I'm currently still at the early stage of writing, and I may be facing too much freedom than what is helpful.

One of the results of that is: I'm very uncertain of when should I use the story setting to reflect, express, or discuss a motif, and when should I use characters or plot events to do that.

For instance, if I want to discuss the problem of goal-oriented way of thinking (that people can't seem to function without a goal, even when a definite goal is impossible to formulate, or when the means is more important than the end, and so on), I could either:

  1. In the story's setting, introduce something that magnifies this topic. For example, introduce something that allows each character to reach their goal easily, with no regard for the process. Try to build a plot from there.
  2. Or, make the plot of the story follow the character chasing his goal, confronting the contradiction in his own actions, and realizing the problem in his view.
  3. Or, write two or more characters, each embodying one side of the argument on the topic, and make the result of their value clash with each other.

I know it's probably a very situation/context dependent thing, and it depends on whether a certain approach fits well with other motifs in the story, and also which motif is more important than the other, and which do I want to elevate to the position of overarching theme.

Sorry for the question being perhaps too open-ended. This problem has been bothering me for a while, and I'd really appreciate any sort of discussion or answer. Thanks.

  • Make the situation force the character to be goal-oriented? In fighting sickness or trying to extract yourself from a very low social condition for example, you can often only see as far as the next hurdle, like a climber on a cliff. The tunnel vision is necessary to get you out of trouble but can cause casualties around you. (also TBH I much prefer a fiction that distills good reasons for someone to be goal-oriented than one that lectures me about how much goal-oriented is a problem :) ) Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 13:32
  • 1
    @guillaume31 Yes, that's the general idea of it. I think the ability to set goals and seek goals (or rather, the desire to seek meaning and purpose) is a crucial drive for human, it creates extrinsic and intrinsic joy in the world. But I can't help feeling attracted to tragedies - someone led by a clear and reasonable goal, making all the "right" choices along the way, but still meets a tragic end. I want my story to not blame it all on the "tragic nature of things", but also talks about how much of it is our own doing.
    – rurirariru
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 22:22

1 Answer 1


I assume that you want to write a story that illustrates your opinion on the problem of goal oriented thinking.

There is a basic problem with that, and it is two-fold:

  1. People may miss the point you are trying to make because their focus is on other aspects of the story.

  2. People may interpret the events differently.

If you look at the diverse and often contradicting ways how narratives are being interpreted by scholars, critics, and readers, this becomes readily apparent. You can look at the many interpretations of Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare as they are given in the Wikipedia article, as an example.

In fact it could be said that the basic principle of literature is ambiguity. If you want to make a clear statement, you would usually not write a novel or short story, but a non-fiction essay or newspaper opinion piece.

This means that if you want to make a point, and make sure your readers get it, you need to spell it out. For example by having your protagonist or the narrator state at the beginning that this is a tale about the problem of goal oriented thinking and having them come to your conclusion at the end. Your readers might still assume that your intention is to illustrate how the protagonist or narrator are wrong in their assessment or that you want it to be a tale about how thinking that there is a problem with goal oriented thinking leads to whatever it leads to in your story. You see, the level of complications in getting your readers to understand a story in a certain way are endless.

That said, I think that the motif dictates the means of expressing it.

In your case, the motif is the relation between goal oriented thinking and psychological functioning. This motif demands that you express it on the level of thinking and psychological functioning: by portraying that kind of thinking (what does it look like to think or not think goal oriented?) and how its presence or absence leads to psychological functioning or a lack thereof (how someone doesn't have or loses purpose, feels depressed, and so on, if they don't have or lose a goal and how they have or regain a sense of meaning, identity, and well-being when they have or find a goal).

The development can be from having a goal to losing a goal or from having no goal to finding one, or a combination of these two directions (having, losing, regaining; or not having, finding, losing again), so that your plot can have four distinct arcs (rising /, falling , falling-rising V, and rising-falling Ʌ).

In the case of your specific motif, setting isn't the appropriate means to epress it. The motif of the psychological consequences of different kinds of thinking must be expressed through a character's habits (in this case, the habit is a way of thinking), the mental state that results from those habits, and how they change in relation to each other. In other words, the appropriate means to express your motif are character (habits, psychological functioning) and plot (the changes of both).

  • Thank you for the reply. Yes, I want to write a story centred around "goal-oriented mindset", with other topics on the side. Most of the ideas I have for now are closer to arguments/opinions, rather story/plot ideas. I like fiction a lot and want to give it a try, but my mind seems to perfer working argumentatively. About the second half, it makes a lot of sense - something psychological like a mindset would require it to be discussed on a psychological level. I'll think about it and try to work out something.
    – rurirariru
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 22:02

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