If you want to write a book, you have to keep your characters busy. You need to give them something to do. Presenting them with a tangible threat, giving them a reason to overcome it, and allowing them a way out, will give them a physical story goal.
As Chuck Palahniuk says: ‘One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.’
The easiest way to define your protagonist’s story goal is to determine your antagonist’s physical story goal. The two will be in conflict with each other.
It is often easier to give your antagonist a physical goal. It is also easier for us to assign base story goals to villains than to assign them to our heroes. If you understand this, we can use it to your advantage.
to get something physical
to cause something physical
to escape something physical
to resolve something physical
to survive something physical
The pursuit of the physical goal is the road map your character needs to follow to achieve his or her abstract story goal.
[Suggested reading The Story Goal – The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure]
Let’s look at this example of a physical goal from Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
- The antagonist’s physical story goal: The constable wants to find, and kill, Danny Angel because Danny mistakenly killed his girlfriend, Injun Jane. The constable wants to cause something physical – Danny’s death.
- The protagonist’s physical story goal: Danny wants to physically move away from the constable and survive. He wants to live, and write books. Danny wants to escape something physical – The constable killing him.
When the constable finally tracks him down, Danny kills him. The constable therefore fails to achieve his story goal. Danny achieves his story goal. When the antagonist does not achieve his physical goal, the story ends.
- The antagonist’s abstract story goal: The constable wants revenge.
- The protagonist’s abstract story goal: Danny Angel wants to be free to live a normal life.
When the constable fails to kill Danny, he does not get his revenge. He does not achieve his abstract story goal. When Danny survives, he is able to confess his part in the accident, and go on to live ‘a normal life’. He achieves his abstract story goal as a result of his actions.
The physical goal is always the most important for the purposes of plotting and writing your book. Never forget this. Without the constant tension created by this physical goal , it is difficult to sustain momentum in your story. Chasing an abstract goal is as absurd as fighting a war on ‘terror’.
If you apply this rule to your own life, you will find that you achieve your abstract goals. For example, if you want to become a success in the publishing industry (abstract goal), you will first have to write many books (physical goal).
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