When looking for what a character wants, look to the
Story Goal. Often seen as something to acquire, goals of attitude and psychology account for many a sophisticated narrative. Goals are something to acquire, but the nature of those goals can range from the physical to the mental and all spaces between.
Story Goal and Story Driver
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Story Goals examined in this article all reside within the Physics Domain (or Activity Domain if you found the Dramatica theory of story 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.
Neighboring countries lock themselves in an epic struggle. Families fight to maintain slowly slipping bonds. Estates exorcize the ghosts of residents past. Resolving these rather tenuous conflicts requires focused purpose.
In story, this purpose goes by the name Story Goal.
By definition, goals beg accomplishment. One either achieves success or loses to failure while attempting to reach a goal—a rather simple structural concept to grasp. Yet, the very nature of that goal evades such simplicity.
In the first and second articles of this series, goals born of problematic activities took center stage. Whether it was stopping police corruption in L.A Confidential or getting the word out about the East German suicide rate in The Lives of Others, resolution in those stories required some form of doing, obtaining, learning or understanding. Problematic activities brought forth goals of activity.
But what of stories where the simple act of doing isn’t enough? What of stories bred from a completely different kind of external problem?
What class of problem begins with the Inciting Incident of a story? If the first major plot event sends things out of control, then stopping or ceasing those problematic activities becomes the purpose of the Protagonist. If, on the other hand, the Inciting Incident shifts the status of things locking the characters into an untenable situation, then unsticking them from this newly formed problematic situation becomes the purpose of the Protagonist.
Too subtle a distinction?
Trying to control a problematic situation only maintains that situation, prolonging conflict. Trying to unlatch problematic activities? How does one unlatch something that isn’t stuck? In problem-solving, activity and situation strike an incompatible discord. Thus, when seeing stories as models of problem-solving, a greater resolution of distinction (splitting problems into activities or situations) leads to more congruent storytelling. Righting an inequity requires a goal similar in nature to the inequity itself.
The original Star Wars began with an Empire illegally boarding a diplomatic ship. While the characters were stuck in an untenable situation (Civil War), what was needed for resolution from this out-of-control governing body was to find a way to fight back. The problem of major concern lied within the out-of-control actions of the Empire, not the Civil War itself. This is why resolution arrived at the end, even though both sides still existed. The Protagonist found a solution to the problem that began the story. An activity (fighting more effectively) resolved a problematic activity.
Same with The Matrix. The characters didn’t escape their predicament, they found a way to fight back. Problems didn’t really start until Morpheus placed all his trust in Mr. Andersen. These rogue cogs needed to be reigned in, or the cogs needed to find a way to act even more out-of-control. The Protagonist discovered the latter thereby resolving the problem created by that initial act of faith.
Problematic situations require situational-type goals.
In the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film The Counterfeiters, problems for everyone begin with the German Army’s decision to collect all the prisoners with artistic or printing talents. Forced into a special section of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the characters have but one goal: survival. Far from the actions of an evil Empire or technological overlords, the decisions to forge the pound and later the dollar place these prisoners of war smack dab into a problematic situation. Their problems arise from being stuck and thus, resolution can only come from liberation.
Liberation of quite a different sort finds light in Dreamworks’ 1998 animated film Antz. Forced to dig a “Mega Tunnel” in order to alleviate their colony’s food shortage, these six-legged slaves endeavor to buck the system for which they are a part of. Dislodging the conformist military state towards one that both preserves their society and honors all members becomes the story’s goal.
In both cases, overcoming the present state of things shines as the light at the end of the tunnel.
In the 1979 Oscar winner Breaking Away four working-class friends find themselves stuck in a college town with no real sense of direction for their lives. The lack of progress for them defines the central conflict, especially when the more purpose-driven local college students invade the boys’ favorite watering hole. Joining the ranks of such films like Saving Private Ryan and Finding Nemo, Breaking Away provides an easy answer as to the question of the Story Goal, hinting at the eventual outcome. Finding this new direction, essentially shifting the momentum of things, dislodges the conflict between the university college students and lackadaisical townies, and brings the boys’ problematic situation to a close.
