Goal Setting For You And Your Characters

I’m a chronic goal-setter, always have been. Every year on this blog I publicly set goals for this site and my writing and I feel accountable to you guys as well as myself. So I’m a fan of this post from Martha Alderson on goal setting both for you and your characters.

Successful writers establish long-term writing goals for themselves and long-term story goals for their protagonists and then set out to complete a series of short-term goals they believe will move them and their characters toward those final goals.

Goal setting is not always as simple as it sounds. In teaching plot and from the plot consulting work with writers all over the world, I have found that self-professed “pantsers” balk at setting goals for both their protagonists and themselves. If you are a writer who likes to write by the seat of your pants with little pre-plotting or planning, you likely have no difficulty in seeing the big picture of your story but may find yourself breaking down when it comes to filling in the steps how to get there. However, just because the task proves difficult for you is not to say that you are off the goal-setting hook.

Plot Your Protagonist’s Goals

Goals provide motivation.

Obstacles create tension.

Potential loss promises transformation. Concrete goals with formidable obstacles and significant potential loss create the dramatic action plot of your novel, memoir, and screenplay. Stated goals stimulate excitement and page-turnability to your story. The dramatic action the protagonist takes to fulfill her goals forces her to stretch and grow and change toward her ultimate transformation.

A general and abstract long-term goal: “to be happy” leads to a vague and meandering story.
Instead, be specific.

What does the protagonist of your story believe she needs (goal) to make her happy?

A specific and tangible long-term goal provides specific action the character will take to achieve her goal.
The long-term goal needs to be tangible and quantifiable. In other words, the reader or movie-goer must be able to determine in each scene when the character is moving nearer to her goal and when she is drifting further away.

Setting goals for your protagonist goal demands a clear vision of what the protagonist desires on a concrete, attainable, specific and quantifiable basis. These goals much be within the protagonist’s capabilities of achieving (of course you will develop all sorts of antagonists, both internal and external, to interfere with her success). However, the more well-defined the protagonist’s goal at the overall story level and scene-by-scene the more grounded the reader in the story as she knows what is at stake and has a vague idea of the direction in which the story is moving.

Often, the protagonist’s goals change or shift after the major turning points in your story.

The more challenging the goal makes for a more exciting the story. A goal gets the character moving. A goal gets the story moving, too.

Give the protagonist something to do she believes she in incapable of doing but must do for the good of not only herself but for the good of her family and community at large.

Start the story with a dramatic question:

Is she going to succeed at accomplishing her goal…. or not? Will he succeed…. or not?
Send the protagonist on her way by giving her specific short-term steps necessary to answer the question – dramatic action plot. Let her actions define her – character emotional development plot.
A concrete goal gives protagonist action so the reader can react to what the character does rather than merely follow her internal monologue.

Plot Your Writing Goals

1) Whether your goal is to finish the first draft of your novel, memoir or screenplay or write the final draft or submit the completed manuscript to an agent, decide on a deadline to reach that long-term writing goal.

2) On your day planner, mark a big red X on your deadline day and write in your concrete long-term goal. Example: by December 31st, I hold in my hands the completed first draft of my manuscript (NOTE: best if the goal is written in present tense. The mystics say time is non-linear. If that’s true, it means your goal has already been accomplished and you only need catch up in real time.)

3) Work backwards on the calendar. Count the number of days between today and your deadline that you can realistically write. (Keep in mind that there are 89 days total between now and the end of the year. Do not count the holidays that you do not believe you can/will write or any weekends or other days not available for your writing)

4) Ask yourself how many words, pages you normally write in a day. (Example: 5 pages)

5) Estimate how many pages in your entire first draft. (Example: 320 pages total)

6) Where are you now? (Example: Page 100)

7) How many pages left? (Example: 230 pages left to write is determined by subtracting the number of pages you have already written from the projected total number of pages in the entire manuscript)

8) Calculate how many days total needed to write the pages left at the rate you currently write. (In our example: 46 days total needed to write 230 pages at 5 pages per day. In other words, divide the total number of pages left to write by how many pages you plan to write each day will give you the total number of days needed to accomplish your long-term goal.)

9) Subtract the number of total days needed from the total number of days between now and your deadline. (In our example: It will take you 46 days to write the number of pages projected for the completed manuscript which may give you extra days or a safety net. In other words if you can’t write one day, you will still make your deadline.)

