The literary agent Donald Maass has written: “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough; In fact, it is the primary reason I reject over 90 percent of the material I receive. Why do so many writers fail on this point? It is such a simple flaw to fix!”
All novels have a goal statement and a subsequent story question. The goal statement sets out what the protagonist wants. It is the one big question of the novel. For example: I want revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo). I want to escape to my home (Cold Mountain). I want to reclaim my honor (Lord Jim). I want to find my way (I am Charlotte Simmons). I want to find the killer (most all detective fiction). I want to find romance (most all romance novels.) Good fiction is goal motivated. When the writer makes clear the story goal—often by the hero saying it or thinking it—your reader grabs onto that stated goal.
The goal statement is turned into a story question. “Will he get revenge?’” is the story question for The Count of Monte Cristo. “Will he get home?” is the story question for Cold Mountain. “Will he reclaim his honor?” is the story question for Lord Jim. Will the protagonist find happiness? Will the treasure be found? Will the battle be won? Will the doctors find a cure in time? Will he get her to love him?
The story question is the main source of structural tension in a novel. It is the “main conflict” that Donald Maass talks about. This tension needs to be in place early. Readers want to know the story question right away, and successful novels make the story question clear early in the novel. This story question looms over the entire novel—providing the main source of tension—and is answered at the end of the novel, in the story’s climax.
If in the early pages of the novel, if the protagonist’s goal is unclear, then the story question is unclear, and so main source of structural tension in the novel isn’t yet in place. This tension should be evident—the tension caused by the story goal and question– early in the novel.
Let the reader know earlier what your protagonist wants. If in your thinking about the plot, she doesn’t have a clear goal, then consider inventing one, and making it clear to the reader early in the story, within a few pages of the novel’s beginning. It is critical that the story goal be made clear early in the novel.