By September C. Fawkes
Many say plot begins with conflict. But you can’t have conflict if you don’t have an antagonistic force. And you can’t have an antagonistic force, unless your protagonist has a goal, a want; opposition doesn’t exist until it’s in the way of something. This is why plot truly begins with a want or goal.
At any given moment, your protagonist should almost always have a want that manifests in a concrete goal. Even if the want is something abstract, such as, “I want to be loved by others,” it needs to be tied to something visually attainable. Perhaps the character believes that if she throws the biggest, best summer party anyone has ever attended, her neighbors will adore her. An abstract want has now become a concrete goal. And the audience now knows what success looks like: an outstanding summer party.
The concept sounds so simple, that many newer writers overlook or even dismiss the idea. But a clear goal is critical to a strong plot, not only because it essentially is what starts plot, but because if there isn’t a goal, the audience can’t measure if what happens is progress or a setback. If nothing is trying to be attained, then the events don’t really matter. The audience is just watching stuff happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don’t know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn’t really matter.
The goal helps provide context to the plot, by orienting the audience to a desired outcome. When the goal is to throw an outstanding summer party, then managing to book the biggest local band becomes a success while rainclouds become a setback.
Some writers are resistant to including goals because they have a restrictive view of what a goal must look like and the kind of protagonist needed reach it, but not all goals are lofty and not all protagonists are go-getters.
Goals fit three categories:
These are related to gaining something. Often, these are more aspirational. The protagonist may want an award, treasure, a significant other, or a career. They may also simply want a meal. These goals are more associated with the character having a hope.
Some plots are about stopping something (the antagonistic force) to avoid a negative outcome. It could be a meteor about to hit Earth, or bandits robbing travelers, or an illness that promises death. The goal may be to prevent the consequences from happening or to stop problems currently happening or to minimize potential damage. These goals are more associated with the character having a fear.
Sometimes the goal is to keep things the way they are, or on the path they are currently going. When something disrupts that (an antagonistic force), the protagonist strives to re-establish an equilibrium. These goals can be more associated with hope or fear, depending on the story’s angle. (Note: the tricky thing with these is that if there aren’t big disruptions and obstacles to overcome, the story can feel too passive.)
To some degree, one may argue that these all overlap. After all, isn’t thwarting a supervillain a type of aspiration? And when the protagonist is striving to keep things the way they are, aren’t they avoiding negative consequences? Nonetheless, the categories can be useful in better understanding plots and characters. Ariel trying to become human in The Little Mermaid is much different than Batman trying to stop the Joker from destroying Gotham.
Goals of obtaining often feature go-getter protagonists who are innately motivated, whereas reluctant heroes often have goals of maintaining—they act in the desire of going back to not having to act.
But just including a goal isn’t enough—a goal really only matters when achieving (or not achieving) it carries significant consequences. Who cares about a successful summer party if it doesn’t change anything? For a goal to be meaningful, it needs to have stakes—potential consequences—connected to it. For example, if our character succeeds in throwing her outstanding summer party, perhaps she’ll finally be able to form deep relationships in her community, and if her party turns into a disaster, perhaps others will alienate her even more. These are significant consequences because they change the character’s “world.”
Luckily, even the simplest goals can become significant with the right stakes. The goal to obtain a drink of water can be just as effective (if not more effective) as the goal to become a famous musician, if the character is at risk of dying from dehydration. To make a goal more powerful, raise the stakes tied to it. This is also how to get the most reluctant of protagonists to act—anyone will act when the stakes get big enough.
While a protagonist’s goal can evolve or change, or they can have multiple goals through a story, if you want a strong plot, make sure your protagonist has a goal with significant stakes.
PSSST! If this post has gotten you thinking about meaningful story goals, you might want to check out the One Stop for Writer’s Character Motivation Thesaurus!
September C. Fawkes
Resident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Grab this AMAZING guide on Crafting Powerful Protagonists at her website and find her on
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for this helpful reminder of how important goals are. I love the way you break them down into three categories, including maintaining. I have a feeling writers sometimes overlook that goal.
September C. Fawkes says
Thanks! I know once I realized they fit into those three categories, it really helped me. As a “young” writer, I kept thinking when people talked about goals, they meant obtaining goals, and that wasn’t the kind I wanted to write about at the time. I have run into other writers who have experienced the same thing.
Ingmar Albizu says
This was so helpful, September.
I was always taught plot is about conflict, However, seeing conflict explained as goals and stakes makes it easier to understand and put into action.
It also reminded me of one of the best short stories I’d read, The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon. A grandma wants to stop whoever is stealing the tomatoes from her garden. Granted, it quickly escalates to dragons and shapeshifters, but at its heart is a grandma wanting to eat tomatoes.
Thank you, September, for the excellent teaching post.
September C. Fawkes says
I have been talking about these ideas elsewhere as well, and you are not the first person who has said that. Conflict is important, but if there aren’t goals and stakes, then it really is just cleverly disguised filler. If there isn’t an objective or potential consequences, the outcome of conflict doesn’t matter.
I haven’t read that one, but it sounds like it does escalate in an interesting way–I like dragons and shapeshifters 😉
Glad this was helpful to you.
BECCA PUGLISI says
These are great points, September!
September C. Fawkes says