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Micro-Lesson: Goal vs. Need by Jeff Bender

Posted Thu, 9/12/2019 - 9:45am by  |  Category: , , ,

There are a lot of names for these two ideas. Whatever we call them, they can shape some of our biggest decisions as storytellers.

The Goal, or what Robert McKee (Story) calls the “conscious desire,” is the concrete and unconcealed thing that the hero wants. It’s something the hero will tell the reader or her fellow characters about in the first couple chapters.  

The goal of most spelling bee story heroes is to win the spelling bee; Jane Eyre’s goal is to run her own school where children are treated fairly. 

The goal of Ryan Bingham, in Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air, is to amass ten thousand frequent-flier miles. (In the movie version, the figure is updated to one million.)

Kirn himself, who taught me this concept, says that goals need not be sophisticated or even laudable—but they should be there for the reader to see.

In contrast, the Need, or the hero’s “subconscious desire” (McKee), is hidden from (but eventually sensed by) both the Hero and the reader. It’s abstract and almost always some form of “love.”

In the spelling bee story, the first grader’s goal might be to win the spelling bee, but her need (the thing she really needs, in other words) is to make a friend: She doesn’t have any. Maybe all the training and parent-pressure has ostracized her.

The need in Jane Eyre is a little more complicated: Jane’s need is to:

  1. 1. Find Rochester. (They’re estranged.)
  2. 2. Spend the rest of her life with him. 

She doesn’t like that she “needs” Rochester. Still, she abandons her goal and the prospect of marrying St. John Rivers and strikes out alone to find Rochester—not knowing how to get to him or whether she’ll survive the journey. It’s a great moment in the story.

Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) calls this The Road Back.

Ryan Bingham’s need in Up in the Air, according to Kirn, is to make a connection with someone. “He never does,” says Kirn. He’s constantly jetting off to a new city. (The movie poster shows the silhouette of a forlorn-looking George Clooney standing alone, waiting to board. The tagline: “The story of a man ready to make a connection.”) 

Family is a common need, which is why so many heroes, from Oliver Twist to Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, are orphans.

The interesting thing about goals and needs is that once you’ve determined what they are for your hero, you’ve walked into another big question:

Which of these (goal, need) will the hero achieve by the end?

Your answers will shape the type of story you’re writing.

 Feel-Good StoryOptimistic StorySad StoryDowner Story
Goalxx
Needxx

A lot of Disney movies and romantic comedies, by the above metric, classify as Feel-Good, where the hero achieves the goal and, a lot of times at the last minute, the need as well. (Think of Michael Douglas sailing in at the end of Romancing the Stone.)

The “Optimistic” story is a little more artful and nuanced. Still, when the hero gets the need but not the goal, we know he’ll be fine.

Up in the Air is an example of a “sad” story because while Bingham gets the ten thousand miles, he ends up alone, in first class, staring out the window of a plane.

McKee says that the choices you make when determining what to give your hero—both goal and need, goal-only, need-only, etc.—reflect your outlook on the world.

The more opposite these two forces, the better. If a move toward one takes the hero away from the other, then the two are working together to create an interesting and suspenseful story.

To learn more, join me in my six-week online class, Story Structure for Fiction Writers, beginning the week of September 21.


Jeff Bender is a graduate of Davidson College and Columbia’s School of the Arts. His fiction and humor have appeared in McSweeney’s Online TendencyElectric LiteratureOkey-Panky, the Iowa ReviewCity ArtsGuernica, and elsewhere. He’s a former Writers-in-the-Schools Resident and winner of Hugo House’s New Works Competition.