Advanced Storytelling


Goal Motivation and the Story Question

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 83–86, 88)

Your reader wants to enjoy your story. In order to enjoy the story, she has to know what to worry about.

How do you tell her?

You make it perfectly clear that your lead viewpoint character wants something—something specific, identifiable, possibly attainable (against great odds)—that's vital to the viewpoint character's happiness.

You can tell the reader that your lead charater wants almost anything, as long as the character defines the goal as vital. The reader will immediately take the goal statement and turn it around into a story question and worry about it.

This question is never vague, no more vague than the goal statement can be.


  • You Write: Andrea wanted to get a job in the ballet.
  • The Reader Worries: Will Andrea get a job in the ballet?

  • You Write: "Ive got to get to Akron," Bill said.
  • The reader Worries: Can Bill get to Akron?

  • You Write: Darlene knew it was vital to win the election.
  • The reader Worries: Will Darlene win the election?

Note, please, that these statements of goal are all positive, rather than negative. It's much easier to write about positive goals.

You can, of course, write about negative motivations, like Rex, who wants to prevent Barney from getting the jewels. A lot of great books have been written from such negative motivations. But when you start with your lead character operating in a preventative configuration, it usually means that the antagonist is already into a positive, goal-motivated game plan. And that often means that your lead character has already, in conception, been shoved into a negative, reacting, rather acting, role. And that's just not good.

Of course, your lead character will encounter many setbacks, disasters, and surprises, and will often be forced into a role of reacting in the playing out of the story conflict. It's hard enough to keep her active, and not always just hitting defensive lobs, when you start her out with a positive game plan; when you start her out negatively, she often gets pushed into reeling from pillar to post, trying to stop things, and never to initiate much on her own.

As we'll see in a later chapter, the viewpoint character's goal not only fuels the story, but holds every dramatic segment together. Therefore it's vital to state your lead character story goal in positive terms as often as possible. And it's almost always possible.

Good thing. Most of us admire initiators more than reactionaries. The legislator fighting for a new law he authored may be admirable to us even if we aren't crazy about the law. The legislator who is always yelling nay, and staging filibusters, quickly loses our esteem. Maybe it's nearly universal to admire someone trying to get something done rather than someone fighting a rear-guard holding action.

Something else to note. Even though the goal statement given in the examples above are quite broad enough to become the backbone of an entire novel, they are specific. The reader can't worry very pleasurably if your goal statement is something like, "Joe wanted to be happy," or "Marie wanted to do something about her problems."

[ . . . ]

Another item to note: the reader's formulation of the story goal into a story question is always a question that can be answered yes or no. The story question grows out of a goal statement that says somebody wants something, and the question always is "Will he?" Can he?" Does she?" A clear, simple question—and the source of all curiosity and suspense in everything that follows.

In a novel, the lead character's long-term goal thus forms the major story question—the umbrella question that hangs over the entire book. And ultimately the reader reads to get the answer. There will be, as we shall see in the next chapter, many secondary questions, many steps forward and steps back. But the umbrella question remains, and the relevance of everything you put in your novel depends on its relationship back—somehow, even if the remote connecion exists only in your viewpoint's mind—to the original goal statement.

Look at nearly any formed novel you ever enjoyed, read with great tension and curiosity and suspense. From virtually the first page you knew what the long-term goal was, and you had your story question. Often it was mad eperfectly explicit in the text itself. Sometimes you guessed it from the context and hints the author gave you. But you knew what you were worrying about.

Do you want to start your book in a way that makes sense, and will involve the reader? Then establish your lead character and let her tell another character, or allow yourself to speak for her, precisely what she wants, and why it's vital to her. The reader will turn it into a story quetion, and start reading with interest.


p. 88

Look at your own novel. If you were to send it to me in its present form, would I know very early on:

  • Who the lead character is
  • What specifically he wants
  • Why it's vital to his happiness
  • Who stands between him and attainment?

I hope so.

But another word of warning. In real life we often confront opposition of a vast and amorphous kind. "Society" seems against us, or the "church," or "Most people don't like that." In fiction, while the opposition may be powerful and widespread, the dramaturgy works infintely better if the lead character and the major source of opposition are people, not organizations or social entities.

A story is the playing out of a moral equation of some kind, and it's much more fun for the reader if she can identify the sides in individual characters.

I refer you again to the concept of putting your novel on a stage before a live audience. If your play opens with a huge, bloggy, brown shape coming out with a sign on its back, "Forces of unselfish good," and then entering stage left comes a long, slinky, creepy other shape labeled "Bad guys in society," I don't think the audience is going to stay long.

People identify with people, not abstract concepts.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.