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.