Character Goal vs. Story Question

When I was writing the May’s Workshop post I had a revelation. The Hero’s goal is not the story question. I used Star Wars as the example and had already established the story question as “Will Luke return the stolen plans to the Rebellion in time for them to use them?” Right at the beginning of the film it is Lord Vader who starts the story question by boarding the Rebel cruiser looking for the stolen plans. The question is asked fully when Luke stumbles on Leia’s message while cleaning Artoo. But is that Luke’s goal?

No. His original goal, while living with his aunt and uncle, was the go off to the Imperial Army. Luke wanted to join the Empire. But once Artoo enters his life Luke’s goal changes. He wants to discover who the girl in the hologram is and who owned Artoo before him and of course learning about his father. After his discovers Artoo  missing Luke’s next goal is find the run away droid before Uncle Owen discovers he’s missing. All of these mini-goals pushes the story forward towards the First Plot Point.

With Obi-Wan’s help Luke learns that he needs to take the plans to the Princess on the planet of Alderaan. Therefore when Luke reaches Plot Point 1 his goal is “Return the plans to Alderaan”. His initial goal is almost the story question, but not quite. When Alderaan is destroyed Luke finds himself without a goal, but the story question still exists. Luke without a goal is the obstacle. Now he has stolen plans but nowhere to take them. When Han spots the lone TIE fighter and pursues it they are captured by the Death Star and Luke has a new goal, “Escape the Death Star”. This new goal has nothing to do with the story question directly, but if he doesn’t escape then he won’t get the plans to the Rebels.

Being captured by the Death Star is just another obstacle put in Luke’s way by the writer, but to Luke it’s seen as a goal unto itself. At this point he has no idea where he needs to take the plans, he just knows that he doesn’t want to be killed on the Death Star. After taking over the Control Room, the heroes determine that the tractor beam needs to be turned off, allowing them to leave. Obi-Wan decides that something he can do and he sets off. Luke still has a goal, but he has nothing to do at the moment.

Rule one of a screenplay is that the Hero makes the decisions and takes the risks, yet we have Luke hanging out in the Control Room with a goal on hold. This is when Artoo gives Luke his next goal, “Rescue the Princess”. This new goal helps get Luke get back on track with the story question because Leia knows where to take the stolen data plans. All of Luke’s goals are still tied to the story question, but they are all short term goals, story beats.

After rescuing the Princess they return to the “Escape the Death Star” goal as they split up and run around the battle station looking for their way back to the Millennium Falcon. Once Obi-Wan is killed and they escape Luke is once again without a goal. He sits in the Falcon upset about losing Obi-Wan until the TIE fighters attack. Finally he gets the plans to the Rebellion, but the story question is not answered because now the Death Star is getting close. The first part of the question has been answered, but with the Death Star looming, the second part looks questionable. It isn’t until Luke has destroyed the Death Star and Vader is sent into deep space that the question is answered.

When writing for screenplay remember that your hero has their own goals and those goals change based on the obstacles you throw at them. If your Hero’s goal doesn’t change very often then he’s not encountering enough obstacles. So get to the keyboard and blow up Alderaan and see where that takes your hero.

– Steve

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