Story Goals: Are They Slowing Your Story’s Pace?

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.

For example:

  • 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 change.
    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?

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This entry was posted in Character Arc, Characters, Fear, High Stakes, Motivation, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.
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John White
John White
1 year ago

I could use just a little clarification.

Man is estranged from family. Finally gets head together, gets them to agree to a reunion. From how I see it, he wants to change, not be such a jerk, and be something he should have been years ago. But something big gets in the way. I don’t know, an asteroid hits, aliens, world war III…something that puts the family in jeopardy, needs to save them. Does so, say around the mid point, then he gets mad and moves out of survival mode and becomes a part of or THE solution to the overall problem, with the usual ups and downs towards the end. Is that beginning passive????

Jami Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  John White

Hi John,

From your description, it doesn’t sound passive. He’s actively wanting something to change and is trying to get others to do something. He’s not just content with the status quo. That’s all active.

Him getting even more active with the external plot is all bonus. 😉 Hope that helps!

Victoria Marie Lees
1 year ago

Great post. Thanks for the clear and concise examples. Have a beautiful week!

Jami Gold
1 year ago

Thank you so much, Victoria! Glad I could help. 🙂

1 year ago

GREAT post, Jami! I think a lot of characters start out with passive goals because they are fighting to stay in their comfort zone out of fear of the unknown…which is why it’s important we add stakes and really force them to adjust their goals and drive the story forward!

Jami Gold
1 year ago

Hi Angela,

Absolutely! As you said, our characters often start with passive goals, and that’s perfectly fine. 🙂

The problem comes in if we don’t use the story to push them to grow and change — like with the stakes you mentioned — or if we don’t push ourselves enough to question them and know where the story’s going next, so we end up with a stalled draft.

This was a fun post to write, as it gave *me* a deeper understanding of this issue too. LOL! I hope it’s helpful to people. 🙂

Dani Harper
1 year ago

Can a character BEGIN with a passive goal of avoiding something and then grow over time to actively dealing with it and embracing a bigger, more life-changing goal?

Perhaps a former soldier with untreated PTSD might invest heavily in just “maintaining” day to day, with his whole goal being to avoid anything that would disturb the status quo, to keep his life level and unchanging. Unwanted events could occur to coax him into choosing to make changes and want more, until he eventually takes on a larger and more meaningful goal.

How would you handle a story where the passive goal IS the problem to overcome?

(PS – love your blog!)

Jami Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  Dani Harper

Hi Dani,

Yes, our characters often begin with passive goals because most people don’t think they need (or want) to change. Change is hard! 😉

From a *story* perspective, as you surmised, we have to make sure we’re using the story, situations, obstacles, stakes, etc. to push them to take the step toward change. From a *writing* perspective, we probably want to have ideas for what the active goal will eventually be so we can write toward that problem they’ll need to overcome and give foreshadowing hints of those bigger issues.

As I said in my reply to Angela, the problem comes in if we THINK our characters’ goals are perfectly fine (because on the surface, they often *seem* fine) and don’t push the story or them toward an active goal.

As far as your question about how to handle a story where overcoming the adherence to the passive goal IS the active goal… Great question! It might take a longer answer than just a comment though, so I’ll see about answering that on my blog on this Thursday. 😉

Thanks for the comment — and the post idea! 😀

Jami Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  Dani Harper

Hi Dani,

I just want to let you know that I did write more about passive goals and overcoming them in my post today. 😉

Check here for the post. Hope that helps, and thanks again for the great question and idea!