STORY ESSENTIALS #5: A Goal

This series reveals what I consider to be the ESSENTIAL components of any great story. These critical elements will be familiar to you if you’ve followed my writing, teaching or coaching for any length of time. But my goal is not to be original; it’s to ensure you have a firm foundation on which to build an emotionally powerful and persuasive story. These are the principles you must master if you want to impact people’s lives – and increase your revenue – whether you’re creating a film, TV episode, novel, non-fiction or instructional book, speech, webinar, blog or sales pitch.

Great stories are driven by desire. The hero of the story wants something, and the story is about the actions that character takes to achieve it.

But that desire becomes much more emotionally involving when it’s defined by a clear, visible goal. The more specific, vivid and compelling the goal, the more captivated your readers and audiences will be.

In the Old Testament, the future king David wants to help his people; but his goal is to slay Goliath. Ahab’s desire is to captain the Pequod and maybe even get revenge, but his specific, visible goal is to destroy Moby Dick. And while Clarice Starling wants to prove herself as an FBI trainee in The Silence of the Lambs, her desire to rescue the congresswoman’s daughter from the serial killer Buffalo Bill is the goal that makes that novel – and that movie – exciting, fulfilling, and hugely successful.

So it is with your own story for a movie, novel, speech or marketing project. The more specific your hero’s goal, and the easier it is to envision what achieving it will look like, the more powerful and persuasive your story will be.

Your hero’s visible goal will be most effective when you follow these guidelines:

  1. Your entire story should be based on the pursuit of a single goal – or possibly two, as in a love story. Telling a story about a series of goals that you or your hero accomplished over time will become episodic, and will dissipate your readers’ emotional involvement.
  2. The goal can’t be resolved until the climax of the story.
  3. The goal must be difficult for the hero to achieve. The harder it is, the greater the emotion.
  4. The stakes have to be high – the hero has to risk something of vital importance in order to get what he or she wants.
  5. Winning his desire will require courage – physical, emotional or both.
  6. The hero must ultimately achieve her own desire. She can have help, but she can’t be rescued, and no one can do it all for her.
  7. The journey toward resolving the desire must transform the hero.

To touch people and change their lives, you want to tell stories that have meaning and depth, that explore our humanity and offer prescriptions for how we can live better. These are the qualities that help your stories challenge and enlighten your readers and audiences, and move them to action.

But even if your stories overflow with valuable ideas, insights and ambitions, they aren’t likely to transform – or even to reach – the people you want to touch if you haven’t given them something to invest in emotionally.

Your story must first move and entertain your audiences by giving them an outcome to root for: a clearly defined goal and finish line that they want to see your hero cross at the end of the story.

– Michael Hauge