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The 5-step technique for setting S.M.A.R.T. Story Goals 

 November 13, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

A hero's S.M.A.R.T. Story Goals are what propel their story through each key plot point, but there are some Goals a character should fail. Or abandon. Or adjust. 

Whether GMCs are ubiquitous old hat for you or a new storytelling tool you're just learning to explore, they are ultra-important to your character's journey. 

Where Void sets the tone for a hero's characterization...

And Need empowers the hero's mindset shift in their story,

Goals create the framework for moving the hero through each phase of that psychological and emotional transformation.

Story Goals: The Character Void Funnel by Sue Brown-Moore

And one of the most powerful techniques for showing a character's personal evolution is to set up two separate Story Goals that the hero commits to pursuing: one at the start of the story and one at the end. 

In today's article, we'll wrap up our training series on the Emotional Gap Funnel by discussing:

  • why Goals matter (and what they truly represent in a story)
  • how to differentiate a Story Goal from a character goal
  • how to set up two separate Story Goals to guide your hero's growth arc (and when a character should fail, abandon, or adjust a Goal)
  • an example of what these two Story Goals look like in a real story (continuing my example of young Sue)
  • the S.M.A.R.T. technique for establishing Goals that can simplify your story and empower your writing (if you only read one section of this article, it should be this one!)
Setting SMART Goals: Why goals matter

Why (character & story) Goals matter

Imagine a story where the hero just sort of went about their daily life with no real purpose or spark. We might follow along as they snooze the alarm clock, cook breakfast, bike to work, trudge along through their day, then head back home for some Netflix and a junk-food dinner. Then, the next morning, our hero goes through that same daily routine all over again. 

If something happens to break this daily pattern, we could be reading the start of an interesting story. But the story will only gain momentum if the character makes a decision and chooses to pursue some new something in their life.

The Emotional Gap Funnel - Story Goal

You've probably heard that the simplified definition of a story is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But what does that really mean? In character-driven fiction, the hero's journey of transformation is the story. And in romance, the hero's transformation is almost always a growth arc. So the beginning, middle, and end of that growth arc should look something like this:

Phase 1 (The Beginning): The hero chooses a path to walk and takes actions toward their initial chosen destination.

Phase 2 (The Middle): The hero begins to personally evolve by walking this path.

Phase 3 (The End): The hero chooses their final destination and pursues it with intent.

Example of a character growth arc in a story

In Phase 1, the "destination" can be physical, emotional, or psychological. This destination might require the hero to walk a new path, or they may need to double down on an existing direction for a specific reason. The hero's change arc begins in this phase when they realize why they need to change.  

In Phase 2, the hero's evolution could begin to take shape through a decision to change paths and head in a different direction. Or their transformation may require them to stick to their path despite challenges and obstacles. This is where the hero's change arc is justified, where they understand how they need to change.

In Phase 3, the hero takes risks and makes personal sacrifices to reach their final destination. This is how they demonstrate that they have grown into a smarter, stronger, or more empathetic version of their earlier self. This final phase of the story is where the hero uses their knowledge of why and how to complete their evolution

The illustration above shows an example of the three phases as Story Acts. Sometimes, like in an urban fantasy or romantic suspense, the Story Acts may not directly line up with the three phases of the hero's transformation. That's a bit beyond the scope of this article, so just know that if you're writing a story where the romance is the point of the story and acts as the primary vehicle for a character's transformation (not just a supporting element), these three phases of character evolution usually serve as the story's three Acts.

The Goal signifies the hero's commitment to walking that path. A story is only interesting if something new and different happens to the character—else, we're just voyeurs in their mundane daily activities—so the hero's actions must establish that there is a purpose to the story itself.

These Goals are what capture a reader's attention and initially keep them reading. So how do you know what goals to set up for your hero's story? Let's start by understanding why not every "goal" is a capital-G Goal. 

Setting SMART Goals: Character goals vs Story Goals

The difference between a character goal and a Story Goal 

There are two types of "goals" that new writers get tripped up about:

  1. what the character wants to do
  2. and what the character is actively trying to do that is directly relevant to their personal growth arc.

In my article on Story Needs, we talked a little about how "false" Needs (Wants) can add depth to a story. In that example, the Story Need and character's "false" Need (their Want) are both closely tied to the content and pacing of the plot itself.   

But when I talk about character goals versus Story Goals, I mean the difference between goals that are relevant to the change arc and those that are simply desirable endpoint destinations.

Character goals—what they simply want to do—do not move the plot towards the story's important mindset shift (the Story Need). 

Story Goals—their growth-relevant efforts—directly challenge or empower the hero to either realize or embrace their Story Need mindset shift.

