Give Your Story a Great Goal

A benefit of working on a story starting at structure is that you know what you have to do next. After you’ve sketched a basic story structure and figured out who your hero is and how to describe them, it’s time to figure out what the hero’s goal will be.

The approach to goal setting in presentations or non-fiction talks is different than what we see in fiction stories or movies. But still, these more fantastic (meaning fantasy full) stories can teach you a lot about how goals work in story planning.

In his book, Talk like TED, Carmine Gallo points out that “When the hero has a clearly defined goal – and must triumph over adversity to reach the goal – you get a hit.” The goal is the most important thing the hero is trying to achieve in the story. They may get distracted, take up other causes along the way, or waver in their commitment, but at its core a story is about a hero trying to achieve a goal. Their attempts to achieve this goal move the story forward from one scene to the next.

To create a strong story, your hero needs a goal that is clear, specific, and difficult to achieve. It will require the hero to learn skills, make friends with the right people, endure challenges, and face the limits of their abilities. The more challenging the goal is, the more dramatic the story will be.

In Little Red Riding Hood, her goal is to take a basket of treats to her grandmother and we see how many things can go wrong trying to accomplish that simple task. On a grander scale, in The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit and his friends set out to destroy the One Ring that could destroy the world.

In these examples, the goals give the heroes a reason to act. When they encounter a setback, they continue in order to try to achieve their goals. If their personal character gets in the way, they overcome that or change to get closer to their goal. Little Red Riding Hood is willing to talk to the wolf. The different races represented by the Fellowship of the Ring form an alliance to achieve their goal and overcome personal differences to accomplish their goal.

When doing story analysis, many well-known stories, like those mentioned above, have concrete goals. Others, however, have more abstract but still specific goals. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s goal is to find a place where he belongs. There are other adventures along the way, but in the first story, the main challenge he faces is finding a home.

Let’s shift now to the story you are trying to tell. You might be talking about a project, product, or your personal story. In these situations, you will choose a goal for the hero of your story that is clear and use that as a point on the horizon in your story planning. With a hero and a goal, you know that all the story you craft in between is driven by your hero trying to achieve that goal.

When you’re in planning mode, you’ll have to consider a number of options about the goal you chose for your hero. The first is whether your hero will achieve their goal or not. Will they accomplish it in its entirety or maybe just part of the goal? Will they ultimately fail and learn a valuable lesson through failure? It is useful to think about this before you start working on your story details. It will allow you to drop some hints into the story as you go. You’ll also be able to set up a sequence of events so that the success or failure makes sense.

Another option is to have the hero achieve only part of their goal. When we are working on personal stories, I often advise clients to pick an audacious goal. The goal becomes something that the client can forever work towards. My favorite example of this is the second-year mathematics student who told me her goal was to make the NS, the Dutch rail service, run 100% on time.

When I share this with a group, they always laugh. The punctuality of the Dutch rail service is a popular topic of discussion in the Netherlands and in 2017, the trains were 91.7% on time. But with these kinds of results, enough people have experienced significant train delays that this remains a popular party topic.

The beauty of the goal of trains running 100% on-time is it is unachievable. No matter how hard this student works, she will never get there. Why is this beautiful? She is using it to craft a personal story, which means that even as a student, she can shape a story with that goal. Now, she can add courses and internships that equip her to achieve that goal. When she applies for internships or later for jobs, she can use this as motivation to learn skills or expand her knowledge in one direction or another.

Goals are powerful drivers in any story. When you’re figuring the goal for your story, remember that the goal should be worth working or fighting for and challenging enough to push the hero out of their comfort zone.

Interested in learning more about Carmine Gallo’s approach to story? You can read some tips from his book Talk Like Ted here!

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