How to write powerful stories using the GOATS method.

Great stories possess great power. Whether fiction, movies, TV or theatre, they have the power to move, to change people’s lives (and even to earn their writers a decent living).Goats - The Goats System for writing and editing by Charles Harris

I spent years trying to make my writing come to life. I read many theories about how stories work – but they either turned out to be too simplistic – or too complicated.

What finally transformed my own writing, turned out to be five key steps.

They lie at the heart of all effective storytelling in any medium. If you’re having a problem with your writing, it’s almost certain that one or more of these five are misfiring.

The GOATS method

I’ve taught the GOATS method for many years now and seen the enormous improvement it immediately makes in writers of all levels of experience.

And once you begin working with it, you’ll find it helps with problems at all stages – from developing the initial idea, through first draft to final polish.

Now, writing is not a science. There is a magic – a spark, if you like – that needs to light the fire, which can’t be provided by a formula.

But all writers need tools to help create and nurture that spark and this is one of the most useful tools I’ve found. I like it because it is memorable and practical.

GOATS stands for the five most important ideas in all story writing:

  • GOAL

1. Goal

Problem number one: you have failed to be clear about your characters’ goals.

A story can only begin when a character has a goal. It doesn’t matter how big or small that goal is, as long as it’s important to him or her. The goal could be as large as saving the world or as small as getting home, buying a sandwich or crossing the road.

And that goal must exist in the visible, outside world.

Some stories are very internal. The focus of the main character is on growing up, becoming a better person or dealing with their inner issues. However, even then you have to find a way of dramatising their quest externally, or your story will fail.

For example, in the coming-of-age movie Stand By Me, and the Stephen King novella, The Body, it’s based on, the young central characters inner struggle to grow up is externalised through a visible outer goal – to find a dead body.

2. Obstacle

A goal on its own is not enough to create a story. If I want to save the world and nothing stops me, my story is both rather short and rather boring. I need obstacles.

One of the tests of a good writer is his or her ability not simply to come up with obstacles, but  to find the right obstacles – obstacles which create the right mood or emotion, obstacles which lead to the most useful action.

If you want to improve fast, become sophisticated at creating all kinds of obstacles, large and small.Stand By Me -based on the novella The Body by Stephen King - character goals

In Stand By Me and The Body, the boys are presented with a series of obstacles, small and large, on their quest, which test their resolve and reveal the kind of people they really are.

This is one of the most valuable uses of well-chosen obstacles – they reveal character.

3. Action

The prime energy of a story comes from watching the protagonist take purposeful action to overcome the obstacles that face him. In creating stories, the word action has this very specific meaning: an attempt to overcome an obstacle.

Any action that does not have this purpose behind it, is not action in the dramatic sense – it is activity.

This is a mistake many developing writers make. Instead of purposeful action, they give their characters activity.

You need to ensure your central characters own story and take action to overcome obstacles. Of course, often their actions will fail – which will add interesting complications and force them into new and possibly surprising actions, and push the story forwards.

4. Tactics

Tactics relate directly to what’s going on inside your characters – their inner story. If actions are the things that your characters actually do to achieve their goals, tactics cover what they could do.

In any given situation, a person has things they habitually do, and things they would never contemplate doing.

For example, character A might be a quiet, contemplative person who tends to be polite and perhaps a little easily pushed around. He would ask nicely, but never make a fuss.

However B is noisy and pushy. She won’t put up with anyone who tries to boss her, but sometimes speaks before she thinks.

Most importantly, a character’s tactics are always limited by his or her flaws. And the protagonist’s flaws lie at the very heart of the story.

Hamlet’s flaw is that he is afraid of taking action. His preferred tactics are to chill out at university with his friends. However, when his father’s ghost appears and demands revenge for his murder, Hamlet is forced out of his comfort zone.HAMLET by William Shakespeare - Benedict Cumberbatch, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

As human beings we are fascinated by ourselves and other people and most of all by their personal moral choices.

The inner story engages our deepest contact with a story – tragedy or romantic comedy – and tells us what the story is really about.

5. Stakes

Finally, if there is nothing serious at stake in your story, why should we care? Why should we borrow the library book, pay for expensive theatre tickets, hire DVDs or even bother to turn on the TV?

Attaining his or her goal must be the most important thing in the world for your protagonist, whether it’s a save-the-galaxy blockbuster or an indie road movie. Nothing could be more important. It should be a matter of life and death, or more important than that.

In The Body, the stakes are the future lives of the boys: what kind of people will they grow up to become?

In Hamlet, the stakes are justice for his father – and ultimately life and death for Hamlet himself.

Using the GOATS method

Once you start using GOATS, you’ll find a dramatic increase in energy in your writing at all levels.

They apply to a whole story, an individual scene or even a moment within a scene, such as a line of dialogue.

Tell me how it goes.

Want to learn more about the GOATS method?

The GOATS method forms an core part of my screenwriting manual – Teach Yourself: Complete Screenwriting Course.Teach Yourself: Complete Screenwriting Course

This book is filled with writing tools that I use myself all the time, including techniques for overcoming writer’s block and how to find your unique voice.

You will learn how to pitch, outline, draft, edit and get your work optioned – how to work as part of a team and how to make the best use of social media.

Complete Screenwriting Course has been in Amazon’s screenwriting bestseller lists, sold out completely at London Screenwriters’ Festival and is recommended reading on MA screenwriting courses.

Out now in print (large format) and e-book… – UK – US – or your favourite bookshop/internet store.