If you read a lot of writing advice online, you’ve probably run into the goal model of storytelling. Under this model, a story is defined as a character pursuing a goal. This is different from the model Mythcreants advocates, which defines a story as a problem followed by a resolution. The two models are actually more similar than they sound, but they still have important differences.
Let’s cover in what ways the goal model is helpful and where it falls short.
The Overlap Between Problems and Goals
Many stories fit neatly into either model. This is especially likely if they are following best practices for improving audience engagement, though it’s still not guaranteed.
Zuri has to get to shore before her boat sinks. She patches the damage to the hull as best she can, cranks up the engine to the highest speed, and bails water with a fury. Unfortunately, the boat is still sinking faster than it’s moving toward land. Then Zuri realizes she should follow the current, even though the distance to shore is longer that way. This makes the boat go fast enough to reach the shore in time.
In the above example, Zuri has a problem: her boat is sinking while she’s still far from shore. She also has a goal: to solve that problem by reaching shore before the boat becomes submerged. The story ends as she accomplishes her goal, which also resolves the problem.
Because a boat sinking is a high-tension problem, the overlap between problem and goal is pretty obvious. Let’s look at a more subtle example.
Zuri dreams of leaving her dead-end job to join the circus. When a circus comes to town, she auditions, but she doesn’t have an act that is strong enough to impress a tough crowd. Finally, she vents her frustration right at her would-be employer. They find her biting commentary so funny, they ask to start training her as a master of ceremonies. Zuri accepts.
Above, Zuri still has a problem she is trying to solve: she is dissatisfied with a career that is leading nowhere. If this example were fleshed out into a strong story, it would spend time upfront establishing all the issues with her current job before she tries out for the circus.
However, if someone were to summarize the story, they could easily leave the problem out. Instead, they’re likely to say, “Zuri dreams of joining the circus, so when the circus comes to town…” That’s because the main character and the activities they engage in are obvious, whereas the problem might not be. Given that, it’s easy to fall back on the goal model even when it isn’t the best fit.
This matters, because while the problem and goal models can be two ways of looking at the same structure, they won’t always be. Each one can exist without the other.
Where the Goal Model Helps
While the goal model has flaws, it’s definitely better than nothing.
Creating a Causality Chain
Unfortunately, many people who claim to be knowledgeable about stories are still spreading the myth that a story is any series of events. Writers who haven’t learned better will create stories where events happen at random, with no relation to each other. In actuality, story events should be like a row of dominoes. Each event should change how the story unfolds.
Both the problem model and the goal model help address this. In the problem model, each event is a step toward resolving the problem. In the goal model, each event is a step toward achieving a goal – or attempting to, anyway. As long as the main character sticks to the same goal, it can connect events and give them a greater purpose.
Focusing on the Main Character
At Mythcreants, we frequently advocate for choosing a single main character and sticking with them as closely as possible. Provided the main character is decently likable, audiences will get attached to them. That means higher engagement when the main character is present and higher tension for anything that affects the main character.
However, writers are always trying to do too much. Part of that is throwing in ten protagonists and switching between ten unrelated viewpoints. The goal model helps discourage that by framing the plot in terms of what a single character is trying to do. A writer might still create a different goal for each of ten viewpoint characters, but it helps.
Creating Motivation and Proactivity
Every character should want something – the main character especially. When writers neglect this, they struggle to involve their character in the story or make the story feel like it matters. The goal model gives main characters a motivation that can inspire them to actually do something.
In many cases, pursuing a goal makes a character more proactive. Instead of waiting for the story to come to them, they’ll go out and make it happen. While proactivity isn’t necessary in a story, it’s often helpful. Foremost, proactive characters are more likely to have agency. This means the actions they take actually change the way those dominoes fall. The goal model doesn’t guarantee agency, but it can create the right mindset.
Where the Goal Model Falls Short
While the goal model can be helpful, it’s ultimately a less accurate way of defining stories. Like an article of clothing tailored for someone else, it’s a little too loose in some areas and a little too tight in others. Without careful adjustments, it’s going to fall off or burst at the seams.
It Doesn’t Create Tension
Technically, you could say that a character who lacks what they want has a problem. A few audience members who are tension-averse might feel this is enough to get the story going. But practically, if you create a character who wants something but doesn’t remotely need it, you won’t have enough tension for adequate engagement.
Whereas the problem model is defined by the presence of tension, the goal model ignores it. This often results in stories that are cohesive, but boring.
Zuri is relaxing at her cushy consulting job when she sees a notice that the circus is in town. She’s always wanted to join a circus. She performs her impressive juggling act for the audition and the circus manager loves it. However, the circus doesn’t currently need more jugglers. Zuri thanks the manager, saying she’ll audition again when they have the right opening.
Fixing this is much easier than fixing a story without a unified plot, but the requirements of tension still have to be grafted on after the fact. Thinking about tension first minimizes plot holes and headaches.
