I've been thinking a lot lately about the story goal. Not the goal of the book, which is a completely different ball of cheese, but the goal of the story, the why behind the plot, the burning desire that drives the characters, always, to the next step along the way. What do they want to accomplish? What, in the end, is the one thing that matters?
This is why people turn pages and keep reading, to find out if the goal is reached. Because of this, it is important to establish the goal early, strongly, and with enough sense of urgency that the story goal becomes the reader's goal.
They invest. Investing is very, very good.
I've read some books that do this amazingly well, and I find that they are impossible to put down. I have also, unfortunately read books where the story goal is not clearly defined, or not emphasized enough, or early enough to really come to the forefront.
If I'm reading chapter six and I'm not sure what the characters want, I might be in trouble.
I think (not an expert here, this is all opinion, right?) that a lot of new writers get very lost in world building. They spend a good amount of time on character creation, getting to know the cast, understanding them and making them real. This is all good. But I think sometimes the bones of a story can get lost in the volume of material that may or may not be necessary.
As authors, we love our worlds, we make friends (or enemies) with our characters. We're already invested. So there is a danger of getting too attached to these aspects, of loving spending time with them so much that we assume a reader will love just hanging out with them too. Wandering through our world meeting cool characters is great, but without a strong, established story goal right out of the gate, the story gets boring fast.
There's no sense of urgency. And that, a sense of having to go on or else, is what makes the story gripping. No matter how cool everything else is. It is the story goal, not the trappings and cast, that make tension, conflict and pace. Because even if we wander aimlessly through a cool world at a dead run, the story will still feel slow if we aren't being chased by something dastardly, or running toward something we will die without.
The story goal.
The stakes, the conflict, the tension, all come from the one thing, the core desire, that we've convinced our reader must happen or else all is lost.
This is why the characters do everything they do. It's why the world turns, why the page turns. There's a real skill to getting the bones right, and I wish I could say that I didn't still have a lot to learn. Maybe that's why I've been thinking about it so much.
Time to practice.