Recently I read and reviewed a contemporary romance. The setting was unusual enough to be interesting without being so weird it distracted from the story and it had likable main characters, each of whom had a solid character arc, but the book left me feeling out of sorts. It wasn’t until I wrote up the review that I realized what hadn’t worked for me: the protagonist had three different goals.
- She’d just graduated from college and wanted a job using her degree.
- She was involved in organizing a charitable event to which she was deeply committed and she wanted it to reach a certain dollar figure in revenue.
- She had recently broke up with a boyfriend who took ruthless advantage of her giving nature and she was determined not to date for a while. (That’s a negative goal. If you’ve been reading Eight Ladies for any length of time, you know that’s a no-no, but it’s still a goal.)
Here’s the problem with having multiple goals: it diffuses your character’s energy across a spectrum of often unrelated activities. In my self-appointed role of armchair editor, instead of giving her three separate goals, I would give her a single goal and make the other two complications to that goal.
So instead of splitting her energy across four goals, she focuses on one but the other two keep interfering:
- She gets an interview for her dream job only to discover that the appointment conflicts with a crucial meeting of her charity event.
- So she goes to the meeting, planning to leave early but gets distracted when she’s asked to handle the catering. The cute guy sitting next to her volunteers to be on her team. After the meeting, he asks her out.
- But she’s determined not to date because that last sleazebag really did a number on her, so she suggests he work on the events team instead.
- All of which makes her late to her interview and doesn’t get the job, which reinforces her belief that dating/men just screw up your life.
- But at the next charity meeting, she learns that he guy knows the CEO of the company that just turned her down and can get her a do-over.
- And so on.
If, on the other hand, these three plot-lines don’t intersect, you wind up with.
- She goes to an interview for her dream job but doesn’t make the cut.
- She goes to a meeting for the charity event and gets assigned responsibility for the catering.
- She meets a guy who asks her out but she turns him down.
The more you can integrate your cross-threads and make events in one plot-line trigger events in the others, the more cohesive your story will be and the more tension your reader will feel because it will start to feel like she can’t set a foot down without hitting a landmine.
How do you integrate your story lines?
*Thanks to Eight Lady Jilly for suggesting the title of this post.
This post makes me question if my goals in my current WIP are doing their job. I’m not sure. This is a good lesson on making sure your goals are nice and tidy. I appreciate the lesson!
You’re welcome. My books tend to be crazy and (I’ve been told) over-complicated, but that’s what I love to read, so that’s what I write.
I always feel like I’m lucky if my protagonist has *one* goal! Oh, for those lucky writers who have this problem. 🙂 Although I suppose that’s like everybody wishing that they had hair like somebody else. Whatever problem you have, somebody else’s problem looks better…. Nice job on the book analysis, Jeanne!
Do your protagonists have only one goal? It doesn’t feel like that. They’re such capers, with people moving in all directions, that they definitely have that landmine feel!
A heroine with multiple goals is almost as bad as a heroine with none (which I was complaining about recently). One burning goal makes the story question nice and clear: Will Our Girl Get Whatever It Is She So Desperately Wants? Much more compelling than ‘which of the items on the following list will Our Girl get by the end of the story?’
I like the interplay between the the goals and complications above. Excellent armchair editing 😉
It’s so much easier to do with someone else’s story.
The way you put it makes it crystal clear! Parallel goals, vs. evolving goals/complications . . . maybe?
I’ve heard a lot of writers say the protagonist;s goal can evolve over the course of the story I think that can happen in several ways:
1) She starts with one goal and the inciting incident whirls her around in another direction.
2) You have a wants/needs plot, where the protagonist wants one thing (say, something material) but actually needs something else (usually something non-material, like a family or a relationship). As her character arcs,she becomes willing to let go of the thing she wants in order to get the thing she really needs.
3) The author starts with one story in mind and at some point veers off in another direction.
Somebody should probably argue with me about this, but I’m not a fan of the multi-directional goal/plot. I think it makes your story meander.
I’ll argue with you a tiny bit. I think in most of the books I’ve loved, the protagonist lost his or her goal on the way, finding a much bigger and/or better goal (or finding support for their goal). Or, the big goal needed a lot of babystep goals in order to be achieved.
For example, what’s Min’s goal in Bet Me? To get date for her sister’s wedding (win her mother’s respect). But, she winds up with a boyfriend, and even better, some self-respect so she can recognize her mother has Issues that aren’t necessarily about Min personally.
I guess it’s the side-characters who have the multi-directional goals. The cute little blond wants her perfect life (and chugs right through the goal line to get it), but she also wants these things for her friends.
Jenny has said, though, that it’s a weird book in that fate is the antagonist, and she doesn’t recommend doing it that way. But it works so well for me!
(Maybe we are actually talking about the same things, though.)
The “protagonist finds a bigger/better goal” you’re describing is what I’m calling the wants/needs plot. Min wants a date for her sister’s wedding, but what she needs is a relationship based on her improved self-respect.
As far as the baby steps–absolutely your protagonist will need mini-goals in pursuit of the One Goal The Rules Them All. The young woman in pursuit of a good job has to create a resume, recruit references, go to an interview…
I think we’re saying the same thing but using different terminology.
The ones I don’t like (and you don’t see much of it in romance because, as a genre, we’re pretty disciplined about our plots) are when the protagonist wants a good job. Then she decides she’d be better off going back to school. After a semester, she decides to take a gig at the college daycare. This isn’t a plot–it’s a biography of someone who never gets anywhere.
Ah. The old “write what you know” trap, LOL. I admit, I’m a bit guilty of that one — a “string of pearls” where nobody gets anywhere.
Could you please look at what my characters are doing and compress it down to this? I followed your logic completely, but usually end up with goes to an interview, goes to a meeting, meets a guy in unrelated plot lines. Since I’m reading Golden Heart submissions right now, I should keep this in mind. I’ve already read one that really meanders.
I can give it a shot–and I’d be happy to do that!