I like keeping lists. And I like books. So I guess it makes sense that I have a lot of book lists. Books To Read, Books I’ve Finished, Books I Want to Buy, and possibly the most informative one: Books I Didn’t Finish. As a reader, it happens quite frequently that I’ll start a book, and for whatever reason, my attention wanes and I end up putting it down unfinished. As a writer, I want to know why this happens so I can avoid making the same mistakes in my own stories. The reasons behind a book’s failure to grab my attention are varied. Some of them I see often in books I read; some offenses I’m guilty of committing myself. Because of this, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so we can all try not to replicate these errors in our stories.
For this first installment, I’m pulling from a book I was really looking forward to reading…well, let’s just call it Book A (I’m a positive person, and since this isn’t a review, the title doesn’t matter). Regardless, this book was historical fiction—one of my favorite genres that I find in short supply—and a retelling of an old myth. The cover was gorgeous and the back copy contained an accurate summary of the story. The writing itself was strong, the descriptions evocative. So what killed it for me?
In the first chapter of Book A, the heroine’s life had taken a dramatic turn which included a global move away from her family and friends to a place she’d never been. And when she got there, everything was great. Her new home was luxurious, her benefactor doting and accommodating. In this new place, she was actually better off than she’d been at home.
I was underwhelmed at this point but continued on to chapter two, hoping things would pick up—and I did find a vague undercurrent of danger, the feeling that all wasn’t as it seemed. But it was too vague, too distant. The character wasn’t concerned, and she didn’t seem to be in any real danger, so I wasn’t worried about her. And I never made it to chapter three.
Clearly there was a lack of tension, but why? What was it about this story that put me to sleep? When I examined it further, I realized that I didn’t know the hero’s goal; she wasn’t thinking about what she wanted or discussing it or wishing for it. Because she never revealed her greatest desire, there were no stakes for her should she fail to achieve it. It didn’t seem to matter one way or the other if she got what she wanted, so I didn’t really care if she succeeded.
For readers to be involved in your story, your main character has to have a goal. Simply put, this is something she wants to accomplish by the end of the story. Goals come in many shapes and forms. A character may want to discover his own identity (The Bourne Identity), make a living and survive in 19th century Paris (Belle Epoque), or find his birth father (Elf). If you don’t know what your character wants, then the reader won’t know, either. Figuring out the hero’s goal is the first order of business.
The next important step is to reveal this goal to readers through the context of your current story—through dialogue, the character’s thoughts, through action, or a symbolic keepsake or memento, etc. And the sooner you do it, the better. In the movie The Bourne Identity, we’re all of eight minutes in when Bourne, who has clearly lost his memory, says with great emotion, “What if it doesn’t come back? We get in there tomorrow, I don’t even have a name.” With this simple bit of dialogue, viewers see exactly what Jason Bourne wants. We know what he’s going to spend the rest of the movie trying to accomplish, and we spend that time rooting for him to do just that.
Because I have a fear of overstating things, I tend to be too vague when it comes to my character’s goal. Through consistent feedback from my trusty critique partners (What’s she after in this scene? I don’t know what she wants, etc.), I’ve learned that it helps, in the drafting stage, to state the goal outright. Mention it more than once. Then, when revising, soften those references and turn them into examples of showing rather than telling. Maybe remove a few of them altogether. This has worked well for me to make sure readers know my character’s goal without smacking them over the head with it.
So, to summarize: 1) know your character’s overall story goal, and 2) reveal it at the start of the story so readers will know what needs to happen for the hero to succeed.
Hopefully this information will come in handy for you and will help you write stories that readers can’t put down. An understated goal is one big reason why books fall flat for me, but there are definitely others. I’ll be writing more posts in this series as those reasons become clear. Enjoy!
Also, Angela’s at the DIYMFA today talking about Flaws, Emotional Trauma, and the Character’s Wound. If you’re interested in figuring out why your character is the way he is, she’s got some not-to-be-missed info for you.