Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #14: Goal not primal enough

Another issue that I frequently see in screenplays is that the protagonist’s goal doesn't have enough consequences. For example, if a movie is about a college freshman who must get to the school’s registration building by 3:00 or risk having to take her Intro to Biology class next semester, that’s not going to create a lot of sympathy in your audience. Why would anyone care whether or not she makes it to her registration on time? However, if an escaped mental patient has told her that she has to arrive at the registration building by 3:00 or he’s going to kill her entire family, then the audience will root for her to succeed. Though I’m not sure why an escaped mental patient would care about something like that. Give me some time – I’m still working out the details.
In order for stories to have universal appeal, the protagonist must be in a struggle that has primal consequences. This means that failure should result in the removal of, or inability to acquire, a basic biological need. There are many definitions of what our basic human needs are, but they can essentially be boiled down to:
  1. Safety – shelter, sustenance, financial security, and in the most extreme possibility, life or death
  2. Reproduction – finding a mate, becoming pregnant or making someone pregnant (or adopting), protecting the children that you already have
  3. Identity – finding out who you are or how you became the way that you are, confirming your sanity or lack thereof
Those issues are certainly worth fighting for, and the specific versions of them that you could include in your screenplay are limited only by your creativity. Would you rather watch a movie about a guy who’s trying to increase the annual return on his 401K from 6% to 8%, or one about a guy who has to raise $50,000 in two weeks in order to keep his home from going into foreclosure? Is a character more sympathetic if she wants to lessen the effects of her daughter’s seasonal allergies, or if she has just one hour to find an antidote for the exotic poison that her daughter has swallowed? If the consequences and potential results of your protagonist’s external goal aren’t intrinsic to her very well being, then the audience will not be able to sympathize with her and will therefore not care whether or not she succeeds. Make the goal about life or death, and the audience will stay engaged right up to the end.


  1. Phil, just discovered your site today and I'm eating it up. Hoping you're still actively checking comments! I know this posts are a little old.

    I'll allegorize my story to try to simplify my question about a primal goal: Let's say my hero is desperate to find a magical flower to save the world (seems primal enough), but he's unknowingly transported to a continent where that flower doesn't grow. Certainly new dangers abound that threaten his life, but he won't have a hope in hell of finding the flower until Act3 - even though he keeps trying.

    Would you say a story structure this way is fundamentally flawed or could you get behind a primal goal that the audience knows can't be met? (At least not "right now."