The Ending Isn’t Included
I have yet to see an instance of the goal model that defines the end of a story in addition to the beginning. In my first two examples, the stories ended when Zuri achieved her goal, but that was to make them fit the problem model. Most people using the goal model seem to think stories are driven by characters pursuing goals, and then events lead … somewhere.
This is because no ending definition fits the goal model without eliminating important options. Obviously, characters shouldn’t always achieve their goals. But even ending with a success or failure obviously isn’t right, because in many stories, the character’s goal changes.
Zuri is out sailing in her favorite boat when she hits a rock and her boat starts sinking. To get the boat to shore before it’s submerged, she cranks up the engine to the highest speed and bails water with a fury. Unfortunately, the boat is still sinking faster than it’s moving toward land. However, she’s close enough to shore that other vessels are nearby. She decides she has to give up her favorite boat. With some clever thinking, she gets the attention of a nearby ship and is rescued before her boat sinks.
Given that goals often change, a storyteller might think that as long as the main character follows some goal or other throughout the story, the plot will work. But this isn’t true, and believing it could result in a story that wanders aimlessly.
Zuri is out sailing when she hits a rock. By cranking up the engine and bailing water with a fury, she manages to make it to a nearby island before her boat sinks. A dreamy mechanic named Aki repairs the boat. Zuri comes up with an elaborate plan to impress Aki that fails spectacularly, but Aki still asks her on a date. During the date, Aki mentions the island’s ecosystem is being wrecked by invasive species. The two resolve to save the island by capturing every invasive pig and taking it back to the mainland. While that turns out to be impossible, they still help the island’s ecosystem recover.
The above example has no throughline. It would require significant rewriting for the plot to work.
Regardless of how you look at stories, a story arc ends when all of its tension is resolved. Without accounting for tension, there is simply no way to pinpoint the conclusion.
It’s Too Restrictive to Cover All Stories
The goal model ties a story to a character. Under this model, the story and the character can never part ways. Even if we fragment the story into multiple characters who each have their own goal, the model still equates a story arc with a specific character.
While Mythcreants recommends sticking with a main character in most cases, this is going too far. Audience attachment to a character may raise tension, but tension and attachment are still separate factors that can exist independently. Some stories are about the interactions between characters or an issue greater than any one person, not about a personal issue.
The town crier announces that there are fewer trees in the nearby hills this year. People may cut down only one tree per family. The smith rushes to the hills and cuts down three trees to power her forge. She figures the trees will run out anyway, and she needs them to make ends meet. The cabinet maker rushes out and cuts down four trees, figuring the same. This way, he’ll make it through the tree shortage. The cooper sneaks out and cuts down five trees, since others depend on barrels to sell their own wares. The next week, the town crier admits they made the previous announcement in error. Last week, trees were plentiful. But now, there are no trees at all.
A good model is one that leads to a great story while working for as many edge cases as possible. The goal model fails this test. It doesn’t account for story arcs that start without a protagonist taking action or that develop through the actions of multiple protagonists.
How to Use Character Goals Effectively
If you prefer plotting your stories using a character goal, you can continue doing that. However, you’ll need to support that goal with the right context.
Even a light plot needs a little tension, and goals often miss the biggest requirement of tension: negative stakes, aka, consequences. To provide the story with tension, a goal has to prevent something bad from happening. That could be something personal like continued unhappiness with the character’s current life, or it could be a looming disaster like the destruction of the city.
Adding these consequences to goals is sometimes tricky, but as long as you’re flexible about other aspects of the plot, it should be possible. For instance, if your character’s goal is to bake an amazing cake, brainstorm how doing that could prevent something bad from happening.
- If the protagonist runs a bakery that’s about to go out of business, they might need to win a cake competition to get publicity and therefore customers.
- If the protagonist accidentally destroyed a friend’s wedding cake, they might need to create an adequate replacement to preserve that friendship and avoid widespread ridicule.
- If the protagonist’s cake-loving heartthrob plans to move away, the character might invite them over for cake hoping to change their mind.
Once you have some stakes associated with the character’s goal, you can raise tension as the story progresses by making the character take on risks. Maybe they urgently need sprinkles for the cake, but it’s Sunday evening and all the stores are closed. So they break into a store, take some sprinkles, leave money on the counter, and then run as the police arrive.
However, the audience needs to feel that deliberate risks are in proportion with the stakes. Breaking into a store just to impress a crush with some sprinkles may feel unnecessary and excessive. If a contest requires sprinkles and winning that contest might save a business, breaking into a store starts to sound reasonable.
Then, remember that your story ends whenever those looming consequences are no longer looming. Your character can fail to make an amazing cake while still impressing the public, friend, or crush with their actions. Alternately, they could make an amazing cake but fail to impress those people, possibly discovering the real solution lies elsewhere.
For instance, maybe creating the cake for their crush is their way of avoiding telling that crush how they feel. The crush might be impressed by the cake but leave anyway. Then the character can race to the airport to correct their mistake at the last minute.
Regardless of what specific activities you want your character to participate in, they need to spend the bulk of their time solving problems. The purpose of adding stakes is to make the character’s goal their way of solving a problem.
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