For example...

In the old fable about the boy who cried wolf, the purpose of the story is to teach the boy the importance of trust.  When he gives a false alarm that his flock is being attacked by a wolf, his goal is to amuse himself. This is story-relevant—a Story Goal— because it establishes distrust with the villagers, a key plot point which will eventually lead to him failing in his job as a shepherd.

But that shepherd boy probably has other personal goals during the timeframe of this story. He might be committed to cleaning up his room before his parents punish him for messy habits. He may be trying to earn the affection of another youngster in the village. Or he may even be trying to find a new career path for himself that he finds more fulfilling. 

But none of those set up the mindset shift of understanding the importance of establishing trust—his Story Need—so they are not story-relevant goals. These are what I call character goals. And while they are important to the off-page development of the character himself, they do not move your plot events forward in any meaningful way. 

If you're not sure what the connection between Story Goals and the Story Need are, check out this article for a more in-depth explanation.

Now that we're clear on what type of goals you need to set up for your hero, let's talk about the two plot locations where you need to position those Story Goals.

Setting SMART Goals: Early vs Late-Story Goals

Early Story Goals vs. Late-Story Goals

In our example of the boy who cried wolf, I mentioned that when the young shepherd gives the false alarm, his goal is to amuse himself. This is his Early Story Goal. By setting this goal for the hero, the story establishes the hero's pre-transformed state. His actions show us that he is selfish and naive.

But after a real wolf attacks his flock and no villagers come to his aid when he calls the alarm, the boy realizes he must protect his flock on his own. So that becomes his Late-Story Goal: to protect his sheep. By living through emotional experience of both sets of actions—the quick, empty rush of fooling the villagers, then the painful reckoning of watching his sheep slaughtered—the shepherd learns how vital trust is in a community where people must depend on one another for survival and success (his mindset shift, as defined by the Story Need).

Setting SMART Story Goals: Where the two sets go in a plot

These plot point locations are typical examples. Yours may look a little different, and that's okay.

Your story will probably have more depth and nuance than this simple fable example. But this example does illustrate how failing the Early Story Goal can be a crucial part of the hero's growth arc.

But your story might benefit from the hero adjusting or abandoning their Early Story Goal. 

  • A gymnast with aspirations for the Olympics may set an Early Story Goal that is unreachable in the time frame they have to achieve it. A 13-year-old gymnast may be talented enough to eventually make the team but not experienced enough in competitions to qualify this year. This hero may adjust her Late-Story Goal to something more in line with gaining competition experience rather than making the next Olympic team. Then, when she is a stronger competitor under pressure, she can set her Goal to qualify for a future Olympic team. This is an example of adjusting the Late-Story Goal.
  • A singer-songwriter who believes he must achieve super-stardom in order to make a living as a musician may set an Early Story Goal of winning a prestigious reality TV competition. But after participating in the rigors of the competition, he realizes that his strength is in writing the music rather than performing it, and he has begun to make connections with influential industry people who want him to write songs for them to perform. As he realizes that his happiest path forward is different than he originally thought, he abandons his initial goal of winning the competition and sets a new Late-Story Goal of booking songwriting work with his fellow contestants and the other industry execs he meets.      

Ready to see the Early and Late-Story Goals in action? In the next section, we'll revisit my example of young Sue and her flute solo opportunity and explore what Early and Late-Story Goals best fit her Void and Need.

If you struggle with figuring out exactly what Story Goals to set, don't skip my 4-step guideline for setting your hero's Early and Late-Story Goals!

Setting SMART Goals: A personal example of young Sue

Young Sue's Early and Late-Story Goals

My younger self's Story Void was autonomy, and my Story Need was to believe in myself, to realize and accept that my wants and desires mattered.

I was offered the opportunity to perform as a solo flutist at a choir exposition, and as the timeframe for this story starts, young Sue had already accepted this invitation and had begun to prepare for her performance in 4 weeks time.

An empty auditorium from the stage view

My high-level personal goal—what I wanted to achieve—was to perform perfectly at the concert. I knew I couldn't really control the outcome of a single live performance, but I could prepare myself so thoroughly that the music became second-nature. So I decided to practice my music piece every day for two hours until I could play it three times in a row from memory without mistakes. This was my Early Story Goal.

But as I got closer and closer to the group rehearsal date, I realized that not having access to the sheet music was a problem. While my hands knew the fingerings by heart, my mind kept getting distracted by outside interruptions. As the concert date grew closer, I had less and less confidence that I could complete the piece without errors (or even at all) unless I could look at my sheet music. 

