I found myself reading a story recently that I couldn’t connect to. After putting the book down, I asked myself why. I loved the writing, the setting, the characters, the dialogue… Why wasn’t I devouring this book like it was the last fun bag of Reese’s Pieces?
And then I realized the problem: The main character’s goal wasn’t clear enough.
When you write a story, your character’s goal must be crystal clear. It should be introduced to the reader within 30 pages (earlier if possible), and there should be consequences if that goal isn’t reached.
1. Let’s look at CITY OF BONES by Cassandra Clare: Bad guys kidnap Clary’s mom, and Clary must work with Shadowhunters to get her back. Lots of trippy stuff happens during this book, but we keep reading because there’s a goal, and we want to know if it’s met or not. In this situation, the goal is finding her mom. The consequence of not fulfilling this goal is losing her mom, and becoming an orphan.
2. Let’s look at one more example. In A MILLION SUNS by Beth Revis, both of the two main character’s goals are to get to Centauri-Earth. The consequences of not meeting that goal means that main character #1 (Amy) won’t get to wake up her parents, and main character #2 (Elder) will fail as a leader, putting all the people on-board at risk of starving.
Having a clear goal and consequences isn’t always the way to build a winning story, but it is for a lot of readers. People want to know why they should care, and what will happen if the main character fails. In almost every episode of VAMPIRE DIARIES, there is a goal (Elena must find the ancient dagger to kill an Original Vampire) and a consequence of not meeting that goal (Otherwise, the Original Vampire will kill her best friend).
In the case with the book that wasn’t working for me, and with a lot of others (including one I’ve written), the main character has things happen to them and must respond, versus making things happen.
I hope this has helped in some small way. Like I said, this isn’t a sure-fire way to a successful book, but it’ll help you avoid common pitfalls. And it’s something I’m still very much learning myself.