The same story dynamic occurs in The Iron Giant, yet here the problems have less to do with alienation and more to do with an alien in our nation. Threats, both real and imagined, create a heightened sense of paranoia for those stuck within the 1950s Cold War era. Beginning with the metal monster’s fall to Earth and ending with his eventual self-destruction, the story’s central inequity finds resolution in the simple symbol of altered direction: a monument in the park. A gesture meant to honor, in fact, cements forever the progress towards less hysterical times.
These stories feature goals of progress. Managing how things are changing over time defines the finish line.
Stories can deal not only with problems in the here and now and with how things are changing, but also with troublesome pasts.
Like Chinatown, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 American debut Rebecca features characters struggling with history. The de Winter’s hasty marriage rattles the closet full of skeletons known as Manderley, beginning the story’s central problem. The only way to restore balance lies in overcoming what happened there so many years ago. The raging fire at the end seals the tomb of secrets signifying a successful outcome to their struggle.
In Tender Mercies, trouble begins when a young widow allows an alcoholic singer into her part of Texas. Everyone in this story struggles with the weight of painful and excessive baggage: the widow deals with the absence of her departed husband, her son struggles with the loss of the same man, and the country singer himself faces an ex-wife, his daughter and a career long since lost. No one moves forward until they can reach the goal of moving past their past. The singer’s decision to finally come clean with his wife and start anew wipes clean the slate of inequity.
In Braveheart, the good people of Scotland find themselves trapped under the rule of a cruel despotic King, Edward the Longshanks. Beginning with the lack of a true heir to Scotland and made more dissonant with a betrayal of truce, the helpless farmers argue and despair, looking longingly towards a country of their own. Their goal, their ultimate resolution, rests in securing a future for Scotland—a reality made possible with a final charge from Robert the Bruce.
In Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption problems begin when a distraught banker arrives at the home of his wife’s lover drunk and loaded to bear. Sentenced to life, the banker disrupts the the stasis of prison life. Latching on to the hope and promise of a brighter future—something many of them gave up a long time ago—sits as the only Goal capable of reversing the inequity of unjust imprisonment. Made material in the form of Zihuatenjo, this new world represents the only way out for anyone—regardless of their own personal Shawshank—a chance to finally break free.
Whether it be struggling to overcome a dark and heavy past, surviving in the present, fighting to shift momentum in the way things are changing, or developing and holding on to the promise of a brighter future, the characters in these stories face Earth-shattering situations. Breaking free from their worldly bonds resolves the issues in their lives and brings balance back to their worlds.
But there is another bond characters can sometimes find themselves faced with. A bond similar in nature to those described above yet vastly different in the material with which it explores. Like the bonds of slavery or imprisonment, the bonds of prejudice and of hatred can enslave characters just as well. In the next article, the focus will shift to these problems born of fixed mindsets and show how changing the situation within the minds of characters can also bring about resolution.
The Dramatica theory of story breaks the Universe domain into 4 different Types: Past, Present, Progress, and Future. Different in shape and form from the problematic activities of the Physics domain, these kinds of problems exhibit static qualities. This is not to say that growth does not exist in these stories, only that the core problem at the center lies within a situation out-of-balance. Dislodging the stuck nature of a problematic situation becomes the Goal of a Protagonist in these kinds of stories.
When an Author considers what it is the Protagonist in their story wants they often conjure up a new country the characters can call their own, a treasure chest full of rare emeralds, or the hand of a beautiful girl. Whether it be better living conditions or fantastic riches, the focus almost always remains on the external world. Where else, after all, would you find something worthy of so much attention, something valuable enough to be labeled the Story Goal?
Unfortunately, this assumption that all efforts tend towards what is out there blinds many an Author to another, sometimes more sophisticated purpose.
Think of the kinds of problems one finds when Overcoming Difficult Situations. Surviving a Nazi concentration camp. Breaking free from small town life. Unjust lifelong imprisonment. Each one of these features characters hopelessly stuck.
