Overcoming Difficult Universes

Story goals that find characters breaking free of being stuck in the external world.

Neighboring countries lock themselves in an epic struggle. Families fight to maintain slowly slipping bonds. Estates exorcize the ghosts of residents past. Resolving these rather tenuous conflicts requires focused purpose.

In story, this purpose goes by the name Story Goal.

By definition, goals beg accomplishment. One either achieves success or loses to failure while attempting to reach a goal--a rather simple structural concept to grasp. Yet, the very nature of that goal evades such simplicity.

In the first and second articles of this series, goals born of problematic activities took center stage. Whether it was stopping police corruption in L.A Confidential or getting the word out about the East German suicide rate in The Lives of Others, resolution in those stories required some form of doing, obtaining, learning or understanding. Problematic activities brought forth goals of activity.

But what of stories where the simple act of doing isn't enough? What of stories bred from a completely different kind of external problem?

Problems and their solutions

What class of problem begins with the Inciting Incident of a story? If the first major plot event sends things out of control, then stopping or ceasing those problematic activities becomes the purpose of the Protagonist. If, on the other hand, the Inciting Incident shifts the status of things locking the characters into an untenable situation, then unsticking them from this newly formed problematic situation becomes the purpose of the Protagonist.

Too subtle a distinction?

Trying to control a problematic situation only maintains that situation, prolonging conflict. Trying to unlatch problematic activities? How does one unlatch something that isn't stuck? In problem-solving, activity and situation strike an incompatible discord. Thus, when seeing stories as models of problem-solving, a greater resolution of distinction (splitting problems into activities or situations) leads to more congruent storytelling. Righting an inequity requires a goal similar in nature to the inequity itself.

Ending a story the way it should be ended

The original Star Wars began with an Empire illegally boarding a diplomatic ship. While the characters were stuck in an untenable situation (Civil War), what was needed for resolution from this out-of-control governing body was to find a way to fight back. The problem of major concern lied within the out-of-control actions of the Empire, not the Civil War itself. This is why resolution arrived at the end, even though both sides still existed. The Protagonist found a solution to the problem that began the story. An activity (fighting more effectively) resolved a problematic activity.

Same with The Matrix. The characters didn't escape their predicament, they found a way to fight back. Problems didn't really start until Morpheus placed all his trust in Mr. Andersen. These rogue cogs needed to be reigned in, or the cogs needed to find a way to act even more out-of-control. The Protagonist discovered the latter thereby resolving the problem created by that initial act of faith.

Problematic situations require situational-type goals.

The goal of the here and now

In the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film The Counterfeiters, problems for everyone begin with the German Army's decision to collect all the prisoners with artistic or printing talents. Forced into a special section of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the characters have but one goal: survival. Far from the actions of an evil Empire or technological overlords, the decisions to forge the pound and later the dollar place these prisoners of war smack dab into a problematic situation. Their problems arise from being stuck and thus, resolution can only come from liberation.

Liberation of quite a different sort finds light in Dreamworks' 1998 animated film Antz. Forced to dig a "Mega Tunnel" in order to alleviate their colony's food shortage, these six-legged slaves endeavor to buck the system for which they are a part of. Dislodging the conformist military state towards one that both preserves their society and honors all members becomes the story's goal.

In both cases, overcoming the present state of things shines as the light at the end of the tunnel.

The goal of ebb and flow

In the 1979 Oscar winner Breaking Away four working-class friends find themselves stuck in a college town with no real sense of direction for their lives. The lack of progress for them defines the central conflict, especially when the more purpose-driven local college students invade the boys' favorite watering hole. Joining the ranks of such films like Saving Private Ryan and Finding Nemo, Breaking Away provides an easy answer as to the question of the Story Goal, hinting at the eventual outcome. Finding this new direction, essentially shifting the momentum of things, dislodges the conflict between the university college students and lackadaisical townies, and brings the boys' problematic situation to a close.

The same story dynamic occurs in The Iron Giant, yet here the problems have less to do with alienation and more to do with an alien in our nation. Threats, both real and imagined, create a heightened sense of paranoia for those stuck within the 1950s Cold War era. Beginning with the metal monster's fall to Earth and ending with his eventual self-destruction, the story's central inequity finds resolution in the simple symbol of altered direction: a monument in the park. A gesture meant to honor, in fact, cements forever the progress towards less hysterical times.

These stories feature goals of progress. Managing Progress over time defines the finish line.

The goal of things that have been

Stories can deal not only with problems in the here and now and with Progress, but also with troublesome pasts.

Like Chinatown, Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 American debut Rebecca features characters struggling with history. The de Winter's hasty marriage rattles the closet full of skeletons known as Manderley, beginning the story's central problem. The only way to restore balance lies in overcoming what happened there so many years ago. The raging fire at the end seals the tomb of secrets signifying a successful outcome to their struggle.

In Tender Mercies, trouble begins when a young widow allows an alcoholic singer into her part of Texas. Everyone in this story struggles with the weight of painful and excessive baggage: the widow deals with the absence of her departed husband, her son struggles with the loss of the same man, and the country singer himself faces an ex-wife, his daughter and a career long since lost. No one moves forward until they can reach the goal of moving past their past. The singer's decision to finally come clean with his wife and start anew wipes clean the slate of inequity.

The goal of things to come

In Braveheart, the good people of Scotland find themselves trapped under the rule of a cruel despotic King, Edward the Longshanks. Beginning with the lack of a true heir to Scotland and made more dissonant with a betrayal of truce, the helpless farmers argue and despair, looking longingly towards a country of their own. Their goal, their ultimate resolution, rests in securing a future for Scotland--a reality made possible with a final charge from Robert the Bruce.

In Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption problems begin when a distraught banker arrives at the home of his wife's lover drunk and loaded to bear. Sentenced to life, the banker disrupts the the stasis of prison life. Latching on to the hope and promise of a brighter future--something many of them gave up a long time ago--sits as the only Goal capable of reversing the inequity of unjust imprisonment. Made material in the form of Zihuatenjo, this new world represents the only way out for anyone--regardless of their own personal Shawshank--a chance to finally break free.

A move to the inside

Whether it be struggling to overcome a dark and heavy past, surviving in the present, fighting to shift momentum in the way things are changing, or developing and holding on to the promise of a brighter future, the characters in these stories face Earth-shattering situations. Breaking free from their worldly bonds resolves the issues in their lives and brings balance back to their worlds.

But there is another bond characters can sometimes find themselves faced with. A bond similar in nature to those described above yet vastly different in the material with which it explores. Like the bonds of slavery or imprisonment, the bonds of prejudice and of hatred can enslave characters just as well. In the next article, the focus will shift to these problems born of fixed mindsets and show how changing the situation within the minds of characters can also bring about resolution.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Dramatica theory of story breaks the Universe domain into 4 different Types: Past, Present, Progress, and Future. Different in shape and form from the problematic activities of the Physics domain, these kinds of problems exhibit static qualities. This is not to say that growth does not exist in these stories, only that the core problem at the center lies within a situation out-of-balance. Dislodging the stuck nature of a problematic situation becomes the Goal of a Protagonist in these kinds of stories.

Originally published 05-18-2012

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