Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Fallacies of Storytelling: The Protagonist’s Goal

Back to the FutureEscape from New YorkRaiders of the Lost ArkSaving 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).

Filmmaker Ivo Raza published this worthwhile, illustrative article on the subject of goals for Script.  I weighed in with my two cents, which I have reproduced here:

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.”

2 Comments

  1. Interesting post and I agree, Sean. My back bristles any time someone tells me that my creative juices must fit in a certain sized and shaped carton. Knowing the structural norms and established rules is important; they’re the building blocks from which we leap and find our own wings!

    • Well, thanks, Diana, ever so much, for digging through the archives and commenting on a “classic”! I had to reread the post myself just to recall its content!

      Working from the hero’s journey narrative arc so concisely articulated by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, late screenwriter Blake Snyder propounded — and I happen to agree with him — that all stories in this mode (as opposed to the more recent “postnarrative” approach) fall into one of ten “genres,” or story models, each with their own set of defining conventions. Some of these genres are more inherently goal-driven than others: Golden Fleece stories, for instance, are always about “getting the prize”; Monster in the House is about surviving and/or stopping the monster; Whydunits are about solving the crime. But other genres, like Rites of Passage (Chef) and Buddy Love (When Harry Met Sally…) and Out of the Bottle (Groundhog Day), have an engine that operates differently. As a screenwriter, I spent years working with producers and creative executives who didn’t understand the fundamentals of storytelling and habitually relied upon taking a strategy employed in one type of movie (usually whatever they’d just seen over the weekend) and applying it to an altogether different beast. And then they’d wonder how they’d managed to build a Frankenstein with no narrative or thematic cohesion! What drives a Dude with a Problem, for instance, isn’t necessarily going to fit in, say, an Institutionalized. But, there was no telling them that. Because people spend their lives consuming stories, they think they understand the complex machinations of narrative; I’ve been listening to music my whole life, but I don’t pretend to understand how to compose a song or symphony!

      I believe genre is one of the three critical components writers of fiction should study (along with structure and characterization), and, for my money, nobody’s codified it as cogently as Blake Snyder. But, as I’ve warned repeatedly on this blog — citing examples from American Beauty and Birdman and Whiplash, among others — beware “false prophets” who trade in the misapplication of technique. This stuff takes years to master, and there are an awful lot of folks who haven’t put in their “ten thousand hours” that are misguiding aspiring writers with hard-and-fast rules over versatile tools. To borrow a quote from Rush, “Fools and thieves are well disguised / In the temple and marketplace”…

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