Now imagine moving that fixed inequity inside the human mind and at once we witness a whole new realm of storytelling.
Prejudice. Hysteria. An inability to forget. Problems bred of the same fixed nature as an external situation, yet found deep within the human mind. Resolution here comes not in the form of crossing a finish line or proving innocence but rather in the form of a changed mindset. Popular within many a play, these stories pit opinions and ideologies against one another, the solution falling into the ability to unstuck deep-rooted attitudes.
In Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil (NOT the film), an evil man has been forgotten. This potential explodes into conflict the moment a young teenage boy endeavors to blackmail the aging Nazi. Reviving this evil—the drive of the Protagonist in this twisted story—requires both remembering who this old man is and what he does. By forcing a recount of despicable deeds, the boy succeeds in securing his own place in history, ending it all with his own play for the memories of those families devastated by evil.
On a much lighter note, the same Story Goal of remembering can be found in Mel Brooks’ 1976 classic Young Frankenstein. Trouble begins when Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”) learns that he has inherited his family’s estate in Transylvania. Although embarrassed by his familial association with the mad scientist Frankenstein, the young doctor finds himself intrigued by his ancestor’s work and begins slowly reviving the memory of the monster maker. The townspeople, rigid in their opinion towards scientists both mad and potentially mad, grow increasingly worried about the continued research. Only by properly pronouncing his family name—and thereby reclaiming his heritage—does the doctor finally find a way to resolve the issues in the story.
Misplaced opinions and trouble-some preconceptions. Regardless of the problematic attitude, these stories both find resolution in the acquirement (or achievement) of a memory.
In Bruges pits hit man against hit man with the unspoken code of their profession: “Kill a kid, pay a price”. Beginning with one professional breaking that very same code, the story brings the characters into conflict over the lack of hesitation—a conflict that eventually brings them all to ruin.
Unlike previous stories featured in this series on Story Goals, In Bruges provides the first example of what happens when characters can’t find resolution. The drive to achieve the Story Goal does not always end in success. The presupposition of a happy ending runs counter to the reality of Meaningful Endings. Sometimes the solution arrives, other times it lies dormant.
The professional killers of In Bruges fail to overcome their fixed attitudes, they fail to control their impulses. Here the problem of the story overwhelms any potential solution leaving the inequity intact well beyond the curtain drop.
Contrast this failure with the successful resolution found in the “Self-Esteem” episode of the television series My So Called Life. Exploring the prejudice present within hallowed high school hallways, this story grants relief to teenage crush with an act of naked exposure. In front of all, and in complete disregard of established caste systems, cool boy asks wallflower girl to date and the girl accepts—without hesitation—“Sure.” Supplanting the urge to run and hide brings peace, and happiness, and above all else—love.
Love also seems to be on the minds of everyone in When Harry Met Sally. Starting with their decision to share a ride to New York, both Harry and Sally and everyone around them clash over their different attitudes towards finding a partner for life. Love—romantic love—takes the Story Goal position here and waits patiently for one or the other to choose their heart over their head. Changing one’s opinion towards love eventually resolves the problems in the story.
The same relationship between inequity and Goal awaits in George Cukor’s classic The Philadelphia Story. Problems begin when a wealthy socialite decides to marry nouvea riche, bringing to light issues of prejudice, pretension and all-around haughty bad attitudes. Class warfare in the search of relief. Release comes with a gesture of love, a promise to marry and the introduction of true deep happiness.
In both stories, the fulfillment of desire secures peace of mind for those brought into conflict over differing mindsets.
But what of characters who know their differing mindsets to be the culprit, yet still refuse to entertain the alternative? Check out Sydney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men for a great example of a conflict of contemplation. Bias tips the scales once one of twelve jurors decides to run counter to popular opinion, declaring the defendant not guilty. The deliberations, both quiet and impassioned, that develop over the course of the story beg for the remaining unconvinced to simply contemplate the idea of innocence. The moment consideration supplants prejudice, solution trumps problem and balance returns.
