When tragedy strikes, protagonists leap into action. Battling the forces of antagonism and facing deep-seeded justifications, the central character of any story climbs from one treacherous Act to the next, their eyes transfixed on the prize. But what meaning does this intense area of focus hold?
Why is it so important to understand?
The Story Goal marks the promise of accomplishment. Having experienced disruption at the hands of the Inciting Incident (or first Story Driver), the characters set out in the hopes of acquiring the Story Goal. Whether this involves a physical tangible reward or one that sits at the edge of consciousness matters little when compared to its potential for peace. The Story Goal represents closure.
Fighting, killing, and stealing. Treachery, deceit and manipulation. Incarceration, slavery and poverty. Prejudice, hysteria and racism. Four major sets of problems, four avenues for a cast to travel. How to determine which path to take? Identify the type of problem the characters face and the answer presents itself.
Separating structure and content
This series on Goals took great effort to detail the distinction between the structural conceit of a Story Goal and the actual nature of that Goal. In the past, cursory examinations of story structure revealed both to be one and the same—or worse, made no mention of the second.
Splitting the two apart opens up greater understanding. Greater understanding leads to smoother, more productive story meetings.
The desire for resolution spawns the drive to achieve—a universal truth that finds itself both within story and without, owing existence to the very function of human cognition. This undeniable reality of the mind’s problem-solving process explains the structural reason for a Story goal. More than simply a tendril stemming from the central character’s want or need, this final finish line represents new balance.
The exact nature of this equilibrium, however, sits separate from the process itself.
The goal of the obvious
Drug a population with images meant to confuse and pre-occupy and one can expect the dormant to rise up and fight—as they did in The Matrix. Murder and extort and one can expect the victims to strike back, demanding hasty removal—as they did in L.A. Confidential.
The easily-understood Story Goal looks at achieving an achievement. Take down the Matrix. Stop corruption in Los Angeles. Steal the treasure of the Sierra Madre and exact revenge on a couple of no-good cowpokes (Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Unforgiven respectively). Inciting Incidents that create problematic activities require an activity of resolution.
But achievement only accounts for one-fourth of the entirety of problematic activities. Consider Inception. Dom and company travel deep into dreamland not to arrive at some fantastic destination or to take down a team of bad guys, but rather endeavor to implant a misunderstanding into the mind of poor unsuspecting Fischer. That Goal works as something to be achieved, yet the nature of that goal calls for greater understanding.
Structure and content untwined.
As explained in Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements:
Goals in an of themselves are not achievements, yet they don’t need to be about achievements.”
Moving into the sublime
Stepping away from the obvious goals of achievement, one searches out resolution in a higher level of understanding (as in Inception above), a revelation of hidden information (as in The Lives of Others), and a better way of reporting the truth (Almost Famous). These stories, energized by challenging and unfair activities, find peace in better doing, greater understanding, and a simple transmitting of information. Activity begets activity.
But problems do not exist solely in the vacuum of physical exertion. As revealed in Overcoming Difficult Situations, Uprooting the Fixed Mindset, and Rearranging the Broken Psychology universal inequities can posess qualities foreign to those wary of complex theoretical story structures. Problems of the mind beget goals of further consideration and new ways of processing thought. Problems of station and incarceration beg for freedom and new arrangement. The type of problem determines the type of Goal.
Moving beyond the simple explanation accounts for every complete meaningful story—whether play, novel or film.
The inability of an Author to articulate exactly what their character wants or needs can absolutely trace its source back to an ignorance of the concepts discussed in this series on the Story Goal. Familiarity with these concepts eases the path to better storytelling and opens up the dialogue to include those put off by more traditional understandings of story. Why over-complicate what a character wants or needs? Because the mind itself—the very tool with which appreciates the meaning and essence of a story—functions with the very same complexity. Goals? A single human processes trillions. A single story only has to do it once.
The former can’t do it wrong, the latter can. Honor the process of problem-solving and the Goal that naturally evolves from such a function and an Author can rest easy knowing they did it right the first time.
Rewrites thus becomes less a process of discovery and more a process of clarification. Meaningful purpose driving productive output.
Kinda sounds like a Story Goal every Author should have.