When Failure Becomes a Good Thing

Not every story needs to work out for the best. In fact, one could argue that greater truth can be found in stories that closer approximate the bittersweet moments in life.

In How To Train Your Dragon, things don’t quite work out the way Hiccup had intended. While smiles abound and the music swells, there still seems to be a sense of loss. The reason why this is goes far beyond the obvious physical changes: something quite meaningful has transpired.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

As mentioned in the previous article on How to Train Your Inciting Incident, the Goal of this film was to Train the next generation of dragon killers. Stoick, as Protagonist, pursues this Goal with unrelenting courage and steadfastness. His son Hiccup, as Antagonist, works to prevent this from happening, balancing the years of tradition he wishes to honor with his instinct to protect the very same beasts he has been tasked with killing.

Major Plot Points develop the original problem

Hiccup’s interference in the opening sequence upsets the balance of things on Berk. With this Inciting Incident creating the central inequity of the story, what further events develop it and propel the story towards its eventual resolution?

  • First Act Turn: Hiccup cuts Toothless free
  • Midpoint: Astrid discovers Toothless, Giant dragon revealed
  • Second Act Turn: Stoick forces Toothless into revealing the dragon’s nest

While Hiccup’s refusal to kill the Monstrous Nightmare is the larger event of the Second Act, that shift from the first half of this act into the second is more a series of actions that drive the story forward thematically rather than one central sequence. These actions alter the exploration of one way to solve the story’s central problem to another. Plot Points don’t always have to be one singular event. In fact, thinking of plot events this way almost certainly guarantees that a story will come off mechanical and plodding, and sometimes episodic. Instead, plot points should be seen as forces that shift the dramatic focus of each structural act into a new area.

The Four Acts of Dragons

As revealed in the article on The Reason for Acts, there are four major contexts from which every problem can be appreciated. Taking the above assessment of the Story Goal and Plot Points found in How to Train Your Dragon, the Act order becomes readily apparent:

Act 1 of Dragons: Doing

Following Hiccup’s initial blunder, the Vikings continue to Do what they have always done, namely mounting excursions into the unknown and training new recruits.

Act 2 of Dragons: Learning

The Second Act turns with Hiccup’s act of defiance against his heritage and begins what Snyder would lovingly call the “Fun and Games” moment — the montage of young Vikings Learning their trade. This is the Act where Hiccup asks all his questions, further complicating the young one’s training and increasing the tension formed by the original inequity.

Act 3 of Dragons: Understanding

The multi-layered approach to the Midpoint slides the story into the structural Third Act, forcing the characters to come to a better Understanding of what is really going on. Beginning with Astrid’s understanding of why Hiccup has been acting so strangely and culminating with the revelation of the dragon’s unholy alliance with an even bigger dragon, the second act flows from Learning to Understanding. It peaks with Hiccup’s decision not to kill the Monstrous Nightmare, a decision that leads the Vikings (particularly Hiccup’s father Stoick) to mistakingly view Hiccup as a traitor.

Act 4 of Dragons: Obtaining

Finally, the fourth and final structural act begins with Stoick’s demand that Toothless reveal the hiding place of the dragons. This action forces Hiccup and the others to decide to do something really crazy. As with Star Wars, this final act is all about two forces trying to achieve victory over the other.

Only things don’t work out quite the way they did in that seminal sci-fi classic.

Hiccup’s Failure

Why is it that the ending of this animated “kid’s” film has such a bittersweet feeling to it? Even though they defeated the giant dragon, it still doesn’t have that same overwhelming victorious feeling that Han and Luke experienced way back when. Is it simply the physical changes that came as a result or could it be there was something else more meaningful going on? Examining the structural fallout from the attempts to resolve the story’s central problem grants one the answer.

Hiccup’s personal issues revolve around his diminutive appearance and his relatively unimportant place among the other Vikings. In other words, he doesn’t fit in. In fact, people refer to his physicality as the reason why they can’t take him seriously (“You just pointed to all of me.”) The resolution of this angst comes with his father’s admittance that they were wrong all along, Hiccup was exactly what they needed.

But at what cost?

Hiccup’s resolution came only as the result of his father’s failure to train the next generation of dragon killers. This is why it looks like a victory when the kids come riding in on dragons and defeat the big bad guy. Hiccup, as Antagonist, has won. He has prevented the Protagonist from achieving the Story Goal. Sure, it comes as a result of killing an even bigger dragon, but the story was about learning to kill the very beasts they came riding in on.

The film feels bittersweet because of the way the story is constructed. A Personal Triumph story is defined as one where the main Objective Story ends in Failure yet the Main Character resolves their personal issues. How to Train Your Dragon fits this description perfectly. Personal Triumphs feel bittersweet because the dividends of such an experience outweigh the failure of achieving the original goal. Not every failure can be seen as a loss.

The Consequences of Failing

When failure is met, consequences must be dealt with. Without consequences, there can be no motivation towards solving the problem. Consequences though, as can be seen in this film, are not always negative. While the structure of a story is both objective and logistically sensible, how it is portrayed and woven into the fabric of the story can be tempered with the subjective artistry of the writer.

Driven to prevent the original Goal from succeeding, Hiccup manages to come up with something even better--adopting the dragons as pets. His new idea resolves the tenuous situation between the dragons and Vikings (at least these dragons), but only as a consequence of failing to resolve the story’s original problem. The audience can sense this innately and explains clearly while the film doesn’t have that overwhelming triumphant feeling that Star Wars had.

Plot points that serve the story’s message

Major story events are more than simply progressive complications that increase tension. They drive a story forward, increasing the central inequity to its eventual breaking point, and eventually end up forcing the Main Character to deal with his or her own personal issues. When the efforts to resolve the story’s problem ends in failure, the Protagonist by definition loses, the Antagonist wins. How the Main Character ends up emotionally though determines whether the film is an all-out Tragedy or simply another case of Personal Triumph.

How To Train Your Dragon fulfills the tenants of the latter, establishing itself as something quite special among the typically upbeat companions in the animated film genre.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

How To Train Your Dragon is a wonderful example of a story with an Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgment of Good. With further clarity in its depiction of a Steadfast Main Character and an Objective Story Concern of Learning (what else would a film with that kind of title be!), the storyform presents itself with appreciations that resonate strongly.

The Consequence of Conceiving--coming up with the idea of adopting the dragons as pets--shines as a meaningful result of failing to achieve the original Story Goal. Stoick’s problem of Non-Acceptance, Hiccup and his drive to Protect, and the Issue between the two of them revolving around Deficiency (certainly there is a feeling that someone is lacking!) all add up to a film that is much more than wonderful art direction and sincere character animation.

Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Male, Action, Spacetime, Failure, Good, Physics, Learning, Preconditions, Non-acceptance