Note how many of these examples come from plays or are movies based on plays. The mind story finds greater mobility in a medium that more readily portrays the thoughts and attitudes of characters in conflict. The literary gateway present in novels and plays provides fertile ground for this type of dramatic exploration, yet shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to discount its potential on the silver screen. Ambitious Authors may recognize an opportunity to present a unique and challenging experience by externalizing the problems of the mind.
Regardless of the type of internal conflict—a refusal to remember, a compulsion to act first and think later, an unfulfilled desire or a conscious decision to think for one’s self—the solution always rests in ousting a fixed attitude. Free the mind from bias and equity will return. Leave it stuck and the desired resolution will remain a lost Goal.
But what of the internal struggle to simply formulate an attitude?
On the path to opinion lies the process of thinking, the process of developing ideas and the process of providing the fertile ground from which they can grow. Like the problems of external activities found in the article Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements, the problems of internal activities create their own unique issues, thus requiring completely different Story Goals as of yet not discussed in this series. The following article covers these stories of distended psychologies and provides Authors an opportunity to manage the world of malfeasance manipulation.
The Dramatica Theory of Story classifies these stories of incompatible attitudes under the Mind (or Fixed Attitude) Domain. Cradling together concerns of Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires and Contemplation, this corner of the structural model covers the entirety of stories built upon inequitable opinion.
Some characters suffer from deficient psychologies. They may be strong, they may have the right moves, and they may have the right attitude, but when it comes to solving their problems something inside of them simply doesn’t work right.
Stories featuring these characters find their structural problems firmly rooted in the way these characters think. Unlike the problems of fixed attitudes found in the previous article Uprooting the Fixed Mindset, these problems exist in motion. They defy stasis, preferring to incur their injury by jumbling up the process of one neuron firing to the next.
When the way people formulate their thoughts becomes the impetus for strife, the only way out becomes to manipulate or re-work that inner process. Unable to follow your dreams because others have different plans for you? Resolution here comes in the form of inventing a new and far better concept of how to live. Unable to live your life the way you want because others want you to pretend to be something you’re not? Carve out a new role and be what you want to be. Success will follow.
Unfamiliar with stories like this? Not if you’ve seen Ratatouille or The Incredibles.
In The Incredibles, trouble begins for everyone with the post-Sansweet tidal wave of lawsuits. Cut-off and forced to live a life they certainly weren’t born for, the Supers do their best to fit in. They don’t look towards taking down Syndrome—or any other villain for that matter—because they understand that such an act would not resolve the issue at hand. This isn’t The Matrix. Rather, the only way to overcome problems of psychology like this lies in reconnecting the synapses in a brand new way. Be the superhero family they were born to be—a goal that they never truly reach until Violet raises her final shield of protection—works as the only viable solution.
My Fair Lady explores the same type of problem. Here, turn-of-the-century London hosts discord between the classes when a phoneticist claims he can turn a Cockney flower girl into a princess. Once the girl initially agrees to the scheme, the events that follow work in service towards completing that goal of putting on the ultimate show. The finish line of the story consists of this girl pretending, or appearing, to be something more than she is. Once the Hungarian phonetician buys the act hook line and sinker, the problems at-large cease and the film’s logical storyline comes to an end (“You Did It”). The emotional throughlines still need wrapping up, but as far as the larger problem goes the young flower girl made a convincing transformation.
In both stories, acting became the focal point for Protagonist and friends. Their success required them to be a certain way. But what of stories where the act simply isn’t enough?
In Room With a View a young English girl finds herself surrounded by well-meaning, yet narrow-minded people. Beyond simply differences of opinion, problems in this Merchant-Ivory film stem from how people process their thoughts. In that respect, the only path to resolution lies in young Lucy reorganizing her own internal process. She does this by truly realizing her full potential.
