT IT.

    Or maybe all of this type of discussion belongs in “Motivation.” It’s so hard, the way everything interacts in storytelling!

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  5. Peggy Larkin says:

    Ever since you wrote about this on Argh I’ve been trying to use it to reform some stagnant writing of my own, and it’s helped new realize why some characters (the ones with positive goals) just seem easier to write than others.

    Of course, I’m still struggling to figure out what the other characters’ positive, specific, concrete goals ARE…

    Aye, there’s the rub!

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    • Sometimes you just have to figure out the solution to the negative goal.
      For example, the “I don’t want to marry Caleb” from Bookartisan’s Titanic question is turned around to “But I do want to go to American and when we get there I’ll say no and use this diamond to start my own bakery business.” So now the positive goal is “I want to run a bakery in America,” and it’s the solution to not marrying Caleb, saying no and supporting herself.

      I don’t know why I’m so hipped on bakeries lately. I think it’s because I want a doughnut and can’t have one.

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  6. Would you say that Rose, in Titanic, had a negative goal? I.e. “I don’t want to marry Cal even though it would be the answer to my family’s financial difficulties.” She was, after all, pretty close to offing herself before Jack came along…demonstrating quite well that a negative goal is literally death to a character!

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    • Confession: I’ve never seen Titanic.
      If she had a plan to escape, then “escape” could be a positive goal, but it sounds like that was suicide, so I’m guessing it was a negative goal. But again, I don’t know the details of the story. Well, I know the boat goes down . . .

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      • LoL, the boat does indeed go down. If you ever see the movie, read the chapter in Tina Fey’s memoir Bossy Pants, in which she tells her husband how she would have handled that situation…

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