Craft Book

Goal-setting in Creative Writing: Tip #5


An important NLP coaching principle relating to the management of change states that all behavior serves a positive purpose, even behavior that’s ostensibly ‘negative.’ For instance, the positive intention of fear is often safety. Fear of public speaking might be motivated by a person’s subconscious desire to safeguard himself against possible humiliation. Moreover, if the positive intention of the behavior that needs to change is not explicitly accounted for in the desired outcome, people will often find substitute behaviors that may become just as problematic as the original behavior.

An example: A person who quits drinking and then discovers that alcohol was actually a good stress reliever will need to find an alternative way of relaxing. If such a substitute is not found, he might either revert back to his old habits or start smoking to achieve a similar result as the original payoff.

Goal-setting requires awareness of the GOOD INTENT of all behavior

It’s advisable to acknowledge the favorable offshoot(s) of an otherwise unfavorable situation before setting out to change it. No author doing a book reading wants to humiliate himself before his audience—right? But no author wants to read to an audience with his stomach tied in a knot either. So, if I had to coach a nervous author to improve his public speaking skills, I would advise him to thank his fear part for keeping him safe up to now and explain that its presence during book readings will no longer be necessary since he (the author) has decided to embrace confidence instead—we all know that a confident reader is not likely to obsess about the risk of humiliating himself. Can you see how responding to the deep structure expression of a problematic behavior (the desire to avoid humiliation) is more productive than responding to fear itself?

Goal-setting is also a LITERARY concept

Not only do goals motivate WRITERS to be productive and creative but they inspire the actions of STORY CHARACTERS too—on the flip side, however, their actions may lead to the breakdown of their goals.

I suggest you look at the value of the positive intention of behavior in the context of creative writing as it pertains to character development through a study of Lionel’s Shriver’s novel: So Much For That. You might want to refer to the introduction as well as #1, #2, #3 and #4 of this series for a recap of the book description before continuing with this part of the discussion.

We’ve already learned that our protagonist has carefully mapped out his life from age sixteen. His wife says, “You’re a planner, Shepherd. You always look before you leap.” And yet, when fate renders her a victim of ill health, she accuses him of having been irresponsible. His response is: “And now you’re the one who has to pay for that. It’s not fair. I should be the one who’s sick. I wish it was me. I wish I could shoulder it for you.” What do you think could possibly be the positive intention of the guilt that has just taken hold of our protagonist? I invite you to read this book to see how Shep’s irrational response in this instance motivates his future behavior. Will he eventually recognize the deep structure of his guilt? And if he does, will he be able to adapt his attitude appropriately?

Follow my blog to learn more about CREATIVE WRITING as well as the dynamics of BEHAVIOR CHANGE and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and how to implement these concepts in storytelling. Please watch out for the publication of my creative writing guide (title and publication date TBA soon), which will offer a more comprehensive discussion on Story and Character Development based on a Life Coaching Model.

* Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, by Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier.

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15 thoughts on “Goal-setting in Creative Writing: Tip #5

  1. I like how you apply the NLP lesson to writing both for authors and characters–clever and helpful. I use a similar notion–positive purpose for ‘negative’ behavior for helping people think about how they act during conflict. I’ll have to go back and read your earlier posts.

  2. I’ve just left a response to your last blog post about the different types of conflict; I believe there’s much to learn about one self and others through conflict resolution, and yet so many people prefer to avoid it.

  3. Hi Andrea, your response validates a great technique. When I worked as a life coach, I did a lot of ‘parts’ work with clients, especially where conflict was involved, and I witnessed the most miraculous shifts … that cliche of ‘things falling into place,’ it’s real: the self IS made up of many different parts. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Wow!! I am so glad I found your blog! I want to make it part of my routine to “tune in!” I really like what I’ve seen so far – it is rich with information! I am months late posting to my blog, I think shame has kicked in, how do I explain my lengthy absence – well, a move, closing on our house that didn’t happen and created major stress and how do those relate to my blog. With a brain injury, I was told to keep my stress low. The chaos has not kept it low!! I am so looking forward to being here, I think I will get ideas to help myself!! I’m hoping I can quote you on my fan page, twitter, LnkdIn.

  5. Hi Louise, welcome at My Rite of Passage. I love getting to know new followers, and if my blog can serve you – or anyone else – in any way, it makes all the effort worth my while. I’ve just taken a look at your website / blog; you’ve got something good going there. A period of inactivity is no crime; in fact, it’s wise in terms of re-energizing. Just engage again with the message: “Hi, I’m back …” and take it from there. Enjoy the rest of your week; let us know what you’re up to.

  6. I saw your timely comments on Shirley Showalter’s guest blog via Kathy Pooler’s website and noted your interest in Amish and Mennonite life. You may be interested in hopping over to my blog about my early life in Lancaster County, almost parallel to Shirley’s experience. My blog contains, meditations, tips, and real-life stories of my experience.

