Questionable: Positive and Negative Goals
I remember that you wrote about negative and positive goals some years ago, but I forget what you said. Can you explain why Courtney wanting to keep her job is a negative goal? I’m thinking it might be why my current protagonist story isn’t exciting me.
The push in your story comes from your protagonist going after her or his goal.
Okay, look at those verbs: “push,” “going after.” They’re active, they move forward, they exert pressure. That’s what a positive goal does: it gives the protagonist something to pursue, it makes her move forward (and with her, the plot), it sends her actively after something concrete.
A negative goal often pretends to be a positive goal, but the verbs give it away. Courtney wants to keep her job. The goal itself is specific and concrete, the job, but look at the verb: “keep.” Not “go after,” not “achieve,” but “keep,” stay in one place, don’t change, avoid action.
A positive goal forces the protagonist into action against the antagonist which moves the plot and leads to character change.
A negative goal forces the protagonist to stay in one place and prevents her from changing while the plot stalls around her.
A positive goal means the protagonist says, “I want that and I MUST HAVE IT!”
A negative goal means the protagonist says, “I’m not going to change, no, I won’t do that, no, I won’t do that, either, no, I’m definitely not going to do that. Leave me alone, I want everything to stay the same.”
For some perverse reason, I almost always begin with a negative goal. Courtney doesn’t want to lose her job. Zelda doesn’t want to stay at Rosemore. Liz doesn’t want to go home. Alice doesn’t want to sell the house. Zo doesn’t want anybody to notice her or her foster kids. It’s like a mental tic with me, they all say, “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.” So that means I have had to learn to turn negative goals into positive goals which is just a pain in the ass, but that’s writing for you.
Negative: Courtney doesn’t want to lose her job.
Positive: Courtney wants to find the proof to unmask her duplicitous manager, Jordan, for the thieving, employee-framing douchebag he is.
Negative: Zelda doesn’t want to stay at Rosemore.
Positive: Zelda wants to find out who her father is because she has a blood disease.
Negative: Liz doesn’t want to go home.
Positive: Liz wants to clean up her mother’s life in twenty-four hours so she can drive to Chicago without guilt and make a lot of money.
Negative: Alice doesn’t want to sell the house.
Positive: Alice wants to exorcise the ghost of her Aunt May before the fake parapsychologist who wants to buy the place gets somebody killed.
Negative: Zo doesn’t want anybody to notice her or her foster kids.
Positive: Zo wants to establish her foster kids in a safe house, but the only one available to her is full of killer magic robots and is possessed by an AI with a split personality.
Whether you like the positive goals or not, they’re all a helluva lot more interesting because they’re about people wanting something specific that they’re going to have to struggle to get.
Negative goals kill story. Positive goals power story.