Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing Craft #2: One False Goal

I thought I'd talk a little in this post about something that I've encountered along the road to writing. Something that can creep up and bite you if you don't keep your eye on the prize. So, it's like this: You're tootling along with the story you're writing and feeling good. The road's ahead, you can't really see around the bend, but you're feeling pretty okay with that because your characters are talking. And talking.
And talking some more.

They've got lots to say, you know? Like, "Pass me the salt, please?" and "Holy Cow! When did you start losing your hair?"

But suddenly (Well, not really so suddenly because it's been coming for a while. You know it has...) you notice that your characters have begun to sound boring, even to you. Oh, and not only that, they've been in the same room for 40 pages and they can't find the door. And action? Well, that was a good idea, but what are they supposed to be doing again? And doesn't picking navel lint qualify?

Perhaps some variation of this is happening in your story. Believe me, it's happened in mine. Even today, after lots of books, it happens. Why? Mostly it's because I've taken my eye off the road. As the writer, I need to have better vision than my characters. I need to be able to see around that curve in the road to the destination or, to put a finer point on it, THE GOAL.

Why do characters need goals? To keep them from wandering aimlessly through your story, blabbing up the other characters and settling in for a good pedicure with that woman who has nothing to do with anything.

There are really two goals for each character: the TRUE GOAL and the FALSE GOAL. The true goal is the thing the character needs but doesn't know they need. The false goal is the thing the character THINKS they want (or need) but it's merely a path (or a roadblock) to finding the thing they really need. Got that? Like the rest of us in real life, mostly internal goals are invisible to our characters at the start. Slowly, they become aware of why they are really doing the things they're doing and why that other protagonist or force has been put in their path.

Essentially, an external goal is something you could take a picture of. (Like they want to start a B&B, or travel to Italy, or build a house on a rocky cliff, or put a murderer behind bars.) An internal goal might look like finding one's own power, coming of age, letting go of the past, believing in love again, or redemption. Internal goals almost always have to do with relationships.

Even a book about a man's singular search such as Jon Krakauer's INTO THE WILD, a book about a man vs. nature, is really about his quest for self-love. Why does this speak to us? Because as human beings, this is what we're all engaged in. The struggle is a common one.

The goal of your story, first the external goal (which will give them something to physically accomplish in the story) and then the internal goal (which gives them emotional arcs) will help you find the turning points in your story, which will also lead you to the action required to reach them. Having a road map for your characters' journeys in your book will not only help you avoid the unbeaten paths they want to aimlessly meander down, but will focus your story.

Try watching a movie you love and see if you can pick out the false and true goals. Pay attention to how those are revealed. When you get good at spotting it in a film, try it with a book you've never read. Then take a look at your own Work-in-progress. Are your characters' goals strong enough? Can you find a way to strengthen the conflict by strengthening your character's T & F goals?

As with any of the writing craft stuff I post, feel free to take what you like and leave the rest. There is no right and wrong about it.

Now, back to pondering all that snow on Mr. Frost's road less traveled.



Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Barbara: What an interesting tutorial on writing. Everything makes sense and sounds familiar as I read it ('well, of course!') but is not something I could have articulated.

I kept applying what you are saying to life - what are the false or surface goals that keep us moving, creating the means or the obstacle for the intrinsic goals yet to be known and met.

Interesting that the true goals are always about relationships. Or perhaps one could say, in the more abstract, about connection, belonging, love.

Thanks again Barbara. I so enjoyed this post.

Snap said...

Lovely post on writing and life! If we only knew what we really wanted from Day 1. This *growing up* stuff is really hard! :D

Barbara said...

Bonnie--Thanks so much! Of course, you know these characters are all me to some degree, :p) working out issues on the page. My intrinsic, invisible's really one big therapy session for me as a writer. And I suppose with any writer, that's true to some degree. I always love to hear your take on things.

Snap--Ah, yes, Snap, if only it were true that nothing was invisible from the get go. But then I guess that's the game. Chase and find. :p) And even though I get to work some of it out on paper, it takes its time working out in real life. Thanks for your comments. I always look forward to them!

Hybrid J said...

Thank you for such fantastic post on characters.

Lots of time I only found out my character's true (inner) goal after they've done (in a physical sense) something in the story. It's like I'm watching a movie and slowly learn about the characters myself.

Probably it also relates to the way I write. I plot as I write along. Hence the draft stage is more about discovery. It's at the rewriting / editing stage that I address issues like structure, plot turn, characterisation etc. The drawback of this is it takes an extensive rewrite to finish a story.

I wish I could train myself to plot and work out characterisation before hand ... maybe when I become more skillful in writing!

Nonetheless, really appreciate your sharing. :)

Sarah said...

Wonderful post hon!! I love it when you teach!!! I think it is this way with art a little..if you don't watch it you have painted all the pop right out of the picture by not thinking ahead about the goals you have for the picture. Wonderful post hon!!
Love you & breathe...{{{hugs}}}
Love, Sarah

Alicia @ boylerpf said...

I have so missed being able to comment on your posts! I think I have finally figured out the blogger gods and reading your post has helped me look around the curve. Even though I do not write, this post is such a wonderful metaphor for our lives! We are all on our life's journey of self love and need to keep our eyes focused around the curve...instead of what it right in front of us.
Love your posts, Barbara. No are such a good writer!

Barbara said...

HybridJ--I'm the first one to say follow your own path. Sometimes this is a revision technique, too. I know a lot of my friends write rough, discovery drafts and it works great for them. Thanks for you comments, always!

Sarah--Yes, I love what you said about the painting and it's funny, I didn't think so much about how it really applied to other art, but you're so right.

Alicia--Thanks so much! I've had the same trouble with my posts and couldn't post on yours either. Arrgh! But I agree with you and several others who've said that it isn't just writing this applies to. So often, I find that writing is just a mirror to my life. Like art in every other form, no doubt. Sometimes, that mirror is a little too close! :p) Thanks.

Renee said...

I can't even imagine writing a story, I bore myself already just thinking about it.


Barbara said...

Renee--:p) But hello?? That story about Sheldon's dream I will never forget. Ever. You are a powerful writer. I love your blog!