10) Mark a daily writing schedule in on your calendar in pen.

The concrete task of scheduling times and goals for each writing day makes you more realistic about your writing goals, allows you to visualize your writing life in relationship to the whole of your life and gives you realistic short-term goals necessary to achieve your long term goal. An added bonus in creating goals for yourself makes you better at creating concrete goals for the protagonist and other characters in your story.

Do you do goal -setting for yourself or your characters?

Martha Alderson is the Plot Whisperer. Her latest book — The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master is now out by Adams Media. She is the founder of the award-winning blog The Plot Whisperer, Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and International PlotWriMo (see links below). Her books include Blockbuster Plot Pure & Simple and Blockbuster Plots Scene Tracker Kit. She also has created several plot dvds and ebooks.

For tips on plotting, watch her vlog: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? a 27-step free tutorial
Follow on Twitter http://twitter.com/plotwhisperer

Top Image: Flickr CC Pixel Position

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  1. says

    Putting a deadline to creative stuff is not always easy. It does not work with me for sure. It creates anxiety and I feel I’m not free to “produce”, but forced to do that. And when I feel forced I just don’t do it.
    It’s more useful to me to define a minimum number of words/pages per writing day, without deciding the total number of them in the final work.

    • says

      Hi Carla,
      I love how we each find our way by adapting to our strengths and weaknesses as writers and people. That you know what feeds your fire to write versus what dampens your enthusiasm gives you the daily choice to continue…
      Happy plotting,
      plot whisperer

  2. says

    I am a discovery writer. So I have motivated characters, but I don’t try and plan their journey. That’s a sure fire way for them to rebel. Almost every time I’m ever had writer’s block it was because I was trying to force the characters to do something they didn’t want to do.

    I used to attempt word count goals, but now I just write in every free moment I can get. Until I reach the point where I can afford to be a full time indie like some of Joanna’s wonderful guests, I have to wedge writing into the day every which way I can. Sometimes setting goals, that life won’t let me reach, just adds to the stress.

    What I really need to plan much better is the marketing strategy. I know I need to use social media. I know I need to get reviews. Figuring out a schedule on that is a challenge. And when I do spend hours and hours on those things and see no immediate results it is difficult to figure out how to plan effectively for future marketing efforts. Like Zoe Winters said in the interview about book launches, “It is hard to get those few initial readers.” She was not lying!

    • says

      Marketing is one of those longer term things – you see results in 6-12 months generally (or so my experience has been) For a long time it can seem like you’re howling into the wind and then things start to happen. Getting the initial readers is hard, but you will do it! (in between all the rest!)

      • says

        Hi Joanna,
        Thank you so much for running this piece on your blog!
        It’s great to connect with new writers.
        “Howling into the wind” — it does feel that way… often… and then… just when you’re ready to give up — something unexpected and delightful pops up and we’re off and running again.
        Great blog, Joanna.
        Thanks again.
        plot whisperer

    • says

      Hi S. A.,
      I like that: I am a discovery writer. And… I write in every free moment I can get. Love that! I can just see you wedging writing into everyday in eery way you can…
      And, I agree whole-heartedly that “setting goals that life won’t let you reach, just adds to the stress.” There is enough stress in everyday life that to add stress to a task meant to inform and enhance your life is counter-productive.
      Good luck with your new book! Congratulations.
      Thanks for commenting,
      plot whisperer

  3. Nicole Alexander says

    Very nice post, one I will bookmark so I can refer to it again. I have a long way to go in formal goal setting. I’m probably one of those “pantsters” you referred to. My biggest challenge is being able to put my main character’s goals into words. Intuitively, I know what she wants, but it’s nearly impossible for me to voice it. For some reason, it’s easier for me with the other characters. I wonder what that says about me and my writing ability?

    I agree with S.A. that trying to force your characters to do something is a sure way to get them to revolt (I’ve been there many times), but I do feel you need an idea of where you’re going. I have a pretty detailed outline, but that doesn’t mean my characters are going to stick to it. But that’s where flexibility and allowance for change comes in. Plots evolve as we write.

