Recently, I wrote about replacing an outline for my fiction with a Product Backlog. The Product Backlog begins with a Product Goal. The Product Goal guides the emergence of the items in the Product Backlog. What is a Product Goal, and how do you develop one?
In her book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about finding the “spine” for a new work. It starts as the “initial impulse for the core of a ballet.” She goes on to describe it this way:
The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to employ this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.
That’s what you’re aiming for when creating the Product Goal for your new work: a high-level description of the story you intend to create. It serves as a target for you to plan against. It contains the basic information that guides you as you refine your idea and develop your story.
The goal doesn’t emerge fully formed like Athena from the grow of Zeus. Tharpe writes, “Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea” and has to be developed into the concrete statement. For my current work-in-progress, the first strong idea came from a murder I heard about. The victim’s family believed that her boyfriend killed her — but the boyfriend had disappeared, and the case remained unsolved. It rattled around in my brain and one day, this thought popped out:
What if they find the boyfriend’s corpse with evidence that he was killed first?
That was my “first strong idea.” But there wasn’t a plot yet — only the suggestion that there are two murders to be solved. Nor did I have any characters — only a vague “they.” For the story to come alive, I need a focus character. I don’t need the character’s history, appearance, or even a name yet. What I need is to answer three questions:
· What does the character want?
· What’s stopping her from getting it?
· What will she risk to get it?
It can take me anywhere from an hour to a half a day to explore those questions until I settle on answers that excite me. Sometimes, exploring them makes me realize that I’m not enthused by the idea, after all. Better to discover that early than after a month of dragging myself through a manuscript!
For my current story, I came up with these answers:
· The character is the murdered woman’s little sister. She never believed the boyfriend was the killer. When she hears that his corpse has been found, she wants to solve both murders.
· What’s stopping her? She’s not a detective. She’s not even a cop. She doesn’t have the skills or resources to solve a murder. And several people in her life try to stop her investigation for reasons they won’t reveal.
· What will she risk? She’s so driven to solve the crimes that she will risk alienating her family and her fiancée.
With those notes in hand, I crafted a goal that also serves as a synopsis:
A young woman finds out that the boy who supposedly killed her sister was already dead at the time. She risks alienating her family and her fiancée to find out who committed both murders.
With a clear goal in mind, I could start figuring out how to tell the story. I’ll write about using the Product Goal to develop and refine a Product Backlog in a future post.
(Quoted material is from the Kindle Edition of The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharpe.)