The GSU (goals, stakes, and urgency) method was mentioned in an article on ScriptShadow by Carson Reeves as a method of developing a screenplay – but it works great for novels, too!
Screenplay methods can often be applied to novel-writing. Jessica Brody adapted Save the Cat! (a well-known beat sheet for screenplays) into an excellent book on crafting novels – Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. I use that book all the time to plan out my own manuscripts and I will always shout about it.
The GSU method contains a lot of the components of crafting a good story as well, and I always refer to it when I’m helping writers with their projects. It might not be helpful for some genres (such as slow-burn books that don’t require a sense of urgency, or literary fiction), but for genre fiction such as thrillers, sci-fi, or fantasy, it can be so useful.
Breaking down goals, stakes, and urgency for novels
I’d argue that there’s an additional element to add to GSU for novels, which I’ll talk about in a bit. But it works well as it stands, if your novel is lacking in crucial plot elements such as character goals and personal and external stakes.
Let’s break down goals, stakes, and urgency for novels, and how you can use them to improve your story.
The goal is the what? of the narrative. What does your protagonist want and what’s the objective? What is the purpose of your character? A goal like this can help you to establish your novel’s hook (what the book is really about). The goal is a map of the story’s direction.
Character, plot, and the goal share a crucial relationship. Your main character is active in achieving a goal (something they really want) and fixing the problem of the story.
For example, Frodo’s goal and the overarching plot of The Lord of the Rings is to take the ring to Mordor and destroy it. Almost everything that happens along the way is linked to that goal in some way (although there are definitely scenes that are more about character-building and world-building).
Think about what you want the goal of your story to be. Is it to defeat a villain? To save a place from destruction or war? To get the girl (or guy)? A goal is crucial in giving your story a sense of purpose and drive. Without a goal, you get false tension. This means you have a lot of disconnected events, and even if there is conflict within them (such as fighting, arguing, or battles), those events still won’t feel purposeful or clearly linked by cause and effect. Readers are then left wondering what the “point” of the story is.
The stakes are the why? of the story. Why do your characters want and need to achieve this goal? What’s the outcome if they fail?
Stakes work best when they are both overarching and personal. Stakes strengthen what the goal created, and turn a characters’ want (goal) into a need. They tell us why we should care about the story and what exactly is on the line.
To use the Lord of the Rings example again, Frodo needs to take the ring to Mordor. If he doesn’t, the world of Middle Earth (overarching stakes) and his home of the Shire (personal stakes) will fall to darkness, being either destroyed or controlled by Sauron, the antagonist of the story.
Make sure you create overarching and personal stakes. This will allow your readers to be invested. They’ll care about your story and the plight of your characters if the stakes are high.
This is the when? of the story. When does the goal need to be achieved?
Creating a deadline for your goal can provide a ticking clock. This makes readers feel like they’re on a ride. They’ll be keen to read on to find out what happens next. A sense of urgency creates a page-turner.
You can create smaller deadlines within a larger one. Frodo has to get the ring to Mordor before the enemy takes the ring from him (or he falls under its influence himself). But within that, he has to leave the Shire before the ringwraiths catch up to him, as they’re hot on his tail.
Another ingredient to the goals, stakes, and urgency method for novels
If you’re writing a novel, there’s something else you need to think about that will complement the above.
Conflict and obstacles
Every story has conflict and obstacles. These are the things that will stop your character from reaching their goal. What hurdles do they need to overcome to accomplish the story’s goal?
These obstacles can be personal (such as a viewpoint or mindset that holds them back, or a position in society), or more concrete (enemies that chase them down or attack). Without conflict and obstacles, your characters could end up having it too easy, and the story won’t be compelling to read.
Be sure to place plenty of obstacles in your character’s way. Don’t make things it easy for them to reach the goal!
Have you tried any methods of story planning inspired by screenwriting, be it this one or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel? I’d love to know how they helped you.
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