As a quick recap, in our last discussion, we examined the starting point of our protagonist’s journey, the role of their actions and choices in propelling the narrative, and the significance of equipping the main character with relevant skills to aid their pursuit of the goal.

Speaking of goals…

What’s the Goal?

The protagonist must have something they are actively pursuing throughout the story. It’s their motivation to take the necessary steps to reach their intended target, no matter how difficult. 

“This commitment leads to conflict which he struggles heroically to overcome on his way towards his goal.  Active protagonists grab the audience’s interest and hold it” (Cowgill 46).  If the main character has nothing to do, then there’s no story for them to inhabit and no reason to watch or read what will happen to them.

Because nothing interesting will.

There has to be a goal in place at the start once the inciting incident has been introduced.  This should be an active verb:

  • to stop
  • to seduce
  • to win
  • to graduate
  • to capture
  • to arrest
  • to prevent
  • to keep
  • to help

Achieving this goal has to fulfill something in the protagonist, whether internal or external.  Their character arc is tied to reaching this goal.  As they set off on their journey, the experiences they have influence and change who they are for the better or worse as the story evolves.

These changes only happen if the main character is pushed outside their comfort zone and made to face their demons and who they are as a person.  Upping the stakes ”actually creates a story by driving the plot forward” (Edson 55).

How Do You Like Your Stakes?

If the protagonist fails to reach their goal, what will happen?  Are others depending on the hero to achieve the goal?  What will happen if they can’t make it?  How will their life and the lives of others be affected?

“High stakes motivate the hero to pursue big change” and give the audience and the protagonist a clear indication of the possible consequences if the goal isn’t reached (Edson 27).  

In the movie The Rock, our protagonist Stanley Goodspeed and his mentor John Mason have to stop Francis X. Hummel, a rogue military general who has taken over Alcatraz and is threatening to launch VX-poison gas rockets into the city of San Francisco, which will kill and disfigure thousands of people.  

Pretty high stakes!  If they fail, the end result is a lot of death and destruction.

In the movie Jingle All the Way, Howard Langston must acquire a Turbo Man action figure for his son on Christmas Eve to regain his respect and trust. If he fails, he risks ruining his relationship with his son and, quite possibly, his wife.

While these stakes aren’t as big as a city population being gassed, they are high stakes to Howard.

Both matter to the protagonists within their respective stories, which to them are considered life-and-death level stakes.  While it might not always be literal life-and-death, “[o]nly the highest motivation will drive the lead forward through all the insurmountable obstacles to come and keep viewers riveted to the very end” (Edson 29).

Despite a clear goal and understanding of the stakes, the main character can’t just waltz in and win their coveted prize.  Nope.  They have a few things they have to deal with first.

Problems and Conflicts and Obstacles, Oh My!

As the protagonist sets out on their journey, it has to become clear to them pretty fast that it won’t be a walk in the park.  It will be quite the opposite, actually.  In fact, while they might have a plan in mind that they believe will get them where they need to go easily, it has to become apparent that nothing will go their way.

The more conflict, obstacles, and other opposition happen to the protagonist on their way to their goal, the more interesting the story and the protagonist can become.  This is because:

“A character stands revealed through conflict; conflict begins with a decision; a decision is made because of the premise of your [story].  The character’s decision necessarily sets in motion another decision, from his adversary.  And it is these decisions, one resulting from the other, which propel the [story] to its ultimate destination: the proving of the premise” (Egri 63)

In The Rock, once Goodspeed and Mason, along with a team of Navy Seals, sneak onto Alcatraz, they are ambushed by Hummel and his men. A bloody firefight ensues, leaving only Goodspeed and Mason alive.  What would have been a much easier mission with a huge team is now down to two on an isolated island filled with gun-toting military men, VX gas rockets, a madman who could set them off if his demands aren’t met, and Mason deciding to abondon Goodspeed and let him deal with the situation on his own.

That’s a lot of problems, conflict, and opposition to deal with!

Likewise, in Jingle All the Way, Howard thinks he can walk into the first toy store he finds, get the Turbo Man, and go home.  But the action figure is sold out.  Everywhere.  All over the city.  And he has his antagonist, postal worker Myron Larabee, on his tail everywhere in pursuit of the same action figure for his son.  As the day wears on, Howard gets more desperate, runs into more obstacles, and makes desperate choices in his pursuit of the toy.

Howard’s goal is thwarted at every turn, and he must regroup, rethink, and plan a new path to his goal.

Next Time…

Our protagonist sure has to deal with a lot of stuff just to get what they want or need.  What happens once the goal is in sight?  What happens if they fail?  What will they gain or lose if they succeed or fail?  We’ll discuss these and more in the next post!

See you next time!

Sources:

Cowgill, Linda J.  Writing Short Films: Structure and Content for Screenwriters. Lone Eagle Publishing, 1997.

Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.

Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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