April 4th, 2012


From Wish to Goal

So, yesterday got a little interesting around here. We had two major storms hit the area simultaneously, in nearly parallel tracks, resulting in at least twelve tornadoes (though they're still getting the official count verified). I spent the afternoon watching the news coverage to see stuff like semi trailers flying through the air (that link is to a slide show of stills taken from the news helicopter footage, but there are links on the site to the video). Then it turned out that one of the storms was heading on a direct path to me, so I started making my disaster preparations. I moved the computer to the laundry hamper cabinet in the downstairs bathroom (the most likely spot to survive) and moved my old featherbed and some pillows into the downstairs bathroom to be ready to jump in the tub and pull the featherbed over me. Then I sat and watched the radar on TV with my cell phone, a flashlight and my Walkman with radio in my lap. The tornado in that storm apparently jumped back into the clouds a bit southwest of my area and didn't come back down until it was northeast of me, so I just got a lot of rain and some hail, but it made for a harrowing afternoon until all the storms had moved on. Miraculously, although there was a lot of damage, there were no deaths and no major injuries. As far as they can tell, only one person was taken to a hospital, and that was a baby who was in a house that was totally demolished, and they were checking her out as a precaution (but she just had bumps and bruises).

So, anyway, after all that excitement, a writing post.

Last time, I talked about how a character with a dream or a wish seems to hook readers into a story. In Hero's Journey terms, that would come in the "Ordinary World" segment, before the story really kicks off. It's part of the character's day-to-day existence to dream of something different or better. Then the "Call to Adventure" happens and the hero has to develop a goal. You could consider a goal a dream with some planning and action behind it. The story goal may not spring directly from the dream/wish, but there's generally some relationship to it. The funny thing is, when people are presented with the opportunity to go after their dream, they often resist, maybe because a dream is safe but a goal can be scary. It can be hard work or even dangerous, and once you try, there is the potential for failure. You don't fail in a dream or wish, but you can fail to achieve a goal. However, a wish doesn't make a story. You need a goal to have a story.

So, Cinderella may sing about a dream being a wish your heart makes, but it's just some vague wish about not being in her present awful circumstances. Then she learns about the ball and decides she wants to go. Now she has a goal. Fairy tales (and even the Disney movie versions) can be a bit vague as to the precise motivation, so we don't know for certain that Cinderella is thinking specifically that if she meets the prince and he falls in love with her, that could be her ticket out of her horrible life. It seems more like she just wants to get away for that one evening and not be the only girl in the entire kingdom who's not at the ball. Depending on the version of the story, she then starts to plan. In the Disney version, she makes her own ballgown, then has to rely on her fairy godmother when the wicked stepsisters destroy it. In some versions, the stepmother sets out a series of impossible tasks that she has to do before she can go, and she then gets her animal friends to help her. Now we have a story.

For an example of being not so thrilled at actually getting that vague wish, we have our old friend Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. He wants off his uncle's farm to go to some space academy, and he's so captivated by the idea of space battles that (in scenes deleted from the final film) he's become like the boy who cried wolf, so when he actually sees a space battle happening over his home world, no one will even look because they assume he's imagined it. This is a kid you know spends a lot of time imagining himself as a dashing space pilot doing battle against the evil Empire. And yet when Obi Wan asks him to come with him to help rescue the princess, which sounds like exactly what he's been wanting to do, he makes excuses for why he can't leave the farm -- he has responsibilities (those same responsibilities he was previously trying to shirk). We don't really get into his head to know why he resists, but one good reason may be that it's dangerous. He could get killed. There's also the possibility that he won't be as good in reality as he is in his dreams. Plus, it's not quite the same thing he was planning -- he wanted to go to the academy, taking it gradually, but Obi Wan wants him to jump in head-first. It's actually circumstances that force his hand. When his uncle and aunt are killed, he has no more excuses. Then he accepts the goal to rescue the princess, which later turns into the goal to destroy the Death Star.

Going a bit meta here, the same thing applies to writing. When you're an author, it seems like half the people you meet say they've always wanted to write a book or that they will write a book someday. Very few people actually do so. Even fewer finish it. Fewer than that take steps toward publication. For most people, it remains a wish or a dream -- they think about being a writer, maybe even imagine having booksignings or being on TV talk shows. In order to actually get a book published, you have to turn it into a goal and develop a plan. You have to write. You have to learn about your craft, whether from trial and error, from taking classes or from reading books about writing. You have to be willing to rewrite and revise. You have to take the risk of failure in submitting a book for publication or in putting a book out there electronically. While you're just dreaming, you can imagine being wildly successful. When you do it, there's always that chance that it won't work, which does sort of dampen the dream. Still, what's better, knowing you tried or never moving beyond a wish?