Sunday, July 8, 2012

Visible Goals

I read something for a friend recently--not for critique, but because she had some specific questions based on feedback she'd received from others--and the main thing I had trouble with was the heroine's goal. It wasn't clear to me.

When we sat down to discuss I gave her my thoughts and I said, "Her goal seems to be [blank] but I can't picture that. What does it look like if she gets it?" And I explained to her what little I understood about "visible goals" based on a Michael Hauge workshop I'd attended (which is also explained, nicely, here).

Writers hear this over and over. GMC. Goal-Motivation-Conflict. I always think of myself as having trouble with writing conflict, but the more I work at it, the more I have come to believe that what I have trouble with is setting up positive, visible goals for my characters.

Yes, I love internal and angsty. But the internal angsty stuff is hard to make visible and if the reader doesn't have a gauge, it can feel like the story is going on forEVER. So my favorite books take all that internal angsty stuff and wrap it around a visible goal.

The visible goal is something the reader can picture. Like Rocky running the museum steps. His goal is to make it to the top and we see him trying it and failing, but getting closer every time. We want him to make it. We're invested in him getting to the top of those steps.

In one of my favorite recent reads, About Last Night, by Ruthie Knox, the heroine, Cath, is working on an exhibit on the history of hand knitting for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her background is a litle scattered and her position is a little dicey and she very badly needs to make the exhibit a success to cement her job. That's a visible goal. That was something I could follow. I knew when she getting closer to that goal, and I damn sure knew when she was missing it. And because I cared about Cath and the delicious hero, Nev, I was cheering her on all the way.

In another favorite recent read, The Replacement Wife, by Caitlin Crews, the heroine, Becca, desperately needs money to pay for her sister's education. Now, The Replacement Wife is a Harlequin Presents book, so it's not a story about Becca taking on more jobs to make money so that she can write a check to her sister's school. LOL. But that visible goal is what draws her into the alpha hero's orbit and, again, it's something we can understand and root for, something tangible.

My friend said a light bulb went off when I used the words "visible goal" and she is already tweaking her story to show this.

My question is, why is it always so much easier to see these things in other people's work than it is in my own?

I have no answers here, oh how I wish I did, particularly when it comes to positive visible goals. But I do have something that might help you with that and it comes from my favorite podcast on writing, Storywonk. If you struggle with this like I do, listen to what Lani says about the difference between positive and negative goals.

And if you struggle with it like I do, you'll listen to it over and over and you'll still find yourself writing a heroine with a visible goal that she can't talk about. Which is no help. So now I need to figure out how to give her a visible goal that the reader can follow along with because it's one thing to take the reader on a journey without a map. It's another thing to lead them into a deep dark forest and swipe the flashlight . . .

In this respect, I am like Rocky running those steps. Every book I write, every page I revise, gets me closer to figuring this out.

I have no doubt that one of these days I'll reach the top of those steps.

It's my goal.


  1. Fabulous insight, Yvonne!

    And good call for questions. ;-) So here's one for you:

    I see you sometimes add the word "positive" when you describe visible goals, so are there multiple types of visible goals? That could be so cool! For instance, if the bad guy has a "negative" visible goal...hmmm!

    What's your take on "positive"?

  2. Hi Nichole -- I wish I had a better handle on all of this -- that's what prompted me to blog about it. But I'll take a shot at it, based on my research.

    Positive and negative goals are not "good" goals vs. "bad" goals. They're active vs. passive.

    A positive goal is something the character is going after. A negative goal is something the character is trying to avoid.

    All characters should have visible goals. Bad guys, as you say, often have the most positive visible goals because they are actively trying to block the good guys. :-)

  3. I get it. I think. But like you, can I apply it? Hmm. So do you think your PVG for the current WIP is the heroine's desire to bring the diner into the 21st century? That's definitely progress that can be measured - but I guess then we need to know what the stakes are. If she doesn't succeed, do they lose the business or does life just return to normal? And your hero's goal seems to be to keep his dad and the heroine's mom apart, but that fizzles in the first chapter. So does he create a new goal? Enquirying minds!

  4. Oh Keely, you make me so sad bringing up that book. :-) It is a mess with a capital M.E.S.S. and it is only 1 of the 4 books I have in progress that need so much work. You notice I didn't send pages for this week but will instead spend my time picking your brains for ideas.

    The H&H both need Major Visible Goal Overhaul. LOL.

  5. Yvonne, what a great resource this StoryWonk site is. I'm hooked. Thanks for sharing it.

    I found the pod cast topic - positive and negative goals -- really fascinating. I love this statement that Lani made about the craft of writing:

    Craft holds up your magic; it is a delivery system for your magic.

    Wow! The suggestions Lani and Alastiar make regarding goals are great too. Writing an active protagonist with positive goals (essentially a go-getter with a goal) is easier than writing a passive protagonist with a negative goal (wimp with avoidance complex).

    I'm reminded of the last Harry Potter book. I really hated the first half of that book. The endless failing around, apparating and disapparating. I was so relieved when Harry finally did something active.

    So it's possible to begin with a passive protagonist and let circumstances force him/her to make a choice and respond to this life changing journey he/she has been called to. I've always liked the reluctant hero (Hans Solo, for instance). I like their journey of self discovery and growth.

    Thanks Yvonne for this great topic!


  6. You're welcome, Shellie. I love love love Storywonk!

    Protect the magic, always protect the magic.

    And good breakdown of the last HP book!

  7. Long live StoryWonk! :-) You're so right, Yvonne, lectures like these are made to be listened to over and over again--and sometimes even then I don't get it. :-) In fact, reading your post I stopped to take notes to make sure I had PVGs for my current characters--thank you for the reminder! It's so true, that trouble areas are easier to spot in someone else's work. I like your use of the word "gauge"--I'm going to try to remember that my reader needs to be able to gauge the character's progress, goal-wise. Thanks for a terrific post!

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Kathy! Yes, you and I are StoryWonk Wonks. LOL. They're the best. And I'm thrilled that you got something useful out of my trying to figure things out for myself. :-)

  9. Evie ~ Wonderful clarification here on visible goals within our stories. And what wonderful links. Thank you! I'm going to listen to the podcast.

    Seeing the flaws in our own work-in-progress is always difficult. That's why I've found the beta reader (and the critique group) such a valuable asset. I begin to see if there's a pattern in reader response within my targeted audience. And, as always, the distance of time gives perspective, too. But I know we don't always have that luxury.

    You will hit your visible goal (both story-wise and writing career-wise! I totally believe it. And we'll be cheering you on just as we are in those final scenes of Rocky. ;0)

    Thanks for the great, thought-provoking post.

  10. Great post, Yvonne! I agree with you that I love when the internal and external goal are in tandem with each other. That gives a forward motion to the story that makes for a great read.