Note the difference between this and the family of Supers above “living up” to their potential. The comic book heroes already had what they needed within, they simply needed an opportunity to act that way. Lucy, on the other hand, and participants in stories like hers, needs to become something much more than she already is. Her essence must change. Beginning with Mr. Emerson’s brash decision to switch rooms and ending with Lucy’s final decision to stop denying true feelings, the young girl’s final transformation resolves the problem at hand and brings the story to a close.
An Officer and a Gentleman takes a similar look at psychological rearrangement. In this story, the decision to join the Navy’s Aviator Officer Candidate School creates problems that can only be solved by a complete transformation of character. Satellite players manipulate and coerce—some in an effort to get candidates to drop-out, others in order to tragically marry. And while considerable bouts of physicality highlight the film’s events, the rigors of psychological training dominate the dramatic battlefield. The decision to show for graduation completes the metamorphosis of character, made apparent with a gesture unseen in more common ceremonies.
In both cases, the transformation of the central character operates as more than simply an act of character growth and more as a focal point of purpose the cast aspires to.
In the world of Ratatouille balance shifts when an aspiring rodent separates from his family. Finding opportunity within the walls of a failing Parisian restaurant, the young upstart sets out to convince others to think different. Hijinx and hilarity ensue, yet it is the inability of everyone to accept the idea that anyone can cook that stokes the oven of conflict. The harsh critic’s final appearance at a truly unique dining invention reverses this trend, restoring balance to their world through a gentle act of acceptance.
Aspiration also sets the stage for conflict in Working Girl. A working-class secretary’s decision to insult her boss grants entry into the treacherous world of mergers and acquisitions. Here, the lure of a new idea makes backstabbing and dishonest manipulation commonplace. It also provides a glimpse as to what is needed to succeed, a glimpse at the goal of the story. For one to climb the corporate ladder one must engage in psychological combat not needed on the battlefields of Braveheart or Lawrence of Arabia. Resolution arrives with the secretary’s explanation of how she conceived of buying into radio, the ensuing shift of power signifying a successful accomplishment of the story’s goal.
Regardless of the cast’s physical composition—digital or analog—the structure of stories built around the need for a new idea operates the same.
But what of stories where the simple introduction of a new idea isn’t enough? What about stories that require a visionary to pull it all together?
A daughter’s decision to move out brings quiet turmoil to a Chinese family in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Upsetting the tender balance of father and three gives rise to the central dramatic question of the story: How can they keep the family together when they no longer share the same physical space? This inquiry ignites the search for a solution, its answer claiming the spot of story goal. One by one as the family fractures evermore, the hope of success continues to diminish until at long last the father acquiesces to his daughter’s new role as patriarch. A new concept of family gives a satisfactory response to that burning dramatic question and restores peace to those beset by it.
A little louder, yet no less functional (at least story wise), sits the Farrely brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. This time, however, the promise of a new concept involves tearing down connections rather than building them up. Lying, cheating and stalking sum up the bulk of this game, potential suitors manipulating and coercing their way into Mary’s heart. The goal for all? To somehow convince Mary to imagine life with them and them alone. Her final choice brings closure to the contest and relief to tear-stained faces.
Story goals of psychology chart unfamiliar territory to many an Author. How much easier is it for one to think of something tangible or worldly for their Protagonist to aspire to? Yet, the goals of invention and conception inhabit our everyday lives, as much, or even more so, than our efforts to gain or secure Earthly treasures. So too do the goals of being a certain way and of becoming something brand new, these last two groups complementing the first two in a way that offers a full exploration of solving through better thinking.
Dramatica categorizes these four areas of exploration under the Domain of Psychology. The Goals of Being, Becoming, Conceiving, and Conceptualizing find a home within this corner of the structural chart. Later versions of the theory rename these Types to Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature, Conceiving an Idea, and Developing a Plan. These replacement terms may offer easier comprehension, yet do so at the cost of accuracy. Regardless, the idea that a story can find its roots within the broken thought-processes of characters should be enough to inspire and perhaps even motivate Authors to write more engaging, thoughtful stories.
Story Goal and Story Driver
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.
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.
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.”
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.