    Meanwhile I intend to shop around in your website where I will learn from your many tips as an author.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Marian. I’ve just been over to your blog. I love the quotes, especially this one: “It occurred to her that her sanity was becoming intermittent, like a sudden stretch of intact road in an abandoned region. Or radio music, blatant after months of static.” K. Braverman, Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta. It’s a lovely description, and while I don’t know the context it reminds me of the current state of social media – partaking is one thing, but looking at it from a distance, it seems like an insane clutter of information.

  8. Belinda, you are definitely on a roll with this series. I’m gaining new insights to what I need to be doing with my writing. I especially like the link you’ve drawn between writer and character(s).

  9. I like your concept of behaviour replacement as a goal management technique and your example of the abstinent drinker starting smikong fits so well.
    We are all tempted to look for replacements for things we think have helped us when they are either no longer available or are barred to us. But do we really need to? Shouldn’t we first ask ourselves why we were using that crutch in the first place? What was causing the stress that we think was relieved by the alcohol? If that cause was removed, or modified to reduce its impact, would any crutch be necessary, let alone one like smoking with it’s own negative effects?
    This thought leads one on to think about the motivation of one’s subjects in writing. It expands the potential of one’s characters in a most interesting way. My only worry is that it might also deform the originally conceived character and turn her or him into something entirely different, less spontaneous, less natural. Most people don’t think about their motives and the consequences of their actions in the majpority of their lives; they simply get on and live them, taking what comes. It has become a modern fad to alalyse to the last grain every thought, action, feeling and response to such an extent that people no longer lead normal lives; they’re all trying to out psych themselves.
    So, is it really beneficial to one’s writing to explore these things in detail and to set so many goals in the process? It may help some vwriters but could very well impede the creativity of others. Perhaps some things are better left unplanned.

  10. Ian, it’s indeed important that change is accompanied by learning, though you would not expect it in the case of negative change. To replace ‘fear’ with ‘confidence’ is a positive change and I don’t see how that implies a continued crutch.

    The thought behind this series is to offer writers an additional creative tool to convey character development in a credible way. I don’t care how well-conceived a character is in the beginning of the story, if a writer does not understand the subtle nuances involved in ‘change,’ character development throughout the story and transformation at the arc will not appear credible. The challenge is for writers to apply their expertise (whether they’re writing a psycho-drama or historical novel or any other genre) in a way that does not interfere with the quality of their characterization or any other literary element.

    Writers who only rely on their creativity deserve to be embarrassed when it comes to making mistakes as a result of not taking the trouble to think things through. Having said that, I’m by no means suggesting an over-analysis of anything. Besides, there’s a difference between writers being methodical in certain instances and a character’s awareness of his/her development—so, if the story calls for the latter, it should be made apparent in the narrative.

    I’ve just read The Writer’s Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman. I found it fascinating and consider it a compulsory read for all writers. Throughout the book, she cites examples of the mistakes writers have made because they either relied on stereotypes or did not bother to do some research, including some well-known authors and movie directors. Look into it; you’ll appreciate her objectives.

    • Whilst I understand why you see confidence as a positive replacement, I posit that it only becomes that when something else has washed the negative factor clear. Confidence is the ‘product’, that emerges, not the ‘tool’. It may be exploited later in a positive way, but something has to generate it first; you can’t just pour it in and get a result like putting water into a cup with instant coffee.
      I agree that writers who rely solely on their own creativity are only doing part of the job. My comment about over analysis wasn’t aimed at them but at ordinary people leading normal lives. They can often waste so much time analysing things that they fail to get on and live. A little analysis can be useful, but don’t get bogged down.
      For those who write it is different and, as you point out, it’s the writer’s responsibility to examine what is being planned to the n’th degree in order to create a well balanced and polished work that hangs together.
      My poupose in picking this up was not to criticise your proposition but to provoke some discussion; to get other writers thinking about what they do and why they do it. Surely we should all be doing that?
      You chose a great subject!

      I agree, Carolyn Kaufman has a lot to offer and is well worth reading..

  11. Pingback: Goal-setting in Creative Writing: Tip #6 | My Rite of Passage

  12. Decision: it’s the key factor that allows ‘fear’ to be replaced with ‘confidence.’ Sure, the change candidate has to be ready and willing and aware, but that’s assumed in a goal-setting situation. If the current issue, which will be rooted in past stuff, has not been dealt with properly, you’ll see ‘resistance.’ But remember, I come from a life coaching situation, not therapy; in my milieu (as opposed to yours), clients drive the process. To conclude, it’s not that I propose ‘confidence’ as a tool – I propose ‘decision’ and ‘choice’ as tools, because the client already has all the resources.

    This has been a great discussion, Ian. You are right to challenge the proposition for the sake of further discussion. The concept of ‘positive intention’ is a complex one, though very real as Kaufman mentions in her book too.

I welcome comments, and I always respond.

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