If we’ve spent any time learning about story craft, we know the importance of goals in our story. They affect every aspect of our story:
- Stories are about a problem to solve—a goal.
- Characters striving for something are more compelling.
- Scenes with characters pursuing a goal have a story purpose.
Without goals, readers can’t tell what stories are about, characters wander aimlessly, and scenes feel like filler. In addition, goals increase our story’s tension because they create stakes—the consequences if the goal isn’t reached.
In short, goals help drive our story forward. Without them, our story’s pace slows because there’s nothing forcing the story or characters to do anything.
But we need the right kind of goals. Some goals are active goals, and others are passive goals. How can we make sure we’re using active goals that force our story forward?
What Are Active vs. Passive Goals?
For all the talk about goals in storytelling craft, we might not have heard about active vs. passive goals before.
- Active Goals: Active goals force characters to take action. They push the plot forward as the characters strive and overcome obstacles. They often lead a character to change or adapt, forming part of a character’s arc.
- Passive Goals: Passive goals don’t force anything. The plot crawls along in neutral as characters simply want to maintain a status quo. Characters might stay in their comfort zone, with no positive lesson learned from a struggle.
How Can We Recognize Passive Goals?
If we’re not aware of the difference between active and passive goals, we might think our story is just fine. After all, our characters do want something. There is a goal—but it’s not necessarily strong enough to force our story forward.
Look at the description of passive goals above. See that word maintain? That’s passive.
Passive goals use words like keep, continue, stay, and so on. The character wants to keep their job, continue in their relationship, or stay in their home. That’s different from a character actively going after what they want beyond the status quo.
Why Are Passive Goals “Bad”?
At first, those examples above might look fine. On the surface, passive goals often feel like any others. We can point out how the character does want something.
So on some level, passive goals might be enough to get the job done. But no matter the specific details, passive goals are about avoiding. Characters are avoiding change—and stories are about change.
Goals about maintaining, keeping, and staying leave the story in neutral (and possibly stalling out completely) rather than forcing forward movement. So in addition to weakening our character’s arc, passive goals make our story’s pace feel slower.
Are Story Ideas with Passive Goals Doomed?
Luckily, having passive goals doesn’t necessarily mean we should toss the whole story idea and start over. Often, the problem isn’t with our story idea but in how we’re expressing it.
It’s usually possible to tweak most passive goals into active ones. Once fixed, keeping the active goal in mind while drafting will help our story—and us.
- Help for Our Story: Focusing on active goals throughout the drafting process will naturally increase our story’s tension and pace. Our characters’ desires will be felt more keenly, and characters will be faced with a need to change or adapt to get what they want. That creates a stronger arc, as they learn what they’re capable of, and in turn the lesson they learn creates a stronger sense of our story’s theme.
- Help for Our Writing Process: Focusing on active goals can help us get through the draft. A stalled story is harder to write, as there’s no clear idea of where the story—or we—should go next. So if we’re struggling to figure out what comes next in our story, we can check if the goals we’re using are active.
How Do We Fix Passive Goals?
Look at why the status quo is at risk or why they’re avoiding the change. Usually somewhere in that why is an idea we can make the focus of their active goal.
- Passive: She wants to keep her job—which is at risk.
Active: She wants to find proof her coworker is scamming the company and blaming others.
- Passive: She wants to continue in her relationship—to avoid
Active: She wants to get her mother to stop thinking she’s a flake who can’t commit.
- Passive: She wants to stay in her home—to avoid change.
Active: She wants to convince her husband to go to couple’s counseling and fix their marriage.
Those active goals (which aren’t even great ideas) give the characters—and us—a stronger focus for their struggle. Knowing what they’re actively striving for helps our story move forward. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about passive vs. active goals?