Monday, July 28, 2008

Fiction Goals via Dwight Swain

by Molly Noble Bull

According to Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, character and story goals are important. He goes on to say that all story goals come from one of these three groups—possession of something, relief from something, and revenge for something.

Of these three, possession of something is the most widely used. By that I think he means that with regard to most fiction stories and novels, the main character must want to possession something.

Think of a little kid. We will call him Tommy. Tommy wants to take a cookie from the cookie jar and possess it—in other words, eat it.

Character or story goals must also be one of two kinds of goals—a goal of achievement or a goal of resistance. In fiction, if a character is attempting to get or win something—like a girlfriend, or a job, or a special honor, we call that a goal of achievement. On the other hand, if a character is trying to keep someone else from taking those very things away, Dwight Swain calls that a goal of resistance.

Tommy’s goal is one of achievement. He wants a cookie. His mom’s goal is one of resistance. She doesn’t want him to eat cookies. She wants him to eat his supper.

In every story there must always be two competing sides. One side tries to achieve or get something, and the other side tries to resist them or keep them from reaching their goal. The position of the hero or heroine in the story decides whether the story goal is one of achievement or a goal of resistance. Whether achieving or resisting, the main character should show his willingness to fight for what he wants or he will appear weak to the reader and not worthy to reach his goal.

On a small scale, there is a war of wills here—Tommy on one side and his mom on the other. Both must be strong opponents.

The hero's goal should always be noble. Thieves are bad guys. Therefore, if the hero is a thief, you must give him a good reason for stealing what belongs to someone else.

That is what some call the Robinhood Plot, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Swain says that by the laws of fiction, if a man or woman is unfaithful to his or her spouse, the spouse must be a villain and a terrible person. That way the kind-hearted hero can rescue his true love from the hands of her wicked husband.

In Tommy’s case, he is student. Will he learn from his mistakes and become good and noble? Or will he refuse to learn and perhaps become a thief when he grows up?

Remember all those movies where toward the end of the story, the good guy and the main bad guy fight it out one-to-one? That is probably what is meant by the rule that when the main character reaches his goal, it must be the result of his or her efforts more or less alone. At the end of a western movie, there is often a fight between the main good cowboy and the main bad cowboy.

If the main character reaches his goal as the result of someone else's efforts, the plot suffers and the story or book probably won't sell. In a nutshell, you can’t let some other character in your story handle that final one-to-one conflict. It has to be the hero or heroine.

As a result of something that happens in the story, Tommy might decide that Mom was right all along. He shouldn’t eat cookies before supper. But he must come to this decision alone.

Character and story goals are important in fiction. Without them, the story could fall apart.

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Sanctuary, a long historical by Molly Noble Bull, won the 2008 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence in the Inspirational category for published novelists. Sanctuary also tied for first place in the 2008 Winter Rose contest for published authors in the inspirational category. Both are Romance Writers of American chapter contests.
Click below to hear a short audio excerpt from Sanctuary.
Proverbs 30: 4


christa said...

I just bought Swain's book...TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER...a entire course in book writing.

Thanks for sharing this!

Molly Noble Bull said...

Thanks, Christa. I think it is the best book on fiction writing I have ever found.