“I want to write something that’s deep.”
If you’ve ever spoken or thought these words, then I have some tough news for you.
Readers are probably walking away from your stories.
And the reason is going to shock you.
The Problem With “Deep” Stories
Let me tell you about a writer named Rick.
Rick asked me to read a draft of his novel. It was a science-fiction / fantasy yarn about a girl and her destiny and crystals and a bunch of other cool, genre-heavy stuff.
But I quit halfway through the manuscript.
As the meme says, “I just couldn’t even.”
Because the protagonist, a very sassy teenager girl, wasn’t doing anything.
Sure, she was bumping into crazy characters and enduring many random, confusing events related to other people’s goals and motivations and machinations.
But she wasn’t doing anything.
And when I told Rick that this was a problem, he smiled and shook his head.
“I want to write something deeper,” he said, probably satisfied that his intentions were pure.
“I know you do,” I replied, “but your reader won’t stick around that long.”
So what was his story lacking that made it unbearable?
Don’t blink – it’s really as simple as this:
Rick’s story lacked a physical goal.
Readers Quit When They’re Confused
I get it: Of course you want to write a deeper story.
Most of us do.
But stories without physical goals are inherently confusing.
Readers need physical goals as much as your protagonists do.
They act as markers, giving the reader concrete signs that progress is being made along the story.
And let’s be honest here: There are very few mental, social, or spiritual goals (you know, deep goals) that aren’t accompanied by physical choices.
Do you want to overcome a bad habit?
Choose to jog, eat less sugar, or visit a therapist.
Do you want to restore your spouse’s faith in your ability to provide a stable income?
Choose to get a second job, work extra hours for a promotion, or rob Fort Knox.
It’s up to you.
All of life’s problems are solved first by the pursuit of a simple, physical reality.
Then comes the deeper stuff.
This truth applies both to life and storytelling, and authors must respect it if they want to keep readers turning pages and wanting more.
Every deep goal must be “marked” by the pursuit of a clear and empathetic physical goal.
Otherwise your reader will lose track of the story’s journey, lose interest, and lose your book in a pile of bills, obligations, and other books by better authors.
Story Secret #2: Plan and Pursue a Physical Goal
Just like Story Secret #1, “Focus on Change,” the solution to this problem is to plan early and intentionally.
In fact, goals should be the first character trait you plan and draft.
Seriously – does a character’s hair color really matter when it comes to pursuing his/her goal?
Does fingernail chewing, or eye-batting, or any other “quirk” we like to give our characters, really matter at first?
Sure, these are lovely details to add – but just like curtains in a room, or a paint job on a car, they are merely decorative notes that must add to a functioning system. If the house doesn’t stand or the car doesn’t run, then the curtains and paint don’t matter.
The function of a story is to show change that comes through the protagonist’s pursuit of a physical goal.
If you are starting a new story, then this strategic planning is a fun and obvious place to begin.
If you are mid-story, a strategic redesign of your protagonist may be required. First, ask yourself (or your readers) these 3 questions:
- Is it clear, within the first 5% of the story, what the protagonist wants?
- Is that goal physically attainable?
- Does the protagonist then make choices to physically pursue it?
If the answer to any of these question is “No,” then a redesign is required.
Thankfully, it isn’t a terribly painstaking process.
Rather, analyze the goals you currently have in place – however deep they may be – and consider the physical “symbols” or “markers” that can give the protagonist something to do.
“Accepting oneself,” a wildly abstract goal, could be tied to a physical sign of self-approval, like a certificate, a trophy, or a handshake from an authority figure.
“Getting over [insert wound here],” also deeply emotional and abstract, could be tied to visiting a gravesite, confronting a tormentor, or stepping into a dangerous setting in spite of ones fears.
All of these actions are physical, but are linked to deeper wants and needs.
Believe me: This is what readers want.
They want to watch characters chase their goals.
They want to want with the characters, because readers are infinitely willing to extend their compassion to fictional beings of an author’s design.
But readers must be respectfully guided along the way. They need to be shown, over and over again, the protagonist’s goals through physical choices – and the best way to do that is through the pursuit of a physical goal.
So what will you do?
Will you be like Rick?
Will you defend your “deep” stories until you’re blue in the face and bereft of all faithful readers?
Or will you put your readers’ needs first and give them the story they want?
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, for FREE in The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week with Reason #3!
What do you think? Could it really be as simple as adding a physical goal to your story? Share your thoughts in the Comments below!