If you’ve ever heard me lecture, or ever read almost anything I’ve written, you’ve heard me talk about Outer Motivation — a clear finish line that the hero is desperate to cross by the end of the story.

All fiction is built on the emotional power of DESIRE and CONFLICT. And almost all successful movies and novels define a VISIBLE goal that the hero or protagonist is desperate to achieve. The pursuit of this goal defines your story concept, determines plot structure, and is the necessary through-line from which your hero’s INNER journey – and your story’s theme – will emerge.

This concept forms the foundation of my entire approach to story. Yet what sounds like a simple principle often proves difficult to master. Too often a writer’s desire to simply portray a character, or to plumb the depths of the story’s deeper message and meaning, lead to meandering or commercially thin stories that will never capture the readers’ emotional involvement.

So here’s a checklist to determine if your own hero’s outer motivation is providing the foundation your story requires….

Here’s a checklist of the necessary qualities of your hero’s OUTER MOTIVATION:

  1. Is my Outer Motivation VISIBLE? Stating an outer motivation must immediately conjure a specific image of what that would look like on the screen. And the image must be the same for anyone who hears it. So if you say your hero’s outer motivation is to be a success, or even to be a successful football coach, I won’t know exactly what that looks like. I might imagine it means getting a job coaching a pro football team, and another person might guess it means winning a big game. Until you can state it in a way that everyone pictures the resolution to the story in the same way, it’s not defined enough. That’s why REMEMBER THE TITANS is about a coach who wants to win the state football championship. Because my image of his team going to the playoffs and ultimately winning the championship game will be essentially the same as anyone else’s.Even if you’re a novelist, you’re not off the hook here. Your story may not be projected on a screen, but your job is very much to create vivid images of what happens to your characters. So think in terms of what your hero’s outer motivation would look like on the screen if it were adapted to film. If that image isn’t essentially the same for all your readers, if success for your hero isn’t clearly defined in visible terms, your outer motivation is still weak.
  2. Does my hero pursue her Outer Motivation until the end of the story? The goal your hero’s after cannot be resolved until the climax of your novel or film. So don’t think just in terms of your hero’s initial desire. Think about the ultimate resolution of your story. Actually, the hero of a screenplay begins pursuing the Outer Motivation at the beginning of Act 2. But from then on, the journey builds all the way to the climax.
  3. Does the Outer Motivation define my hero’s OUTER journey? If the goal is a state of fulfillment, acceptance or growth, that’s in inner journey, related to character arc, growth and them. So in AKEELAH AND THE BEE, winning a spelling bee is her Outer Motivation. Feeling successful, proving herself and overcoming her self doubt (even though they are also goals she pursues) are not, since none of those creates the specific, consistent image that defines the film’s story concept.
  4. When my hero accomplishes the Outer Motivation, will the movie be over? In RAIN MAN, Charlie Babbitt wants to kidnap his brother. This goal is visible, and creates a clear, consistent image. But the movie won’t be over until he achieves his ultimate Outer Motivation: to get his half of Raymond’s inheritance. Kidnapping him is just one of the means he will use to accomplish that goal (or not, depending on whether or not he’s successful).
  5. Is my hero’s Outer Motivation nearly impossible to accomplish? If the desire is easy to achieve – if it isn’t the most difficult thing the hero has ever had to do – your story simply won’t be emotionally involving or entertaining enough.

This checklist doesn’t include all of the elements of Outer Motivation, or all the variables. Many novels and movies have dual or multiple heroes, each with his or her own objective. In some stories – Romantic Comedies for example – the hero is pursuing two simultaneous visible goals. In a few stories, like THE HOURS, DRIVING MISS DAISY or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, the hero – or heroes – pursues a series of “finish lines.” But very rare – and to be avoided – are stories where there is no clearly defined Outer Motivation at all. Using the litmus test above should insure your story doesn’t fall into that group.