Vague goals are nobody’s friend. They creep into our scenes, make us think our structures (and stories) are solid, but they’re really undermining those stories, especially in the drafting stage.
“Stop the bad guy” tells us noting about what will actually transpire in a scene. Neither does “Protect the witness.” Then there’s the king of the vague goals—“Survive the threat.” As Kristin Lamb hysterically puts it, her goal every day is to not die, so why is that anything special when our protagonists do it?
And she’s right.
The problem with vague goals is that they feel like something is happening, when nothing actually is. The scene where the protagonist “tries to evade capture” offers us no specifics to work with as we write. Our hero might run around the room screaming for six pages while the cops chase him, and that’s him “trying to evade capture.”
I think vague goals are a reason why some writers have trouble with outlines. They outline what happens in the book and it feels solid, but when they write, they run into walls and struggle though scene after scene. They’re trying to craft a scene where the hero tries to evade capture without knowing what that means.
Instead of vague hints of goals, think about the specific tasks your characters are doing, not trying to do, in every scene. If someone is generally trying to evade capture, then how are they doing it? Maybe they’re:
- Hiding in a broom closet until the killer leaves the room
- Running for the exit of the lab and avoiding the security cameras while men with guns pursue
- Putting on a disguise and sneaking onto a bus
- Leaving the city hidden in the back of a pickup truck full of turnips
For example, a scene where Bob tries to evade the zombie horde becomes a scene where Bob tries to evade the zombie horde by crawling though the sewer to the end of town. This extra "what he actually does line" gives us the specific action to work with. We can picture what Bob will have to do to get into the sewers, what problems he might encounter, how the zombies might spot him, and what could go wrong. We know where he’s going and can imagine what that journey will entail.
(Here's more on the problems of "trying")
If you’re having trouble with a draft, look at what your protagonist is doing. Is she trying to “do something vague” or is there a specific task? Spend a little time turning any vague goals (or stakes) into a specific action.
Has a vague goal ever tripped you up?
My monthly post is up over at Pub(lishing) Crawl today, and I'm sharing a few tips on ways to deepen your story worlds. Come on over and say hello!
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound