The Wandering Hero: No Goal, No Plot, No Chance
by John Robert Marlow
Imagine, if you will, a lead character who wanders aimlessly through 120 (or 300) pages, with no particular destination in sight. As an editor, I don’t have to imagine it; I see it again and again—and yet again. The aspiring author sits down to write, and does—with no purpose in mind save following the exploits of their lead character. Trouble is, not every lead is worth following.
And therein lies the problem.
PSSST, HEY BUDDY…
Let’s say someone comes up to you in a bookstore, or outside a theater—perhaps even someone you find quite charming. And they say, “Hey dude, come with me, let’s hang out.” The first things you’ll want to know, of course, are where he wants to go and what he wants to do. So you ask. “I dunno,” he answers. Would you be inclined to go with him?
Or let’s say he comes back with this: “I thought maybe we could wander around aimlessly for the next seven hours and, who knows, maybe have some fun?” Chances are, you’d turn him down flat. First off, you don’t know this guy (as an agent, editor or producer doesn’t know you)—and for all you know, his idea of fun is jumping off the Empire State Building without a parachute (just as an agent, editor or producer has no idea what kind of story you consider worth telling). At least he’s not asking you to pay him for the pleasure of his company.
Without a solid concept consisting of a Who (your lead character or hero), a Goal (something he or she sets out to accomplish), and an Obstacle (which must be overcome in order to reach the Goal)—you’re going to look (to that same agent, editor, or producer) an awful lot like the guy you just met. With one difference: you’re planning to charge for the experience.
THE CRUCIAL QUESTION
To be worth following, a lead character must lead. Not blindly, but with purpose.
Think back over your favorite books and movies. Now ask yourself the same question about each: what is the hero trying to accomplish—his goal, desire, or mission? Is it to get the girl, rob a bank, escape the bad guy—what? Another way to phrase the same question: does the hero succeed or fail at the end? Because once you know what he’s succeeded or failed at, you’ll know his goal.
Without even knowing what your favorite books or movies are, I can state with absolute certainty that—if those stories were commercially successful—then 999 times out of a thousand, you’ll be able to answer that question. Why? Because as a general rule, stories with aimless heroes do not get bought, published, or made into movies.
In those few cases where this does actually happen, those books and movies are almost invariably—by money-making standards—miserable failures. And while an established author or filmmaker’s career might survive such a debacle, the beginning creator’s career may not.
If your lead character is to be worth following, he must be moving toward something. That something is the goal. Without this, plot cannot exist. No plot means no story, means no audience. End of story (if there was one). With no goal, there can be no consistent obstacle for the hero to confront and overcome. (Think back to the obstacles in those same favorite stories.) No obstacle means no conflict—which again means no story.
And so, instead of guiding your would-be audience through a real story, you (and they) wind up stranded in…
What you get instead is a meandering collection of random events connected by nothing more than the lead character’s presence at the time they take place. And while you may believe that the force of your hero’s magnetic personality is strong enough to overcome this—it’s not. In fact, chances are the hero is no hero, but is instead as deficient as the nonexistent plot itself.
The reason is simple: people who wander aimlessly through life with no overall purpose, no particular goal, no burning desire they feel compelled to fulfill—are, quite simply, boring. It makes no difference whether they’re trust-fund brats or street people; dull is dull. Even if they’re fascinating in the short run—funny, charming, whatever—in the long run they will inevitably come off as shallow and (because of that) ultimately uninteresting. At best, they’re fun in small doses. Books and screenplays are not small doses.
In the case of a fictional character (or even a real person in a true-life story) with no goal, there’s nothing for the reader or audience to get behind, nothing to root for, no ultimate satisfaction in seeing something achieved—because there is nothing to be achieved. It’s like being lost in the desert without compass, map—or desire to get out. You just keep plodding along until you drop. No one’s going to buy that. And if you publish it yourself, no one’s going to read it. Better you find out now than later. Because of the thousands of stories I’ve encountered, I’ve seen no exception to this rule.
Now, your hero can–to a certain extent–be aimless and carefree at the very beginning of the story. (Even in such cases, there’s often a glimpse of some redeeming quality early on.) But the hero then finds his goal and struggles to attain it, embarking on this journey at the turn of the first act. And he’d better be a damned interesting fellow regardless, all through that act.
THE PITCH FROM HELL
How do you pitch something like that? Probably with something like this: “Well, it’s about this guy, and he…” And already you’ve lost them. For good examples of pitches from hell, think back to Miles explaining his unpublished novel to Maya in the Sideways movie, or (more recently) Eddie explaining the plot of his unpublished manuscript to the guys sitting at the bar in the Limitless movie. Miles gets lost, and Eddie seems to bore even himself.
Do not pitch a work that has no plot; it has no chance of success, and it might even get the door slammed in your face when you try to come back with something better. Don’t do it.
REPLOTTING THE PLOTLESS
Your best bet, if you already have (or think you may have) a work like this, is to step back and reassess. Take a look at the Story Development for Writers series on this blog. Once you’ve finished the series, reevaluate your story to see how it measures up.
If it doesn’t, decide whether you feel the story is important enough to rework. If not, move on and do better next time. If you do decide to rework it, follow the recommended steps in laying the groundwork for the revision or rewrite. You can tackle that alone, or seek professional help. The next time around, you won’t have to rework things in this way, or to this extent—because you’ll lay the foundation before you start writing.
The first story—like the first million—is always the hardest.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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