The Top 3 Places Where Goals Change in a Story

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about goals once or twice (or more). Yes, I loooooove to talk about goals. I even wrote a blog post called “10 Fixes to the Most Common Plot Problems” (and spoiler! The answer to ALL 10 is GOALS!)

Goals give our stories momentum and give us, as writers, the inspirational fuel to keep writing. But when does a character’s goal change? And more important why?

Today, I’m breaking down the 3 most common places where a goal might change in a story (with examples!)

[Side note: This post refers to terminology from the Save the Cat! beat sheet. If you’re not yet familiar with the beat sheet, or want a refresher, be sure to read THIS POST first, and then come back here once you’re all caught up!]

1. After the the Catalyst

So, if you’ve read Save the Cat! Writes a Novel or taken my Save the Cat! online course, you know that your main character (hero) should start out wanting something and pursuing it. We call that a “goal.” But really, it’s a starter goal. It gives the reader information about who this character is, based on what they want, and it gives your story momentum right from the start by showing your hero actively pursuing something (as opposed to lounging around on the coach all day which is typically not that fun to read about.) You could even think of this as the “status quo goal.”

But the Catalyst beat is designed to break the status quo, so naturally, you’ll find a lot of goals changing after the Catalyst hits.

In Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Alina starts off with a very simple goal: to cross the ominous Shadow Fold and make it through alive…oh and maybe win the heart of Mal, her crush, at some point too.

All of that changes when, during the crossing, Mal is attacked and Alina unleashes a supernatural power she never knew she had: the ability to summon light. Suddenly, her life is no longer about secret crushes and ominous crossings. It’s about so much more.

First, her goal (and the goal of others around her) becomes about figuring out exactly who or what she is. Then shortly after, once it’s determined that she is a Sun Summoner, her goal becomes learning to harness her new-found power (which happens near the Break into 2).

Similarly, in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Eleanor starts off with a simple goal: sticking to her carefully timetabled existence. But after she sees Johnny, the rock star, at the Catalyst, her goal changes to: win Johnny’s heart, which kicks off her Break into 2.

These are both great examples of the Catalyst crash landing so hard into the hero’s status quo world that not much about that world can survive, including what they thought they wanted.

2. After the Midpoint

Similar to the Catalyst, the Midpoint beat is designed to shift the story. It’s a crossroads where one long beat (the Fun and Games) is ending and another long beat (the Bad Guys Close In) is beginning. And in order to make the Midpoint impactful, it’s important to introduce a sense of a shift here. Typically, we shift the direction of the plot (meaning if things were generally going well for your hero in the Fun and Games, things will start to generally get worse for them in the Bad Guys Close In and vice versa).

But in order to set up that shift, this beat often comes with (or leads to) a new or modified goal for your hero. And because the stakes are raised at the Midpoint, this is also where we often see goals being modified or increasing in intensity.

At the Midpoint of The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Avery is nearly shot in pursuit of her Act 2 goal (to solve the mystery behind why she was named sole inheritor of a stranger’s billion-dollar estate). Almost being shot immediately intensifies her goal of solving the mystery. If she doesn’t solve it soon, more attempts might be made on her life. While at the same time, a new goal is added to the mix: figure out who is trying to kill her.

3. After the All is Lost

Finally, the third place you’ll often see goals shift or change is after the All is Lost beat. Remember, the All is Lost is essentially another Catalyst that stops the story in its tracks and forces the hero to pivot yet again. And because goals are often lost at the All is Lost, naturally, you’ll see heroes reaching for new goals as a result (often at the Break into 3 beat).

Think about The Goldfinch by Donna Tart in which Theo’s goal, throughout most of the book, has been to protect and hide the painting he stole from the Met at the Catalyst. But at the All is Lost he discovers that the painting is gone. Suddenly, his goal to protect it is moot. After discovering where the painting might be, his goal changes at the Break into 3. It’s not about protecting the painting anymore, it’s about recovering it.

Similarly, in The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Natasha’s goal of stopping her family from being deported is lost at the All is Lost. She’s definitely going back to Jamaica. So what happens to her goal? It shifts. Now it’s no longer about trying to stop the deportation, which she thought was the source of her pain, it’s about confronting the true source of her pain: her father and the mistakes he made to get them deported in the first place.

So those are three places where the goal of your story might naturally shift. But it’s important to note that these are just options. One (or more of these) might serve your story, or it might not.

It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of examples where the goal stays the same for the entire story, driving the story forward from start to finish. In these situations, in order to keep things fresh and interesting, we typically don’t see a shift in the goal itself, but rather in how the hero approaches it.

The Martian by Andy Weir is a perfect example. Mark Watney’s goal is always to get off that freakin’ planet. That doesn’t change from start to finish. What does change is how he goes about it given the variety of challenges and obstacles that are thrown at him, forcing him to re-think and re-strategize his goal. These new strategies end up creating smaller goals (which I call “spin off goals”) that help him accomplish his big goal.

if you’d like to dive deeper into goals, how they change, when they change, and all sorts of fun goal nuances, check out my Complete Novel Revision course where I show you how to analyze and optimize your own story goals to ensure they are making your story the very best it can be.

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