Unlocking the Structural Code of the Story Goal

Stories that amble along needlessly often suffer from the lack of a clearly defined Goal. Without that drive towards resolution, a work of fiction can meander from one pointless scene to the next. Determining the source of difficulties guarantees clarity of purpose for any story.

In the article The True Champion of Chinatown, the Goal of the story was identified as Securing the Family History, with creepy tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) at the helm. This rather wild notion runs counter to more popular understandings of the film. Many see Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) front and center, pursuing the Goal of revealing the Cross’ family secret. This seems to be the most obvious understanding of the goal, yet as that article established, seeing Jake’s goal as the goal of concern to everyone fails to take into account the differential between the objective and subjective views of the story. Still, it does seem unusual to think of the Goal of that L.A. story in terms of Cross.

For that matter, how come in this analysis of How to Train Your Dragon the Goal was identified as Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers? Shouldn’t it be to kill the big bad monster dragon? And if the Goal of The Matrix is to take down the Matrix itself, why isn’t the Goal of Star Wars to blow up the Death Star? Aren’t they the same story?

The answer to all of these questions lies within a better appreciation of the true genesis of a story.

In the Beginning there was balance

Here is how it works: Before story, balance exists. The world rests at peace. Something or someone interjects itself upon this serene scene, instantly creating an inequity. Sensing this new imbalance, our minds label the differential a problem and naturally begin the process of resolving that problem.

Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, problems can’t be problems without solutions. Achieving the solution to the story’s inequity then becomes the Goal of the story.

Note that this Goal does not come attached to any one character. No one owns the Goal of a story, rather it attracts and repels everyone within. Some will be for it while others would rather the inequity persist. Some may even be responsible for starting the problem in the first place. Regardless, look not to individual wants and needs for the Goal of a story. Seek the initial inequity and work from there.

My kingdom for a solution!

In Chinatown, problems begin when Hollis refuses to build the new dam, thus screwing up Noah’s plans for familial and urban reunification. Resolving that issue–an issue that affects everyone in the story–becomes job one for the man in the white hat.

Likewise in The Matrix, Morpheus places his faith in Mr. Andersen, screwing up the nice little gig Agent Smith and his band of human harvesters had going on. Balance becomes imbalance and resolution takes center stage. The Goal that grows out of this desire for resolution–Dismantle the Matrix–did not stem from someone’s own personal wants or needs, but rather from the chasm of inequity created by that initial choice of simple Mr. Andersen.

In Star Wars, the imposing Empire overextends itself by boarding a diplomatic ship. In the past these overlords were simply annoying, now it seems they’ve crossed the line. Would blowing up the Death Star really resolve this inequity? Not really. The destruction of the Death Star only appears to be the Goal of the story because of the nature of Goals themselves.

When achieving the Goal is the Goal

Ask an Author the Goal of their story and they’ll naturally reply So and so needs to win the heart of his loved one or The bandits need to find the lost treasure or The copy girl needs to secure more clients. Goals of achievement are easiest to identify (and thus easiest to write) because Goals themselves are achievements. A problem enters the character’s lives and many of them set out to acquire the appropriate solution. That said, their motion towards this ending does not constitute what kind of resolution is needed. Do not confuse the particular type of a Goal with the concept of a Story Goal. The first defines the static nature of a structural point, the other defines the process undergone in getting there.

Goals of acquirement

So when it comes to a film like The Matrix, Dismantling the Matrix works as a natural Goal to resolve Morpheus’ faith in Neo. Not only is the Goal something to be achieved but it’s also about achieving. Think of this kind of goal as acquiring something or winning something or destroying something. The act of obtaining (or freeing) resolves the story’s imbalance.

Kung Fu Panda, Unforgiven, Casablanca–all of these films share a similar kind of Goal. In Kung Fu Panda troubles begin when disgruntled former student Tai Lung escapes from prison. Finding the True Dragon Warrior to defeat this new threat returns balance to all those involved. Same with Casablanca. Ugarte hands the Letters of Transit over to Rick and suddenly there is trouble for the great and noble Viktor Laszlo. Acquiring those Letters of Transit becomes the Goal of the Story, one that everyone shares concern with and one that naturally resolves the story’s difficulties.

Unforgiven? Two cowpokes scar an innocent woman sparking a reward for revenge. Killing Anyone and Everyone Involved secures resolution for the inhabitants of Big Whiskey. Now, it does little to resolve the demons locked away in William Munny’s head (in fact it has quite the opposite effect), but remember that the Goal of the Story is story-wide, it is not tied to the personal issues of any one character. It is objective and universal.

When Goals move beyond winning or losing

But what about Star Wars? Surely this simple sci-fi flick explores nothing more than good guys beating the bad guys. But that’s just it–in the battle between Rebellion and Empire just being able to fight back works better than a particular instance of achievement. The doing becomes more important than the obtaining.

In future articles in this series on Story Goals we’ll take a look at more sophisticated resolutions similar to the one found in a galaxy far far away. Looking towards the initial inequity, we’ll determine the necessary solution and determine what kind of Goal would satisfy that drive to return things to a state of balance.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica refers to the Goal of a story as the Overall Story Goal. This is seen as separate (yet tied thematically) to the Main Character’s Concern or the Influence Character’s Concern, both which may be seen as goals in and of themselves. The Overall Story Goal resides wholly within the objective view of a story provided by the Overall Story Throughline.

The Overall Story Goal begins with the initial Story Driver or what many have previously referred to as the Inciting Incident. Achieving resolution–completing this Goal–requires the introduction of the Overall Story Solution, a thematic pair with the Overall Story Problem.

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