Writing Tips – The Hero’s First Goal, Success or Failure?

WritingHintsPhotoThis is part six of a series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See first post), and we are now on #8.

8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure: The hero needs something to do from the very beginning, a goal to achieve, whether it is big or small. The initial goal is usually something that is within the boundaries of his ordinary world, and showing success or failure is an important step in developing the character’s qualities early on so the reader can witness progress.

If the hero/heroine is a student, maybe she has to pass a crucial test. Maybe an athlete is training for a big game or match. A mother has a sick child, and she is seeking medical help. An entrepreneur’s new business opens soon, and he is getting ready for the launch. These are all within the character’s ordinary world, and they give the character something to do.

The manner in which the character reacts to success or failure defines his current state of mind and inner heart. It is a baseline that allows the character to reveal what he is made of, and the reader will be interested in seeing how the character changes.

For example, in Reapers, Phoenix knows that someone in his territory is dying. He needs to find this person. He also hopes to bring healing instead of just performing his soul-collecting duties. Healing is his initial goal, and it is part of his ordinary world.

Success or failure in achieving the initial goal usually leads to the crisis event I discussed in the previous post. I find it much easier to allow the hero to fail, because failure lends itself to crisis more readily than does success. Yet, success can also achieve the same purpose if completing the task creates unexpected consequences that lead to a crisis event.

The crisis event creates a new goal, and this goal is often the story’s big goal that drives the hero forward for the rest of the tale (we will discuss exceptions in later tips).

For example:

(***Spoiler Alert***) In Reapers, Phoenix finds the dying soul, a girl named Molly, but his efforts to heal her fail. Because the antagonist learns that medical help was provided (which is against the law), the failure leads to a crisis that brings about a new goal.

First, the failure:

Molly’s eyes opened. She blinked at Alex, then at her family. She smiled weakly for a moment, whispered an almost imperceptible “I love you,” then closed her eyes and fell limp. Her head lolled to the side, and she breathed no more.

Fiona sobbed. Colm pulled her close and stroked her back. Colleen just stared, her mouth hanging open.

Her eyes still flickering, Alex rose and backed away from the bed. “Reaper … her soul awaits.”

I boiled inside. This devilish woman had ushered death into the room, just as surely as if she had opened a coffin and rolled out the corpse. But I couldn’t let anger get in the way. I had to do my job.

The realization of the crisis and the new goal:

I crept to the front of Colm’s house, Sing following, and leaned over the edge of the roof. At the entry steps, the door opened, and Alex’s voice rose from below.

“Pack one small suitcase for each member of your family. The bus will come for you soon, so get ready quickly. And don’t try to escape. I already have someone watching your house.”

“Bus?” Sing whispered.

“A camp bus. She’s sending them to corrections.” I heaved a sigh. “I guess I don’t have any choice. I shouldn’t have left them alone with her in the first place.” I snapped the spool from my belt and handed Sing the weighted end of the line. “If you’ll anchor this to your belt, I’ll drop down and—”

“No.” Sing grabbed my arm. “You can’t.”

I looked again at the steps below. Alex appeared, slowly descending.

“Colm and Fiona are too old for the camp,” I hissed. “They’d never survive.”

Phoenix’s new goal is created by the crisis, birthed by his failure. He now needs to rescue this family from the corrections camp, and this becomes a longer-term goal, which is not part of his ordinary world. This is new and different, and it forces him to leave his normal life. While in his ordinary world, he was satisfied with performing his duties and occasionally violating protocol in order to offer help. Yet, he did not try to break the system that created the death and misery around him. He thought himself incapable of such a huge task.

Because of the crisis, he is pushed harder to do more than his customary duties. He now must challenge the system itself, though his next goal is still smaller than breaking the entire system. He just wants to rescue this family. Yet, as you might expect, that goal leads to an even bigger one.

You can apply these principles in your own story:

  • The initial goal ends in failure or success.
  • That failure or success leads to a crisis event that drastically alters or destroys the hero’s ordinary world.
  • The crisis creates a new goal for the hero to achieve.
  • The new goal takes the hero on a journey from the ordinary world into an exciting adventure.

This tip concludes the basic principles of the opening sequences of a hero’s journey story – The Hero’s Ordinary World.

Next week, I will begin a new series that looks at creating an emotional connection between the reader and the hero.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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7 replies

  1. I just wanted to say great post today. Unfortunately I don’t have anything too major to say today.

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  2. This tip is particularly fascinating. A good one to end on.

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  3. Great tips, as always! Looking forward to the next series. 🙂

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  4. There are great hero’s journey tips over at Kal Bashir’s website – 2100 of them.

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