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From the first to last page, your protagonist should always have some kind of goal. Maybe that goal won't be the same on the first page as it is on the last—and that's okay. What's important is the characters leading your story are always leading somewhere, because they want to accomplish something.
Without that goal, you tend to get a story with a meandering plot. The characters will walk around and stumble into plot-affecting even rather than creating or chasing those events down themselves. This slows the pacing down considerably because your characters are never after anything, they're just reacting, so there's little build up to the events that make the story turn.
This is why, when plotting, I frequently like to start with the protagonist and their goal. Even if that goal changes throughout the course of the book—which is not uncommon with my manuscripts—it gives me a starting point to build the rest of the plot around. If I know what the protagonist wants, I can immediately plan out the tension and conflict—the protagonist not getting what they want, and their struggle to try to get it.
So whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it's often a good idea to figure your protagonist's goal out and keep it mind as you write. After all, you'll never know where it'll take you until you try—and it's a lot easier to build it up the first time than it is to try to revamp it later.
When do you figure out your protagonists's goals?
Have you covered this compelling story key in your latest WIP? @Ava_Jae talks the importance of character goals. (Click to tweet)