June 13, 2019

Can Passive Goals Ever Be Good for Our Story?

Dog laying down with ball in its mouth with text: Have Our Story Goals Dropped the Ball?

Last time, I shared my Resident Writing Coach guest post over at Writers Helping Writers and talked about how weak or passive goals in our story can hurt us. The comments over at WHW brought up some great issues and questions that I want to dig into more here.

As we’ve been discussing in the comments of my guest post, our characters often start with passive internal goals. They don’t want to change—and they often don’t think they need to change. After all, change is hard. *grin*

Their desire to stick with the status quo is a passive goal. That’s okay because that’s normal and human. So let’s take a look at how we can make those passive goals work for us and our stories.

Passive Goals Are a Problem When…

The problem with passive goals isn’t that they exist. We all want certain things to stay the same in our life, but that’s not the stuff of stories. What makes a story is when that passive goal turns into an active goal through struggle.

So the problem with passive goals is three-fold:

  1. Failing to Recognize Passive Goals:
    Passive goals often seem “fine” on the surface—the characters do want something. So we might not recognize that we need to push our story and ourselves to develop active goals.
  2. Failing to Push Characters toward an Active Goal:
    Our characters will often start with a passive goal, but we must use the story, situations, obstacles, stakes, etc. to push them to take the step toward an active goal. They might not want to change, but the circumstances we create can make them rethink their priorities.
  3. Failing to Know the Eventual Active Goal:
    At the beginning of our story, our characters don’t need to know what their eventual active goal will be, but as authors, we should have at least some idea as we get further into our draft. Without knowing what problem they’ll need to solve, we can run into problems with our story stalling. As a bonus, knowing the eventual active goal means we can give foreshadowing hints of the bigger issues.

Example: Pushing a Passive Goal to Active

Let’s take an example of a character starting off the story not wanting to rock the boat in her conflicted relationship with her father. She wants to maintain the status quo of pretending that everything’s okay between them. That’s a passive goal and fine for the beginning of a story.

How can we show a character grow from the passive goal they start with to an active goal that creates the story? Click To TweetHowever, if we recognize that’s a passive goal, we can question ourselves on what their active goal is likely to be eventually. With that information, we can develop ideas for how to push them toward that active goal throughout the story.

If her passive goal is a core part of the story (rather than a subplot), we might ensure that readers know their relationship is far from “fine” and include situations, obstacles, and stakes to increase the conflict between them. At the same time, we can show her struggling more and more to bite her tongue around him, hinting to readers that an active goal lurks on the horizon, even if the character is still in denial.

Can Passive Goals Ever Help Our Story?

With that example, hopefully we can see how passive goals aren’t “bad” if we use them properly. In fact, passive goals can help our story in several ways:

  • They create a starting point for our character’s arc.
  • They help show just how much our character changes over the course of the story—what they couldn’t do or weren’t willing to do at the story beginning they can now confront (and possibly overcome).
  • They can create more conflict in our story.

Wait, what? How can passive goals create conflict?

It all comes down to making the internal into the external. Or as Dani Harper asked in the comments of my guest post at Writers Helping Writers:

“How would you handle a story where the passive goal IS the problem to overcome?”

In other words, sometimes a character’s desperate clinging to their passive goal is what needs to be confronted. Let’s take a look at how we could show that in our story.

Showing a Change from Passive to Active

For some of our stories, a character’s denial and adherence to their passive goal just gives them a starting point. They might switch to an active goal:

  • As soon as the Inciting Incident:
    She realizes the meteorite will hit the Earth unless she comes out of her status quo retirement.
  • During the First Plot Point: (around 25% mark)
    She’s forced to interrupt the status quo and get involved when government agents come begging for her help.
  • Or anytime in the first third or so of our story:
    She stops passively going along with the government’s plan when she realizes they’re idiots and takes over the operation.

For other stories, especially character-driven ones, the character’s denial goes deeper and is the problem that needs to be overcome. In that case, the character is acting as their own worst enemy.

Turning Point: From Passive to Active Goals

In every story, we incrementally turn up the pressure—such as showing them more frequently needing to bite their tongue—but with an “own worst enemy” story, we also need to create a turning point that forces them to confront their denial and choices. They’re acting as the antagonist in the story, so the active goal will be them overcoming their internal issues, even though they don’t know it yet.

In these types of stories, where their adherence to their passive goal is the problem, our story’s plot needs to reveal their character:

  • Throughout the story:
    We can use proxies to turn the internal ideas holding them back into something we can show.
  • By the 50% mark:
    On some level, our character should be consciously aware that the status quo is no longer working and they need to deal with the problem. The Midpoint beat is always about forcing our characters to understand the stakes, story problem, and what confronting that problem might cost them.
  • After the Midpoint:
    They’ll still delay the confrontation—maybe as they try other options—but they’re fully aware that there is a problem now.
  • At the Black Moment:
    Their clinginess to the status quo has cost them everything they were trying to preserve, and they’re now worse off than they ever were before.
  • At the Climax:
    After losing everything they valued, they’re now willing to have the confrontation with whatever proxies and beliefs are holding them back.

As with many aspects of writing, certain techniques or approaches aren’t necessarily “bad” in every way. Adverbs aren’t always evil, etc. The problem comes when we use them inappropriately.

The use of passive goals is no exception. They can actually help our story—or even be the core of our story—but only if we know how to use them. *smile*

P.S. If we’re writing romance or other stories with multiple protagonists, learn how we can have even more flexibility with our characters’ goals.

Have you seen stories with helpful passive goals? Can you think of other ways passive goals can help us? Do you use passive goals in your stories? How do you usually use them? Do you have any questions about passive goals or how to use them?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Sometimes, the passive goal has an active goal underneath, as in your example with the daughter and father. So I have a character (Theo) who currently has a happy relationship with his partner (Pyris). Theo definitely wants to keep his partner and maintain the strong relationship, which could be seen as passive. But then you see moments of worry and insecurity, where Theo feels that though they love each other and are close, it feels that there’s an invisible wall between them, like they’re close but not close enough. He doesn’t really understand why he feels this way, since Pyris isn’t distant or rejecting or anything. This sense that there’s an invisible wall between them increases. Eventually, the two partners have a talk that obliquely addresses the issue. They both reveal that though they love each other, they’re afraid of the future, afraid that this happiness won’t last. An odd turn of events finds Theo switching bodies with his past self (or his future self, depending on your perspective). Pyris is delighted and admits that this new Theo (this Theo from the past) is much more passionate and less restrained. The previous Theo, though noble, honorable, and kind, just couldn’t let go enough to enjoy the relationship and frankly enjoy his partner, both sexually and emotionally. This is as far as I’ve gotten, but like in therapy, the discovery process is gradual. I get the sense that Pyris appreciates his partner’s magnanimity and sweetness, but Pyris wants something more too.…  — Read More »

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