Screenwriting 101: Goals and Obstacles

Goals and Obstacles

Most screenwriters have at some point come across the standard formula for writing screenplays. It goes something like this:

Good scripts involve a protagonist striving for a goal against obstacles. The obstacles get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on.

Additionally, the protagonist has some kind of personal growth that needs to be achieved, which has left the protagonist in a kind of emotional stasis at the beginning of the film. In the end, the protagonist must achieve this personal growth in order to overcome the final, greatest obstacle and accomplish the goal, or fail to change and lose.

Furthermore, a good screenplay is divided into three acts and there are specific milestones you should reach at specific points in each act. For example, in the first act, there is an Inciting Incident that disrupts the protagonist’s normal life. About halfway through the second act, there should be some kind of twist: things are not what they seem, or a friend betrays the protagonist, or a major new obstacle is thrown into the mix, etc. In the third act, right before the protagonist achieves his goal, there should be a moment when it appears all is lost. Conversely, if the protagonist eventually fails, there should be a moment when he appears to succeed.

I could go on, but you get the point. Some of this just boils down to common sense. The three-act structure is just a way to say that a film has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Inciting Incident another way to say every story has to start somewhere.

But I hope you can see how limiting this formula is, as if there is only one type of story that can ever be told. A dogged adherence to this formula is one of the reasons for the bland sameness of so many mainstream movies; they all follow the same rhythms, the same plot beats, the same character arcs.

There is one essential truth to be taken out of all of this: a good story involves a character striving against obstacles towards a specific goal.

This is the heart of drama. It keeps the audience involved and drives the narrative arc forward.

But how this plays out doesn’t need to follow any standard formula. There are so many more possibilities. Let’s take a look at three classic films and see what lessons they have for us.

Citizen Kane

In Citizen Kane, the specific goal that pushes the story into motion is the journalist trying to find the meaning of Kane’s last word “Rosebud.” It’s through his interviews with the people who knew Kane that we see the mosaic of Kane’s life story. But the journalist is not the protagonist of the story; he has no personal arc that allows him to achieve or fail at his goal; his search does not provide the emotional momentum of the story; and the eventual answer does not provide the audience with the ultimate solution to the puzzle of the film, but is simply a small piece in it.

The search for the meaning of Rosebud is the framing device that gets the audience into the story. Important, yes, memorable, yes, but not the spine of the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey

What is the main goal this movie? Answering the mystery of the monolith? This is more a goal of the audience than the characters. The prehistoric ape-men of the first section aren’t interested in answering the question. Dr. Floyd in the second section is, but the astronauts aboard the Discovery during the third and main section of the film, don’t even know about the monolith. Their main goal is to stay alive when their life support is entirely in the hands of a malfunctioning super-computer that wants them dead.

This struggle for survival makes up the largest section of the movie, but in a 140 minute movie, this narrative arc isn’t even introduced until 50 minutes in, and the problem is resolved with 25 minutes left in the film, so only about half of the film involves this story and the entire last act does not. Again, it’s an interesting and memorable element that keeps the audience involved, but it’s not what the movie is about. No single character goal provides the spine of the picture.

The Godfather

Even a movie like The Godfather, the most traditional of these three movies in terms of narrative, only tangentially follows this formula. I had a writing teacher who suggested that the specific goal of this movie is the Corleone family trying to stay out of the heroin business. This sets the main action of the film in motion, but it’s not what the heart of the film is about. The film is about many other things: capitalism and crime, the cost of loyalty to a corrupt family. Coppola himself says that when he was making it, he identified the main theme of the film as “succession” and referred back to that theme whenever questions arose in the production. The film is far more than can be summed up by a single specific goal.

In each of these films, you can see how giving characters specific goals to achieve and throwing obstacles in their way drives the story and keeps the audience engaged. Whether in overarching goals for an entire film or smaller goals for individual scenes, this is the heart of drama.

But beyond that, formula is just formula. The arcs stories can take are as endless as all the variations of the human condition.

Always make your films breath with life and imagination and daring.



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