GOOOOAAAAAAAAAAL!!!! (Said like a soccer announcer)
by Cody Wagner
For this post, I’m going to go back to basics. But don’t skip over it! For serious! I think this topic is so absolutely crucial. It’s one of the most prevalent things I talk about at writers’ groups and while editing. I’m talking, of course, about goals.
OK, how many people right now are like, “Huh?” Well if you did, you failed!!
Kidding. Let me explain.
Let’s think about real life for a second. In our daily experiences, there isn’t a second that goes by where we don’t want something. That something could be a boyfriend/girlfriend, a new car, or even something more basic like a few minutes of peace and quiet.
Let’s do a quick example. I’m asking myself what I want this very second. The answer? Well, my contacts are dry so I could use some drops. Also, I’d love a snack right now (chips and salsa sounds amazing). And I want to sleep soon, as it’s been a long day.
What’s the point of this? Well, the characters in our novels are meant to reflect real people, right? Therefore, they should always have goals, too. Always. At any given point in any story, you should be able to tell me exactly what your protagonist wants right then and there.
That’s the character’s goal. And he/she must always have one. Again: always, always, always.
Now comes the fun part. While goals exist, we have to decide if they’re easily attainable (or attainable at all). I just mentioned I want to sleep soon. That’s actually not super attainable, as I did laundry and it’s all piled up on my bed. So now I have to fold it before I can go to sleep. Sadly, something stands between me and my goal.
Ta-daaaaa! I just introduced conflict.
Conflict, at its core, is the thing that prevents you or your characters from achieving their goals. Now, we have a lovely dance that begins, a dance where you and your characters work against that conflict to achieve the goal. That dance has a name: it’s called tension. And tension is what makes people turn pages and get invested in our stories (and our lives).
While novels can be extremely complicated, they’re all, at their very core, comprised of scenarios where characters are trying to achieve something while an obstacle gets in the way. Or at least they should. If you ever feel your novel becoming stagnant, the best way to fix it is to make sure you know EXACTLY what goal your characters are trying to achieve. Then make sure something stands in the way.
Now, does the character overcome that obstacle? Maybe – or maybe not. That’s your call. But the goal->conflict->tension element must always be present. Why? Because that’s real life.
With all that said, I want to point out a misconception about tension. I’ve had people at writers’ groups say, “You can’t have tension everywhere! I mean, bombs can’t be exploding and bullets can’t fly in every scene.” And this is completely wrong. Well, not about bullets and bombs; novels can’t be 100% action. But tension can come in so many forms, and it must always be present.
As an example, let’s create a really boring scenario: A woman in bed wants a glass of water. This sounds pretty bad. And if she could just get up and get the water without issue, that would make a terrible scene. I mean, who would want to read it? But now let’s introduce a conflict.
Let’s say the woman’s colicky child is sleeping next to her. She’s just gotten him to bed and she’s utterly exhausted. If she wakes the child up, no one will sleep tonight. So she first has to decide if it’s even worth it to get the water. Consequently, she lays there awhile, debating over her thirst. But that creates a psychological effect where, because the water is hard to get to, she wants it more than ever. So she decides to go for it. Naturally, she has to rise as quietly as possible; any noise could set her child off. She tries sitting up but realizes the blanket is tucked under her son’s arm. Leaning over, she gently lifts the child’s arm and slides the blanket out. Suddenly, her son rolls over and sighs. The woman freezes, holding her breath…
OK, I’m not going to continue. But as you can see, any scene in existence can be tense if written with goals and conflict in mind. Also note that the woman in this scene had multiple, ever-changing goals, including wanting to talk herself out of the water, needing to simply move her son’s arm, etc.
With all this in mind, I recommend that you identify your goals throughout the day today and see what, if anything, gets in the way. It’s actually really fun. And you might learn something about yourself along the way.
Cody Wagner loves to sing, mime (not really), and write. His award-winning debut novel, The Gay Teen’s Guide to Defeating a Siren, recently “came out.” See what he did there? Check out his writing and see more of his wackiness at Wagner-Writer.com, or find him on Twitter (@cfjwagner), Goodreads, and Amazon.