External Goals

At the beginning of a story, it's important for a character to have some sort of external goal.

Does she want a promotion? To adopt a child? There needs to be something for the character to succeed or fail at during the course of the book.

Not rocket science but I still didn't get it until my third manuscript. In my first completed manuscript, the heroine rode on her train to an uncle's house. Things happened to her, she reacted, but there was nothing she was striving for. So why should the reader turn the page? Granted, the emotional intensity could be strong enough to propell a reader into finding out what happens next, but it's unlikely.

Give your character something to do and you give the reader a reason to keep reading.

So I made my heroine on a mission to get an interview with an elusive government agent who purportedly lives near her uncle. A simple goal but it hopefully makes the reader wonder, will she get what she wants?

To make your external goal stronger, create either something to urge your protag to reach his goals, or something to keep him from reaching his goals. A nice dose of external conflict.

I find coming up with an external goal incredibly hard, for some reason, but it's worth it.

Think about the books you've read. Did the protagonist have a goal introduced within the first chapter?


Terri Tiffany said…
Some great information! It's amazing how many short stories I read from writers who do not have their main character wanting anything!
Jessica Nelson said…
For some reason we (beginner writers) just don't realize that an external goal is necessary for a well-rounded story. I don't know why it shortcircuits like that, but it does.
Interesting about short stories. I'd imagine that an external goal would be pretty important in those.
Angie Ledbetter said…
When external and internal goals meet up at the same point, you get the WOW factor. :)
Definitely something to keep in mind! Of what I've read lately, there HAS been an external goal. How closely do you think it's related to the hook?
PS. I want to be in whatever location you and hubby were for you profile pic. Looks so warm and perfect! (I'm ready for spring.)
That's always my problem - thinking through what I'm writing instead of just sitting down and letting the story "come out" as I write it! I have a hard time thinking "about" the story and the characters. I don't do outlines, or characters sketches -- it's probably not a good thing, but its how my brain works! However, I am forcing myself to think about these things "what does so and so want?" but so many times its after I've written it! sheesh.
Unknown said…
It wasn't until this last revision of my novel that I realized this point. Thank you for the reminder!
Jessica Nelson said…
So true. Things can get really juicy too when the heroine and hero's goals clash!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Janna,
Hmmm, that's a good question. I guess it would be related somehow, esp. if it's a unique goal. But I would think part of the hook must include the conflict that keeps the protag from reaching their goal.
Great question! I might ask someone on one of my writer's loops. Really makes me think.
Jessica Nelson said…
I'm the SAME way. Seriously, as I vacuumed this morning I was trying to think about my current possible storylines and what might make the heroines tick.
It was super hard, like hitting a mental brick wall. It's much easier for me to write and discover along the way who they are.
You're right, it is good to try to do plotting/characterization beforehand. It keeps things smoother, probably.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Stina,
Good thing you did. And you know what? Your character probably does have an external goal, you may just have to search it out a bit. :-)
Congrats on getting through revisions!
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Janna!
It was SeaWorld! But we only live an hour away, so I have to admit we get beautiful skies quite often. :-)
No worries, though. Come summer you'll be glad you're not here.
Hi Jessica -

Ha! I completed a short story this morning and got it right. The character has an external goal, which seems difficult to reach.

I'm so impressed. This is your third manuscript? I've finished one, and have two more in the beginning stages.

Thanks for the helpful post. Hopefully, the editor will like and accept it.

Susan :)
Jessica Nelson said…
I hope you'll let us know if the editor takes it on! I admire anyone who's able to write a short story. :-)
Is your external goal short-term or long-term? I'm always curious about this.

I know you're supposed to have an external goal, but can it transition into a new one once it's either met or dumped by the character, or does it have to take you to the very end to find the resolution?
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Eileen,
If it changes, I think that's okay, as long as there's some sort of "thing" the protagonist is going after.
Or maybe there can be more than one?
Recently I read Hidden Places by Lynn Austin. I thought the external goal was for her to keep her farm. But there was also another goal of discovering the hero's identity, though I didn't realize it until the first goal was resolved in the middle of the book. At first I felt lost, but then I realized that I still needed to find out who the hero was.
So I'm guessing that there can be short-term external goals, but at least one long-term goal for one of your characters.
Of course, I'm still learning, :-), so let me know what you find out!
Candi said…
Hey Jessica,

As always, great thought provoking topic. How do you do it???

As far as the external goals...
Just my opinion, but the external goal is where you have so much freedom to really 'show' who your character is and set them up for some serious arc.

I've never fallen in love with a perfect H or H. I love the ones that have zany goals and issues. Ones that will have to come to realize that there has to be some give and take and then they learn through the process of prioritising(sp) their goals.

The one thing I have a hard time with, (and you don't see it a ton, though it's become more prevalent in our competitive flashy profession) is when the external goals are so crazy or exciting that they overshadow the internal goals, and the emotion that only comes with deep inner turmoil or growth. I find it hard to connect with the character when they are so invested in their external goals that the internal ones get buried in the outrageousness all around them.

Just my two cents...

Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Candi,
LOL I was struggling to think of something this morning. Thanks for making me feel interesting. Hehee.

You know, I just love internal goals and conflicts, and it's the external I have trouble with.
You're so right about the external goal saying something about the character. I never thought of it like that, and I should have.
We definitely need to have deep inner turmoil. External goals are necessary, but there needs to be conflict, emotional, to keep it interesting.
Thanks for your two cents! :-)
Sarah said…

Your posts are very thought-provoking and helpful. My posts, which focus on the mundane, pale in comparison. Great job!
Jessica Nelson said…
Whatever! I love your posts and they are NOT mundane.
They also make me think, plus laugh and cry.

So there.
Jennifer Shirk said…
Yes, good question and very thought provoking. (I feel lame since I only posted a picture of a snowman on my blog. LOL!)

But most of the "good" books I've read have had the heroine/hero's goal in the first chapter. But there have been a few books where I've scratched my head wondering what the point fo the story was.
Jessica Nelson said…
Ha! At least you know how to post pics! I can, but it takes time for my brain to figure things out.

Yeah, there's always those books that we wonder "why is this published?". But I think for the most part, books (esp. the good ones) have goals right up front.

Movies are great to study this in, since things have to be laid out for the watcher in a quick period of time.

Popular posts from this blog

No One's Perfect

Very Naughty Blogger

Formulaic can Rock