Today, I’m going to start a three-part series about protagonist goals, beginning with making the external goal as specific as possible. I’ve read many screenplays in which the protagonist simply bounces around from one situation to another and then the story comes to an end. When that happens, the reader has no idea what the story is about (and neither does the writer, BTW) or whether the protagonist has made any actual changes in his life. Without this kind of character arc, your audience will zone out faster than a nursing home resident after Thanksgiving dinner. Seriously, I have GOT to work on my analogies.
When I ask the authors of scripts like this what the protagonist’s goal is, they frequently give me answers like, “to be happier,” or, “to have a better relationship with his father,” or, ”to be in a romantic relationship,” etc. The problem with goals this vague is that it’s hard to know whether or not the protagonist has accomplished them. Your protagonist must have a clear, tangible, easily definable external goal so that the audience will root for him to accomplish it and then know with absolute certainty whether or not he was successful.
For example, if a protagonist’s goal is to be happier, maybe you could simplify that into getting a coveted promotion or becoming a naturalized citizen. If a protagonist wants to have a better relationship with his father, maybe you could represent that by stopping his family home from going into foreclosure, or perhaps playing one last game of catch with his dad’s ghost in a plowed-over Iowa cornfield. (If you write it, they will read…) If your hero’s goal is to be in a good relationship, then maybe you could narrow that down to something as specific as having someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, or convincing Suzie Tompkins to go to the prom with him, even though she’s a total skank and his next-door neighbor Laura has been totally in love with him since, like, the third grade. Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself from weaving in an incredibly original sub-plot.
Let’s look at some examples of good external goals from actual movies. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” Olive’s goal is not to be happy or to spend more time with her family (understandably). Her goal is to get to California in time to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, and even more specific than that, it’s to do the dance that her grandfather taught her during the talent part of that pageant. Excellent specificity with a great payoff. In “The Godfather,” Michael’s external goal is to stay out of the family business. Because his goal is this clear, the audience knows with absolute certainty that he has failed when Clemenza kisses his hand and calls him “Don Corleone.” If you want to give your audience a protagonist that they can root for and to end your movie with a satisfying sense of completion, the best way to do that is to give your protagonist this kind of clear, tangible external goal.