Chaining and nesting goals

If you've ever done the lesson on Prepositional Phrases (you should, it's good!) you'll remember the concept of chaining and nesting.

Goals have a similar property: they can be chained and nested.

Chaining goals: One thing leads to another

We've seen how from an initial trigger, one goal can lead to another.

If you repeat this, you get a continuous chain of action. For example:

  • Trigger: You wake up in a cell in a mysterious dungeon. 
  • First goal: Break out of the cell.
  • Next goal: Evade the guards.
  • Next goal: Escape the dungeon.
  • Next goal: Find your friends.
  • Next goal: Etc...

That's one way to look at goals.

Nesting goals: One small thing to achieve something larger

Another way to look at goals is in terms of overarching goals and sub-goals. For example:

  • Trigger: You wake up in a mysterious dungeon.
  • Main goal: Overthrow the usurper and restore the Queen to the throne.
  • Goal 1: Get out of this castle.
    • Sub-goal 1: Break out of this cell.
    • Sub-goal 2: Evade the guards.
    • Sub-goal 3: Escape through the sewers.
  • Goal 2: Find your friends and make a plan.
    • Sub-goal 1: Return to The White Feather Inn. 
    • Sub-goal 2: Put out the call.
    • Sub-goal 3: Etc...
  • Goal 3: Conduct a raid on the Royal Palace.
  • Goal 4: Etc...

Notice that you could stretch all these goals out like a chain, but you can also see how they can be grouped.

The difference is intention

Both of these models can be true at the same time, the main difference is around context and intent.

  • If a character sets goals in reaction to whatever happens as a result of their previous goal, without any overarching plan, then the goals will feel chained.
  • If the character has a bit more of a big picture view, some context, and a rough plan, and they set goals in order to achieve that larger goal, then the goals will naturally feel nested in a hierarchy.

It's an important note that in stories, we generally prefer some nesting, because otherwise the story can feel a bit too random and pointless.

If you look at a lower-level or immediate goal and ask, "Why are you doing this?" then you'll often find the answer will kind of jump up a level in the nesting. For example:

Why are you crawling in this sewer?

So I can escape the castle.

Why do you want to escape the castle?

So I can overthrow the usurper and restore the Queen.

But if we keep going:

Why do you want to overthrow the usurper and restore the Queen?


Which is how we get to the question of motivation!