Back to the Future. Escape from New York. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Saving Private Ryan. Even in a cultural media vacuum, what narrative fundamental do the titles to those movies tell you about their respective plots?
They are goal-driven.
Goals can be an invaluable tool to establish suspense, propel a plot, and create an active protagonist. But, like any storytelling appliance, they are an elective, not a mandate. In the movie business, insecure creative execs will insist on their inclusion in every screenplay—a silver bullet for any plot that fails to effectively engross (which relates to an industry-wide problem I addressed in my first post: the misapplication of craft).
Really well-argued piece, Ivo. Goals are helpful, but they are not right for every story. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for instance, Peter (Jason Segal) has no goal whatsoever; he isn’t even in Hawaii to win back Sarah Marshall, merely to mourn their breakup (to “forget” her—to accept that the relationship has ended). That was the right approach for that story, and the filmmakers kept the audience engaged without the aid of a “macro goal,” but rather by raising questions, as Ivo illustrates, that kept us in suspense. Contrast that with the narrative strategy of the spinoff movie, Get Him to the Greek, which is built around a goal so overt that it’s right there in the title; that was the right strategic approach for that story.
So, rather than adhere to some nonsensical “rule”—like “your hero must have a goal”—one is better off using Blake Snyder’s versatile narrative models to figure out which conventions are required of the particular story one is trying to tell. Sarah Marshall is a Rite of Passage tale (like Ferris Bueller), which are often about some form of personal acceptance (an intangible “elixir”); Greek is a Golden Fleece adventure (like Stand by Me), which are almost universally about achieving a tangible prize. The advice in this article is sound: Follow the genre conventions—and be attuned to the specific needs—of your particular story, rather than applying some misguided, blanket precept like “give your hero a goal.”
Craft is crucial, but it needs to be judiciously administered—and that takes study and practice. Skills can be learned, even mastered, so long as the aspiring writer understands that technique is a toolbox, not a magic wand. In the words of Dwight V. Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, “Arbitrary rules restrict and inhibit you. Knowing why sets you free.”