At first, I panicked about this, worried that using a music stand would make me look like an amateur—something that future Juilliard students certainly would not do—but I realized that if I couldn't relax and have fun with the performance, what was the point? If being a professional flutist meant being stressed out all the time and constantly doubting myself, it wouldn't be a healthy career choice. 

After a disastrous rehearsal with the choir—where I forgot half my solo and nearly cried from embarrassment—I decided to allow myself a music stand with my sheet music. The quality of my overall performance was more important than one small detail that wasn't even a requirement anyway (no one said I had to play the piece from memory), and enjoying the experience was more important than performing perfectly. So I abandoned my original goal of performing perfectly and set a new Late-Story Goal of finding specific ways to get comfortable, enjoy the experience, and give myself the best chance to make a good impression with the choir and audience.

Through my failure to meet my own sky-high standards, I realized that...

  • I needed to think about my career differently. 
  • Being perfect all the time is impossible, but being happy in my pursuit of a high-quality performance would empower me in ways technical perfection never could.

This was the mindset shift that allowed me to meet my Story Need of believing in myself. And by believing in myself, I got even closer to filling my Void of autonomy. 

I hope my example about young Sue was more useful than confusing. And I hope it illustrates that stories about real people aren't always straightforward. Crafting a plot with depth, that challenges and empowers the hero to truly evolve, is rarely as simple as churning out one GMC statement.

So if you've been struggling with setting up Goals in your own stories, give yourself some breathing room. Crafting a deep story with emotional nuance is not always going to be easy.

The full emotional Gap Funnel: Void-Need-Goals

Try this top-down technique for goal-setting in your stories:

  • Start at the top of the Emotional Gap Funnel and really think about what your character's Void is.
  • Then follow the 4 steps to identify their specific Story Need.
  • Then narrow in on exactly what they need to do in the second half of their personal transformation in order to complete that ultra-important mindset shift (their Late-Story Goal). 
  • Then work backward. Identifying the Late-Story Goal will help you set up their Early Story Goal.

In the next section, we'll finish strong by learning the 5 S.M.A.R.T. components every Story Goal should have.

Setting SMART Goals: the SMART technique

The S.M.A.R.T. Goal technique

If you only read one section in this article, it should be this one. Here is the exact template you can use to craft every single Goal statement in your story planning process. The tighter your hero's Story Goals, the more finely you can tune your story's emotional beats. So here's how to set a S.M.A.R.T. Goal:

(S) Success is clearly defined +
(M) specific and measurable +
(A) concise and actionable +
(R) actively reaching for +
(T) time-limited and achievable in a specific time frame

Let's look at young Sue's Early Story Goal in this S.M.A.R.T. format.

I wanted to perform perfectly at the concert. But I knew this wasn't a realistic goal, because I can't guarantee I wouldn't make a mistake under pressure. So I set up a practice goal that would give me the best chance of performing perfectly:

Early Story Goal:

Play the music piece three times in a row from memory without making any mistakes. 

In S.M.A.R.T. terms, here's how to break down that Story Goal:

(S) Success is defined: Complete three high-quality practice run-throughs.

(M) Success is measurable and specific: The run-throughs must be done back to back, without music, and without mistakes.

(A) Success is actionable: I had a flute to practice on, sheet music to learn from, the technical skill to learn the piece, and a practice space to work within.  

(R) I was actively reaching for success: I committed to practicing every single day between accepting the opportunity and rehearsing with the choir.

(T) The goal required a specific limited time frame: I only had 4 weeks to practice and perfect my performance.

And that's all there is to it! If you struggle with filling in any of the 5 S.M.A.R.T. Goal components above, your plot may not be challenging enough for your hero's growth arc. Or, your story's time frame may not be urgent enough.

Think about how you can make your hero's goal more granular and specific. Ask yourself why those restrictions matter to the story and how you can adapt the plot to challenge your hero even more.

And be sure to go through this process for both Story Goals, Early and Late!

Setting SMART Goals: Leave a comment

Share your thoughts & leave a comment

I know every writer approaches story structure and writing technique differently, so I'd love to hear what you thought about my Emotional Gap Funnel technique. And feel free to share your own S.M.A.R.T. Goals for your WIP's hero in the comments below! Sometimes seeing someone else's ideas can trigger those transformative Aha! Moments in our own work.

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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  • This series is extremely helpful. My character’s want is for his professional life not to change even while that world is headed for oblivion. His need is obviously something different and probably more profound. Identifying that need so far has been a challenge

    • I’m so glad to hear the Emotional Gap Funnel series has been helpful! And yes, it sounds like you are on the right track with your hero. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out a character’s Void and Need, so give yourself some time to really iterate on those before trying to set up the Goals. You’ve got this, Tom!

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