My brother, script writer Doug Eboch, had a recent blog post titled Not According to Plan. In it he states, “Over the last month I’ve read several scripts that suffered from lethargy and/or a feeling they were too episodic. The underlying cause was that the main characters were failing to make plans. They were reactive to events rather than driving the story. Giving the character plans keeps them active and gives the story forward momentum.”
In recent months, I’ve critiqued several manuscripts that were generally very strong. However, they suffered from the same problem. Here are couple of excerpts from the critiques (with some details hidden for privacy).
What’s lacking, I think, is clarity in MC’s Goals/Motivation and the Stakes.
Try to establish what MC wants up front, and keep reminding us of that or let us know how her goals change. For example, as she’s entering town, she may hope to find out more about her past. Once she knows about X, she wants to do Y. All of this ties into a longer, deep-seated goal of finding her place in the world. She may not be able to express that clearly, but we’ll see it in her short-term goals….
Her goals and motivations are also tied into the stakes. It’s important to have clear and high stakes – why her goals are important, and what happens if she fails. For example, if she fails to convince her mother to stay, she loses the chance to ever truly find a home with family who love and accept her.
She could even have both fears and hopes, sometimes seeing the positive and sometimes the negative. But showing us why this is so important to her will expand your theme and increase the stakes (what she has to gain or lose if she succeeds or fails).
One thing that may help you with your scenes is to think about scene goals. In every scene, your characters should have specific goals. These are likely immediate, short-term goals that lead to a larger story goal. For example, MC and MC2 want to get X, so they can do X. Focus on that goal, and the limited time they have, in each scene. If your main characters don’t have a goal – if they are just watching Comic Relief’s antics – it doesn’t move the story forward.
There’s an extra benefit to focusing on your character’s goals:
I think if you focus more on goals and stakes, you’ll also naturally develop your plot some. At times MC seems too passive, simply hoping things will or won’t happen and waiting for them. But if she has a strong, clear goal, you’ll see ways to increase the tension. (I went into more detail on this in my post on Happy Endings.)
And don’t forget –
We should also see MC actively pursuing her goals. If she doesn’t want to leave, she shouldn’t just silently hope for that. She should be trying to get what she wants.
For more on cause/effect and clarifying goals, see the first couple of posts under the "pacing" label.
Here are more posts on conflict, goals and motivation:
Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens: A first-page critique discussing goal, motivation, and conflict.
Channeling The Reader’s Brain: What We Expect of Every Story, by Lisa Cron on Janice Hardy’s blog: The protagonist should want something, fear something, struggle, and change.
Goal - Conflict - Stakes. Why You Need All Three, by Janice Hardy (you also might do a search on “goals” on Janice Hardy’s blog, as she has a lot on the subject).
The Two Things Every Novel Needs—Conflict and Suspense, by James Scott Bell on Crime Fiction Collective.
Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. by
And please do see my brother’s full blog post, Not According to Plan.
So, what’s your goal now?