In every story plot and movie plot, the protagonist (and for that matter, all of the major characters) has at least one long-term goal in the story, and one small goal or more in every scene. Goals give definition to the overall story that unfolds moment-by-moment in scene.
Every story begins with a protagonist who wants something. Creating this want or long-term goal for the protagonist presents a particular challenge for many writers, but nonetheless is an important issue to address. The long-term goal sets up the forward movement of the story. This is the front story and is also referred to as the Dramatic Action plot.
Whether stated in so many words, an author who knows clearly what the protagonist is going after is more apt to stay focused. Ultimately, this will translate to the reader or moviegoer. A reader who knows what is at stake in the story is more able to closely connect and become involved with the characters and better able to calculate the progress the protagonist is making toward success or failure.
For example, in Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, Reverend Stephen Kumalo learns at the beginning of the story that his sister in Johannesburg is ill. He states his goal when he decides to go to her and, while there, to search for his son Absalom who left home for Johannesburg and never returned.
Keep in mind, however, that often the goal the character begins the story with changes before the story has progressed very far, typically toward the end of the first quarter of the story. This occurs because of the very nature of the end of the beginning of most stories, which is to signal the end of what has always been and to catapult the protagonist into the heart of the story world. Hence, the character enters the middle of the story with a revised long-term goal.
In our example, about one quarter of the way though the story - the end of the beginning - the Reverend learns his son has been arrested for murder. At this point, his goal of helping his sister and of searching for his son changes to staying in Johannesburg to understand and help his son.
An engaging character with a long-term goal is not enough, however. To create excitement, something must stand in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal. Without this element, there is no conflict, tension, suspense or curiosity. For action-driven stories like thrillers, mysteries, and suspense, the antagonist(s) standing in the way of the protagonist may be big and overt such as the "bad guy." For fiction writing that is more character-driven, the antagonist(s) may be internal, i.e. flaws, fears, and prejudices. A balanced story has both.
Continuing with Cry, the Beloved Country as an example, the reverend has as antagonists a combination of expectations and judgments that collide with his son's refusal to be found, the plight of his sister, and the racial and ethnic segregation of South Africa in 1946.
A good movie plot and story plot that involves a goal with antagonists standing in the way also requires one more goal element. The protagonist must stand to lose something important if he is not successful at achieving his long-term goal. The more substantial the potential loss, the higher the stakes.
In our example, after Reverend Stephen Kumalo finds his son Absalom, his long-term goal becomes more figurative than literal. Stephen sees Absalom for the first time in prison where Absalom has been arrested for killing a white man. Unless Stephen is able to find meaning in his son's actions, the Reverend stands to lose his faith.
Sometimes the long-term overall story goal is something the protagonist dreams of having. Dreams are things we wish for, things we enjoy thinking about, but not necessarily things we can attain by ourselves. Goals can come from dreams. Goals are under our control; they are quantifiable and measurable. Dreams involve a bit of magic and/or outside help.
After you determine the long-term goal for your protagonist, write it down and tape it somewhere so you will see it daily. If you do not know the long-term goal for the protagonist, tape up a blank card and wait for inspiration to hit.
Your protagonist has a long-term goal, one that really matters and is fraught with formidable adversaries. Now, ask yourself what is the character's goal in each and every scene?
Short-term goals are specific tasks, objectives, or actions your protagonist decides he needs to accomplish within a clearly defined period of time in order to achieve his long-term goal. If the long-term goal helps define the Dramatic Action plot, these short-term goals help define the Character Emotional Development plot. Each time the character reacts to his short-term goal successes or failures, it deepens the moviegoer or reader understanding of who the character really is.
Throughout the first quarter of the story, the protagonist is typically shown on merely a surface level with his mask and disguise in place to protect the softer and more vulnerable underbelly. As the stakes in the middle of the story rise, the character is forced to reveal more and more of who he is beneath the surface. After the character is hit with the Crisis, he may, or may not, begin to actually be changed by the action. When the dramatic action changes the character over time, the story becomes thematically significant.
For the Reverend Stephen Kumalo to achieve his goal of finding his son Absalom, he must first take the train to Johannesburg. In order to create conflict, tension and suspense in the next scene, the author shows us all of the Reverend's fears: of the city, for the fate of his family members, of his ability to adjust to the changes around him. In other words, just as the long-term goal that lasts for the duration of the story has antagonists, every scene goal has antagonists, both internal and external, that block the protagonist at every turn.
With the use of a Scene Tracker or some other tracking method, you can chart all the various scene goals and the effect on the character's emotional development. This sort of tracking device helps you pace your story and ensures that the stakes steadily rise in intensity throughout the story.
The protagonist may or may not achieve the short-term scene goal in any particular scene. What matters is that the short-term goal launches the scene and grounds not only you, the writer, but also your reader or movie-goer, who knows what is at stake - for the time being anyway - and what to root for.
Stephen's short-term scene goals in Cry, the Beloved Country move from traveling to Johannesburg, to finding the Mission House in Sophiatown, to locating Msimangu (a young, black Anglican priest), to finding his sister and finding his brother. Each scene goal marches Stephen closer and closer to his long-term goal. He may or may not achieve each of the short-term goals. What matters is that he wants something, which ultimately defines his emotional development.
Clearly articulated goals, both long and short-term, help keep you and the piece grounded and deliberate. In that way, the plot remains clearly defined throughout the story.