Using Concrete vs. Abstract Objectives for your Story

Jul 24, 2021

One of the most important things for your story is to have an active (not passive) main character who has a clear, objective goal to pursue throughout the entire story. And yet, one of the most common problems that I see are stories with passive main characters who don’t drive the action of the story because they have no clear objective. To that end, I thought it might be helpful to clarify the differences between concrete and abstract objectives.


The best way to understand this is to evaluate objectives or goals in the context of New Year’s Resolutions. Every year people tend to make New Year's resolutions. And what do they do? Well, they often come up with nebulous, abstract goals that are impossible to pursue in any kind of concrete way. For example, they'll say things like, "Lose 20 pounds." Now, that’s not abstract per se, but it also isn’t actionable. What you must do is break this goal down into concrete action steps that can be taken to actually achieve it.


For example, if the goal is to lose 20 pounds, then what you need to identify the specific steps you’re going to take each day, such as: 1.) I’m going to walk for 1 mile every morning; 2.) I’m going to stop eating food after 7pm at night; 3.) I’m going to track my calorie intake and only consume 1800 calories per day. THESE are actionable steps that can help you achieve the desired goal. We don't want to identify the result without providing action steps or else the goal becomes abstract. And this is true for your characters as well. We don't do well with nebulous goals that don't have specific action steps attached to it that tell us how to get there.


When it comes to goals, then, the first thing you need to do is clearly identify what it is. But then, you need to come up with the action steps that can realistically be taken help you achieve that goal. Your goal is to lose 20 pounds? Great. Now, you come up with what you need to do in order to lose those 20 pounds. And notice that these are the goals you can gauge. If you decide that you’re going to go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to workout for an hour, that is a goal you can gauge. That is a goal you can monitor. You can see how you’re doing. It's not abstract. It's gone from the nebulous to the concrete.


Now, in addition to making the goal concrete, you need to figure out practical things that need to happen for you to even be able to pursue that goal. For example, with the goal to lose 20 pounds, it doesn't do any good to commit to going to the gym 3 times a week unless you secure a gym membership first. So, let's say you've got the gym thing figured out, but now you’ve got to figure out how to track your calories. How will you do that? What do you need? Maybe you need to download this app, and you need to make sure that you’re plugging everything into it that you’re going to eat during that day so that you can keep track of your calories. Or maybe you also need to get a little scale so you can weigh portions of food to make sure it's the right amount according to the app. These are additional “mini-goals” that need to be achieved to even pursue the bigger goal – and all of these are concrete, actionable/attainable goals.


See, if I just say I want to lose 20 pounds, but I don't put action steps in there, then there's no way for me to A.) be able to monitor how I'm doing, or B.) even really pursue the goal. It’s just dreaming, just fantasy. It doesn't play into anything because I'm not incorporating it or integrating it into my daily living. So, you want to make sure you break down character goals into these types of actionable steps.


Let’s look at another example. Let’s say your “goal” is to get closer to God this year. Okay, well, how are you going to do that? That's the overarching goal, but now you need concrete action steps, or mini goals, to achieve it. Maybe you decide you’re going to journal every night or read one chapter of the Bible each night before bed. THESE are the goals you can monitor and evaluate to see how well you’re doing – to see if you’re doing the steps necessary to achieve the goal. Now, these steps may or may not bring you closer to God at the end of the year, but at least you have something tangible to pursue to TRY to achieve this outcome. The first goal was too big and nebulous. These mini goals set you up for victory. In all you do, whether personally, or for your characters, set goals that can be pursued and achieved.


The bottom line is that your characters need a plan. They need specific action steps to pursue to achieve a goal. When they have an objective that they're pursuing, their mini objectives are really the various action steps that they're taking to accomplish the result that they're trying to achieve. So, what are the specific action steps that your characters need to take to achieve their goal? And keep in mind, they need to be logical as well as attainable. For example, the result of Harry Potter’s journey is ultimately to defeat Voldemort, but this is not something he could have done at the beginning. Each book becomes a mini objective in a series of action steps that Harry needs to grow into the wizard he must become to even take on Voldemort. He couldn't have done it in the beginning or all at once. Rocky Balboa couldn't have become the heavyweight boxing champion at the very beginning of the movie. He had to take certain action steps to prepare himself for that. You need to do the same thing for your characters. Give them action steps that are appropriate for where they're at in their development. Don't give them something too big that they can't chew. That undermines credibility.


Your main character needs to know what he wants. The want is the objective, the goal, that he pursues throughout the rest of the story. Therefore, the want must be specific because that's what is driving the action. The plot unfolds according to the choices your character makes to achieve his or her goal. Thus, your character needs to be clear about what he or she wants, as well as what specific action steps they must take to get what they want, and that’s how they will be able to gauge how well they're doing in terms of reaching their goal. At the end of the day, a clear, concrete, actionable objective is essential for the success of your story. Hopefully, this discussion has given you insight into how to make sure you have one.


Here's my latest article for The Write Conversation blog, an award-winning blog for writers where I have a monthly column. To read this month's article on The Write Conversation blog site, click here: USING CONCRETE VS. ABSTRACT CHARACTER OBJECTIVES FOR YOUR STORY, or simply read the article below


Concrete versus Abstract Character Objectives

Zena Dell Lowe

July 22, 2021