Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements

Far too often, Authors take what a Protagonist wants for granted. Acknowledging that this drive provides momentum for their narrative, they simply assign a task or reward for this character to work for. True freedom finds shape in the separation of the concept of the Story Goal from the Goal itself.

As covered in the article Unlocking the Structural Code of the Story Goal, the key towards identifying the main Story Goal rests in a firm grasp over when and where problems first start. While often mistakenly referred to as the Inciting Incident (as it implies that this moment solely exists to “incite” the central character to action), this genesis of trouble begs for some sort of resolution. This reality of story structure gives fiction purpose, explains the motivations of the Protagonist, and can help aid writers who feel they are floundering about hopelessly within their own work. Unsure what it is your characters are really working for? Look to the creation of inequity in their lives and establish the Goal needed to resolve it.

Goals in and of themselves are achievements, yet they don’t need to be about achievements. They can be–Stopping Corruption in L.A. Confidential, Securing the Inheritance in Rain Man, and Winning the Competition in Surf’s Up all provide excellent examples of how achieving itself can restore equity. But what about those stories that require a different kind of solution?

Doing what needs to be done

In Star Wars the Empire boards a diplomatic ship, overextending their reach. The story that follows isn’t so much about winning and losing as it is about dodging and striking; the fight steals the center stage of purpose away from any specific prize or reward. Blowing up the Death Star works as a nice dividend for their efforts but works even better as an example of how to fight more effectively. Luckily, Luke had a nice little personal story running in parallel that helped everyone find that appropriate solution.

Same with The Dark Knight. Conflict didn’t arise from any specific prize the Joker or Batman may have been vying for. Terror, and the manipulation of the response to it, became the central focus of the story’s thematic exploration. The Joker absconds with the mob’s life-savings leaving the good people of Gotham to find a way to protect their city from descending into chaos. Finding someone to focus their outrage on–in this case Batman himself - provided the final resolution needed to quell the unbridled terrorism. Unlike Luke though, it came at a great personal cost to Bruce Wayne. Again, as with the example of Unforgiven in the previous article, the Goal of a story purposefully sits apart from any personal issues the central character may have.

How about Covering Stillwater for Rolling Stone in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous? Accomplishing this with the skill and expertise lost among those twice his age becomes job one for William once being denied backstage at the Black Sabbath concert. Encompassing more than simply issues personal to him (those have more to do with his mother), this Goal of accurate and truthful coverage becomes of concern to everyone in the story. Penny Lane, Jeff Bebe, Lester Bangs–all of them work in concert towards that successful resolution. How well William does it becomes more important than whether or not he actually completes it.

Coming to a greater understanding

Shifting slightly from the difference between Goals of achieving and Goals of doing sit Goals of understanding. Although at first glance this may seem to be more internal in nature, this Goal of appreciation requires external effort. Consider the efforts to uncover what happened to LV-426 in Aliens. Losing contact with that colony starts the story’s central problem, propelling dock-loader Ripley, corporate stooge Burke and a handful of Space Marines into a brutal physical process. Escaping with the knowledge they find (their greater understanding) resolves that initial inequity and allows everyone to sleep a little better.

The Sixth Sense shares the same kind of dynamic. Problems begin when a troubled patient shoots his therapist before turning the gun on himself. Figuring out why the patient did this and how possibly to keep it from happening again in young Cole becomes the Story Goal. As Protagonist in that story, Malcom the therapist pursues that greater knowledge. Now, he does have his own personal issues to contend with, but as far as Cole’s mom, friends and fellow students, doctors and various funeral attendees are all concerned understanding why Cole is the way he is resolves the story’s central problem.

How about something a little less scary? In The Sound of Music problems begin with Maria’s decision to leave the convent. This rebellious act opens up a whole can of worms far beyond simply Maria’s personal issues of what she should do with her life–it opens up the Von Trapps to her wild influence. From tearing down drapes and wearing them as clothes to singing shamelessly amongst the Viennese hills, Maria threatens to destroy the precious Von Trapp family…or unite it. How to make the Von Trapps whole again after the loss of their matriarch? That resolution of Story Goal comes with the final decision to wed, granting everyone the understanding needed to solve a problem like Maria.

Learning something new

Along the same line of Goals of understanding, but different in nature just enough to warrant its own classification, lie Goals of learning. Again, this may seem as if it should occur within the minds of the characters but the process of gathering information is a physical act. Think of the efforts to assess the intentions of the Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia. Beginning with the Arab Bureau’s decision to have their own man in the field, this film portrays the various attacks, executions, and massacres encountered on the road to further education. Learning how best to protect Britain’s interests in the region resolves and affirms Dryden’s initial decision by confirming the Empire’s drive to prosper.

Survival of a different sort, yet achieved in a dramatically similar fashion, finds life in Des Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Trouble starts with a Minister’s decision to “watch” famed playwright Georg Dreyman and grows to a tipping point when a good friend of that very same playwright takes his own life. Convinced that resolution can only come in the dissemination of the current state of East German affairs, Dreyman sets out to publish his incendiary article. Dovetailing beautifully into this Story Goal, the personal throughline of the secret service man assigned to watch Dreyman provides the final keys to success in much the same way that Luke’s did in Star Wars. Information provides freedom. New information restores balance.

Goals of a different nature

Note that of all the examples given in this article and the one previous, the Goals in question are conspicuously all activities. Whether it be through obtaining something, doing something others can’t, gaining a new understanding or struggling to learn something, each and every one of these Goals describes a physical activity.

But Goals can be so much more.

A failure of many a story paradigm persists in the notion that Goals must always be physical in nature. Whether it exists because most paradigms focus exclusively on films (a primarily visual medium) or because of the fixation on the achieving nature of the Goal itself, these purveyors of mistaken assumptions fail to see all that a Story Goal can be. Overcoming prejudice (as in To Kill a Mockingbird) or convincing others that anyone truly can cook (as in Ratatouille) are just two examples of Story Goals that find definition far outside the comfortable realm of external activity. Both find resolution within rather than without, both equally as valid as any described above, yet both distinctly different in nature enough to call for further exploration.

But first, before venturing inside for potential story solutions, one must take into account a reality of the external world. Many a problem finds its genesis within the vicious activities of others, yet pressure can also bubble up from an untenable state-of-affairs. Changing these problematic situations becomes the focus of our next article.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Story Goals examined in this article all reside within the Dramatica’s Physics Domain (or Activity Domain if you found the theory post-1998). Situated within the upper right quadrant of the current model, this Domain contains the Types of Obtaining, Doing, Understanding and Learning. In a story where the Overall Story Throughline finds the source of its inequity within an external process, one of these 4 Types will become the Overall Story Goal. Selecting one of these will force a story into examining certain issues–if the Author in question wants to write something thematically consistent in nature.

It is not uncommon for someone new to Dramatica to always see Obtaining as the Goal of their Story. Exposure to the example storyforms contained in the application along with articles like this one should help open up any Author to a greater world of complexity and subtlety of expression.

Concepts covered: story goal.

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