It turns out the subject of character goals was in the air this week.
This morning, the “Cats” over at Save the Cat! (which does not include the innovator of the techniques they practice, Blake Snyder, as he regrettably passed away in 2009 quite unexpectedly and prematurely) posted a podcast in which they advocate for the requirement of a tangible, external goal on the part of a story’s protagonist, citing, among other examples, Academy Award Best Picture winner American Beauty (1999) as a case study. If you read yesterday’s post, you know how I feel about this, but I elaborated my position in the comments section of the Save the Cat! website, which I am also making available here:
Character goals are an invaluable screenwriting tool and a common trope of Hollywood movies (particularly the high-concept kind), but, like any tool, they are not right for every job. I just published a blog post on the subject yesterday, as it happens.
Scene- or sequence-specific “micro goals” are often employed in “soft” movies, like, say, When Harry Met Sally…, but the overarching plot in that particular case is not driven by an agenda on the part of the protagonists to achieve a tangible objective. In American Beauty, Lester’s infatuation with Angela is more of a private desire than an active subplot (a manifestation of his midlife crisis), even if it inspires him to work out and flirt with her on occasion; regardless, it certainly doesn’t drive the plot in any substantial way (in the end, she seduces him, so the moment is hardly the hard-won culmination of an active, goal-oriented pursuit on the part of the hero).
A goal is both a storytelling technique and convention, and the utilitarian essentiality of Blake’s ten genre categories is that it provides a tool by which screenwriters can determine whether giving their protagonist a tangible goal is the right choice for a given story. He understood that the form is malleable: In screenwriting, there are conventions and patterns that must be honored (ideally in an artful way), but there aren’t absolutes.
This podcast serves to illustrate just how tricky mastering craft can be; how it can be subject to misapplication, as I’ve argued, even by experienced writers and gurus. Here you have Snyder’s own acolytes—ostensibly the prevailing authorities on his principles—promoting screenwriting absolutes that can be decisively debunked using Save the Cat! methodologies (of which I am a devotee). Let it be a lesson: Don’t conflate tools with rules.