    I’m not the kind of writer who can write every day, even on the days I don’t have a job or other things to get in the way. I’ve found that if I force myself to write when I’m not inspired, what I write will be terrible and will only add to my angst. But that doesn’t mean I’m not working on the book every day. I’m constantly thinking about plot and scenes and character motivation. You don’t always have to bang out sentences to be advancing your novel.

    • says

      I don’t write every day either Nicole – I have fits and spurts, which I think is fine – although I look at the great prolifics like Enid Blyton etc and they did write every day so perhaps once I get more experience (and stamina) I might be able to!

      • says

        Hi Joanna,
        I believe that the act of showing up at the same time everyday over time allows your body and your mind to prepare and then greet you at that sacred time and place.
        Even if you only write for a few minutes to start, a rhythm gets set that not only you begin to anticipate but those around you do, too, as does the muse…

    • says

      Hi Nicole,
      As long as you instinctively and intuitively know what she wants is a step in the right direction.
      “Plots evolve as we write.” Yes! No truer words written.
      Some of what I write above are tips on how to connect with the muse. If you’re not sure what you want, it can be difficult for the forces on the other side of the “veil” to know how to jump in to support your efforts.
      Goal setting, saying your goals out loud for others to witness, writing your goals down, quietly reflecting everyday on what you’ve accomplished and what you’re planning to accomplish next help bring together support from outside yourself.
      And you’re right that you don’t have to be actually writing to advance your story. Dream time is critical, too.
      Good luck with your story!
      plot whisperer

  4. Trish Heinrich says

    I have resisted goal setting for so long it’s ridiculous! But I’m starting to realize that it’s essential. When I recently set a goal (internal, I didn’t I write this down but I strongly set it in my mind) that I would finish polishing my novel in six weeks I did it in four; in spite of a sudden hospitalization. It’s amazing what a strong goal about something you care about can do. It got me out of bed at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, it made me write when I didn’t want to look at the manuscript another minute, it made me ruthless with cuts. I love this post because it de-mystifies goal setting and makes it accessible. Thanks so much for this!

  5. says

    I think that any project without having a specific goal with milestones in between is bound to go astray. Sometime going astray is part of a plan, but to be consistent, goal setting is essential. I can’t run my it consulting work without it.

    • says

      Hi ttig,
      Consistency with a creative project becomes tough when our critical mind has a say in things. Our worries, insecurities, doubts and fear do more to interfere with our success than any outside influence.
      That’s why a writing ritual can be helpful — same time, same place — at least that can be consistent and in that consistency can help to silence the negative internal nattering…
      Thanks for your comments,

  6. says

    I hadn’t thought of setting goals for my characters but I think it’s a good idea. I do set goals for myself, annual goals, manuscript goals and complement these with regular task lists so that I have specific, tangible objectives to guide my weeks. And, I’ve found that goals need strategies – decisions on how I am going to accomplish a longer term goal. All this works better at some times than others. It’s tough to be disciplined absolutely every waking minute!

  7. Chino J. says

    Well,i must say that you are doin a great job reaching me all the way from there. Am pretty good in setting goals both for myself and my characters,but most times because of pressure my goals are subjected to change,especially when i fail to meet up because of some tangible reasons and i dont reall know how right i am about this…

  8. says

    Hi, Martha & Joanne,

    A timely topic, what with NaNoWriMo raging away at the moment! I’m working on my Dream Novel right now for it. It’s been a very interesting experience goal-setting wise; I tried plotting it out with the Snowflake Method several times but couldn’t get it to quite work.

    In a way, it was nailing what my character wanted that finally gave my plot some shape. My first attempt at a one-line pot summary was “A cyborg superhero must choose between helping his friends and uncovering his past;” it’s got intrigue but it took me a while to realise it was missing that vital “oomph.”

    Then just before November 1st, I hit upon: “A cyborg superhero must choose between the family of his birth and the one he stumbled into.” Bam, said the lady! The plot summary started bullet-pointing itself!

    Now I’m over halfway through NaNo (although around ten thousand words behind target) and I’m starting to get a better idea of just how my cyborg superhero identifies what he wants and where he thinks he’ll find it. The only problem is, it doesn;t quite fit with what I’ve got so far and I’m suddenly thinking ‘rewrite.’ On the other hand, I also think should just continue what I have for (a) the fun of it and (b) the sake of creating a zero-draft – after all, I can’t edit what I’ve not written.


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