A good novel has an engaging plot, right? As well as relatable characters and an interesting setting, there must be a plot that the reader becomes emotionally invested in, but what makes a plot engaging? A degree of originality? Twists, turns and surprises? Cliffhangers? All these things can encourage the reader to engage in the narrative, but personally, what hooks me into a story is characters striving to achieve a goal.
I enjoy a novel where the characters have a clearly defined goal which they are actively taking steps to achieve, for example trying to complete a mission, catch a criminal, solve a mystery or steal something. This format provides a logical structure for the narrative and a clear line of progress. It is then entertaining to see characters thrown off this line of progress and struggle to get back on it. I relate to characters who are trying to achieve something, rather than passive characters who are the victims of circumstance.
A good example of this type of plot is Alastair Reynolds' novel Blue Remembered Earth, the first of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The plot focuses on brother and sister Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya who are following clues left by their grandmother Eunice to uncover a secret from her past. They are opposed by members of their family who want the secret, whatever it is, to stay buried. Blue Remembered Earth is set in the 2160s, and the fact Eunice was a pioneer of early space exploration means the clues are scattered across the Moon, Mars and Phobos or hidden in trans-Neptunian asteroids.
In Blue Remembered Earth, personal, inter-personal and extra-personal conflict all come from characters trying to achieve the goal of solving the mystery. Personal conflict in that Geoffrey and Sunday begin to doubt how well they knew their grandmother. Inter-personal conflict arises as the quest to find the clues causes a conflict with their cousins who want to keep the secret. Finally, extra-personal or environmental conflict as the clues are hidden in dangerous locations, including abandoned early settlements on Phobos, the Chinese sector of the Moon and an area of Mars given over to violently competitive machine intelligences.
What makes this structure lead to an engaging story is that once the characters and goal have been established, the narrative flows naturally from that point. Personal, inter-personal and extra-personal conflict have the same source, which leads to a well disciplined narrative. The source of conflicts are easily understood by the reader and the motivation of the protagonists, moving towards achieving their goal, is relatable. In Blue Remembered Earth, we become emotionally invested in Geoffrey and Sunday's struggle to solve Eunice’s riddle as the conflict of all types increases. Having an engaging narrative, with characters actively striving to achieve a goal, facilitates this.
This format works well for other books. In Iain M Banks's Against A Dark Background, the protagonist, Sharrow, must find the lost Lazy Gun before she is murdered by a cult. Sharrow is an active protagonist with a defined goal, each choice she makes brings her closer to achieving her goal which leads to an efficient and engaging narrative.
The opposite plot structure to this can be found in many sci-fi books, and that is the character who is passive, a victim of circumstances, usually just focused on trying to survive in a hostile environment. These plots are typically focused on environmental or extra-personal conflict, which is the easiest source of survival drama.
A good example of this is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze. In this novel, Sunday's daughter Chiku is among the first humans to travel to the alien world of Crucible. They are crossing the vast distance between stars in a hollowed out asteroid. However, the world they are heading to is not as safe as they imagined. Meanwhile, a duplicate of Chiku must survive on Earth while a dangerous AI tries to kill her.
The majority of the plot in On The Steel Breeze focuses on the two versions of Chiku trying to survive in difficult circumstances. Like in Blue Remembered Earth, characters take actions to achieve a goal, staying alive, but there is not a specific goal the character is trying to achieve other than continual existence.
On The Steel Breeze has a fast moving and eventful plot, but it is not as engaging as Blue Remembered Earth as there is a not a clear, tangible goal which a character is striving to achieve. The plot does not have the same accessible format. Giving the characters a clear goal would make the novel more engaging.
Another example of a sci-fi book with this type of plot is David Brin's Glory Season. It focuses on characters trying to survive in their home environment. Maia and Leie are vars (variants, as opposed to clones) on the planet Stratos, which means they are second-class citizens. When they reach a certain age, they have to leave their clone family and find their way in a world that is suspicious of and hostile to people who are not clones. Maia and Leie get mixed up in lots of exciting adventures, including conspiracies, pirates and humans from other worlds, but their story does not have a clear focus and drifts from situation to situation without a clear direction.
I find it is less interesting if the characters’ top priority is survival; I am interested in goals characters are willing to risk or sacrifice their lives to achieve. A lot of stories about characters trying to survive in a hostile environment shift to become stories with a clear goal in the third act. For example, in Glory Season, Maia is willing to risk her life to save Renna, the man from the stars she has met. At the end of On The Steel Breeze, Chiku risks her life to make Crucible a safe place for her children to live. Clearly defined character goals make for dramatic climaxes.
Another reason I prefer stories where the protagonist has a defined goal is that it is more interesting to see characters striving to overcome the status quo rather than support it or restore it. Stories around survival often involve character trying to keep the situation as it is, with them alive. A good example of how this change affects characters is the difference in Katniss between the first Hunger Games novel, where she is focused on her survival and maintaining the status quo, and the last one, where she has a goal of overthrowing the oppressive capital.
Having characters only focused on their own survival can lead to a tense story but also means the story can lack purpose and direction. I prefer to read stories where characters are actively striving to achieve a goal and change something about the world they inhabit.