Finding the story goal

by Suzanne A

Question You gave me some great advice a few days ago when I asked about deciding what a character wants:

"Maybe they all want validation, love, or fulfillment. Or maybe they need to change their situation, get a new attitude, find their purpose, discover the truth, etc. They don't all have to pursue the same thing exact thing, but the same type of thing may be important to them."

So now I am trying to put it into practice and looking for a little more help. I am wondering with something less defined how do i define it? It's hard to even formulate the question but do I view it as a "quest" for something then I know when the story is done? I tend to like things that are less linear, subtle but yet somehow circle back to the beginning. I recently listened to "A Feast of Love" by Charles Baxter and for me that had a perfect ending.

My idea was to base a story on a summer when my sister came back to visit after years of living in another city. My setting was a city I knew well and a bar where i used to work during an exceptionally rainy summer. The characters were people I knew well. I added a fictional father who was a reformed alcoholic having a midlife. The idea was that the returning sister was much bolder and brought out some characteristic in the sister who had stayed behind who was less adventurous and weighed by responsibilities. There are some obvious conflicts: the father's alcoholism and her working in a bar with people drinking too much, maybe some hard feelings because the sister left the family behind. But I am having trouble finding the heart of the story I guess. There is also a thread where the MC used to paint but then stopped for some reason....I had thought this was what she would go back to that had some meaning to her. I was aiming for an upbeat feel with some humor, not all doom and gloom, not a heavy handed "message".

Am i overthinking this? Or is the problem/story goal sitting there in front of my face?

Answer: I don't think you're overthinking it. If you don't figure out what your story is about during the planning you will have to do so during the revision. But at some point, it has to be done.

Bear in mind that anything I say is just a thought based on what you've told me. You have to write what feels right and makes sense to you. Think of it as an exercise in looking through the lens of Dramatica.

Okay, so you have a main character (barmaid) - and an impact character (the sister) who can represent/argue for how the barmaid might change and take a different approach to handling problems.

If the main character is also the protagonist, she has two essential problems to resolve: her inner conflict of whether she needs to change and the external problem, which is the Story Goal. How she resolves her inner conflict will determine if she solves the story goal. It's a question of a) what does she want to achieve and b) what approach will work - hers or her sister's?

Most of the characters will be either concerned with or affected by the specific Story Goal or with the same type of problem. This is how the main character's story and the overall story are connected.

Now, you actually suggest that alcoholism is a candidate for the story problem. I'll say what that implies to me, so you can see if it fits at all.

In the dramatica scheme, alcoholism would fall under the category of Impulsive Responses. If this is the overall concern, it doesn't mean that everyone in the story world is an alcoholic. Some characters (including the main character) may be wrestling with other impulses that they need to hold in check or change or find a way to balance. Some may be affected by or have a vested interest in how other characters cope with their impulses. Some might have a problem with not following their impulses.

You know it's the right goal if solving it would satisfy the concerns of the story world and the protagonist. In other words, if everyone brought their impulsive responses into balance, would that create satisfaction in their lives? If no, then the goal is something else.

Another test is to ask what the consequence might be? What undesirable thing might happen if the main character fails?

(Usually, if impulsive responses is the goal, the consequences has to do with progress - a bad change in direction or pace.) For instance, will the father have a relapse? Will the problems in the community quickly get worse? If the barmaid or sister has a drinking problem, will she start drinking more heavily?

Sometimes, too, it works to reverse these. You could make goal be to create a change in direction and the consequence if it fails be that people become trapped by their impulsive responses.

Of course, the goal does not have to be achieved. Sometimes failure can lead the main character to a better place. For instance, maybe she can't ultimately cure other people's impulses or her own, but the failure leads her to find fulfillment another way.

Hope that helps.

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