What It Means to Fail
Every story is an effort to resolve some kind of problem. The Protagonist’s success in this endeavor is largely determined by whether or not the appropriate solution is found.
Many stories, and not surprisingly many of Hollywood’s favorites, tell the tale of a Protagonist who injects the solution into the story’s problems, thereby bringing order and balance back into the lives of the characters. Stories of Triumph and Personal Triumph abound with Protagonists who win and Antagonists who lose. It is within the other side of the equation, the Personal Tragedy and Tragedy, where the success of these two dramatic opponents switches hands, leaving the original problem intact.
Failure is more than giving up
In his insightful treatise on play-writing, Backwards and Forwards, David Ball elaborates on what it means when a story ends:
Stasis comes about at the close of the play when the major forces of the play either get what they want or are forced to stop trying.
Stasis returns when the original problem is solved, thereby dissolving the original inequity. There are several stories, however, that do not regain this balance and do not return to a point of stasis. Hamlet, Amadeus, and Se7en are three prime examples of problems that linger on far beyond the last credit. It is less a case of the characters being forced to stop trying and more that a solution to the original problem was never found, or at the very least, was never employed.
Identifying the source of all problems
In How To Train Your Dragon problems exist because of the refusal of some characters to compromise. At first, this refusal only comes from Hiccup. His act of disobedience within the opening sequence sets the story off and forces Stoick, as Protagonist, to take the necessary action required to return things back to normal. As covered in the article How to Train Your Inciting Incident, Hiccup’s chaotic influence interrupts the tender balance between dragons and Vikings, ultimately driving Stoick to pursue the Story Goal of Training the next generation of dragon killers.
This inability to compromise though, can be found everywhere and not simply within Hiccup himself. Stoick’s refusal to allow Hiccup to train, the initial refusal by Toothless to take Hiccup on as a rider, Hiccup’s constant repudiation of traditional Viking teaching within the ring, Astrid’s resistance to Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless and the subsequent romantic flight that begins with Toothless’s initial rejection of Astrid…all of these are clear instances where standing one’s ground creates friction within the world of the story, friction that affects everyone.
Such friction becomes a good indicator of a story’s central problem.
Every problem carries with it its own solution
No matter what the problem is, its very existence automatically supplies the corresponding solution. If the problem is an overabundance of emotion as it is in The Godfather (Sonny’s overreaction, Don’s feeling about drugs), then it only follows that the solution would be a reliance on rational thought (as supplied by Tom Hagan and used to great success by Michael). If the problem is a repressive state of control as it is in Casablanca (exemplified by the Nazi’s presence and their willing benefactor Renault), then it would make sense that the solution be found in freedom (the rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” and of course, Ilsa and Laszlo’s escape). Identify the problem in a story and the corresponding dynamically opposed solution will present itself.
If the problem is a refusal to compromise, as it is in How To Train Your Dragon, then the solution would be a call for more tolerance, an acceptance of what is presented. But isn’t this what happened in the film? Didn’t Stoick come to accept his son for who he is?
Separate Throughlines and Their Solutions
Complete stories require that there be four throughlines. Beyond the obvious Main Character and Objective Storylines, there also needs to be someone who challenges the Main Character’s way of seeing things. This becomes the third throughline. The fourth and final throughline is covered by the relationship that develops between the two. In Dragon, this challenging character throughline is shared among three characters: Stoick, Astrid and Toothless. While each has their own motivations and place within the main story, their place within the structure of the story is the same: to force Hiccup to doubt his resolve.
In the end, Hiccup stands his ground (as all Steadfast Main Characters do), forcing the others in the relationship to change. Both Toothless and Astrid fall early, but it is Stoick’s change that carries with it the greater emotional resonance. His acceptance of Hiccup as his son resolves the problem within his own throughline. It does not, however, solve the problems within the story at large.
The reason for stories
These four throughlines provide an audience with an opportunity to look at problems from different perspectives simultaneously --something they cannot do in their own lives. This is the power of stories, and of movies, and the reason why audiences continue to seek out this experience time and time again. By assessing the outcomes of separate throughlines dealing with the same problem, an audience member can acquire some greater meaning to the order of things.
Failing to resolve the main story problem
So while Stoick was able to resolve his throughline by finding a greater tolerance for his son, in the larger picture that refusal to compromise persisted.
Remember in that previous article how Stoick was identified as the Protagonist and Hiccup the Antagonist? For Stoick to win, to successfully achieve his goal of Training the next generation of dragon killers Hiccup would have had to accept the Viking way and done away with all dragons. By mounting one of their heads above the fireplace, Hiccup would have employed that solution of tolerance the main story needed for a successful resolution.
But the story’s structure called for a completely different outcome.
Arriving at the final battle atop dragons wasn’t a sign of tolerating the dragons, it was a continuation of the mayhem originally begun by Hiccup. In effect, the kids were misbehaving, refusing to accept the training that Stoick and the others had hoped to instill in them. While they ultimately managed to save the day in the end, they did so by rejecting the Viking way.
Problems that persist
When a story ends in failure, the required solution was never employed. As explained in When Failure Becomes a Good Thing, the consequences of failing to reach the desired outcome can be painted in a more positive light as they are in How To Train Your Dragon. While the solution may be employed in one throughline, this does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome in every throughline. By mixing success and failure within the separate perspectives on a story’s problem, an author can construct a meaningful dissonance that provides an audience with a memorable and lasting experience.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The storyform for How To Train Your Dragon finds Non-Acceptance as a Problem in three of the four throughlines: Objective Story, Influence Character and Relationship Story. While failure is the outcome of the Objective Story (as described above), success is to be found in the Influence Character and Relationship Throughlines. Stoick’s Acceptance of his son shortly before his final attack on the huge dragon naturally rounds out his throughline and gives us a very clear example of a Change Influence Character. Their relationship finds resolve in Stoick’s Acceptance of Hiccup’s idea of how Vikings and Dragons should live together (proof of which lies within the closing sequence).
Interestingly enough, the storyform calls for Hiccup’s Problem to be Protection. As a Steadfast Main Character, this Problem will be seen more as a source of the Main Character’s drive rather than a problem to be solved and nowhere is this more evident than within the young Viking’s explanation for why he didn’t kill Toothless. As he explains to Astrid, he looked into the dragon’s eyes and saw himself (a prime candidate for the “You and I” montage if there ever was one), driven to Protect someone as helpless as he himself felt. In a more complex and extended story, the Solution of Inaction would have been seen in moments where Hiccup would have doubted himself and perhaps done nothing to protect a defenseless creature. With a running time close to 90 minutes, this sort of sophistication and nuance within a Steadfast Main Character falls by the wayside.