- Is my MC's goal interesting and important enough for this genre and for the readers I aim to snare? For example, the MC being desperate to own a dog might be sufficient goal for a gentle book for six-year-olds but not for most other readers. (Though it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a good writer could create an exciting story out of this premise, by adding a great deal of extra interest.)
- Have I put sufficient obstacles in the way of this goal? Have I paced them well, increasing suspense? Do the obstacles hang together within the story, rather than being completely random-seeming?
- Do my readers care sufficiently about my MC that they are desperate for him or her to achieve the goal? The creation of a rounded character who we have strong feelings about is essential to keeping us reading. We must care and believe.
- Have I created enough complexity by having more than one goal, and perhaps by running a sub-plot which will conflict and even become part of the obstacles? Secondary characters can be very useful in this.
- caused by the MC's own mistake
- caused by the MC's enemy
- caused by a secondary character accidentally getting in the way
- caused by external influences
- caused completely by accident - don't overdo these or you'll end up with a mishmash of things and the reader will think you're just making it up as you go along. Which of course you are, but not in a good way.
- sometimes seeming insurmountable
- frustrating for the reader but not too frustrating - you don't want the reader screaming at you. Much.
- generally increasing as the MC reaches the goal
- overcome at just the right speed, generating the amount of suspense you want. Too quick and it's a let-down; too slow and it can become frustrating.
So, leap out at your MC and give him the shock of his life. But make the readers suspect you're going to leap out, so that the reader hangs around, fingers over his eyes, hardly daring to read on and yet being unable to stop.
Get the goals and obstacles right and you end up with a novel that is likely also to have suspense, pace and narrative thrust. And most novels benefit from an awful lot more narrative thrust than I see in most unpublished (and some published) work. In fact, it's one of the main things I'll be talking about in my workshops and talks over the next months - including at the York Festival of Writing.
Talking of workshops, there are no spaces left at my What's Wrong With your Manuscript evening in Edinburgh but there ARE spaces on the Secrets of Writing for Children and Teenagers one. If you come to that, you will get an invitation to the launch party!