by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
External goals are the lifeblood of great scripts. We need to SEE the protagonist solving a problem, finding an object, or arriving at a destination. While the internal goal of a character may be what drives the emotions and themes in the story, nothing can happen until the character gets out of their chair and attempts to DO something.
Characters learn lessons and experience arcs only when they make decisions and take action. Oftentimes they fail, as we usually learn very little when we succeed. Likes most of us, characters usually need a few tries to get things right. The pursuit of the external goal is what we will WATCH the character do on screen. It couldn’t be more important. Here are five types of external goals or missions you might consider sending your character on.
1. The Physical Object
Perhaps the most basic goal is when a protagonist pursues a physical object. This goal is relatable to everyone, as we’ve all desired to have something. Structurally, this makes for a clear story, as it’s easy to tell when the protagonist has achieved their goal. We can see the object in their hand. Quentin Tarantino used a briefcase to drive much of Pulp Fiction. We never saw what was inside, but the golden glow that leaked from inside helped us understand why the characters desired it.
At its core, Raiders of the Lost Ark is about a man looking for buried treasure. The National Treasure films follow the same pattern. Michael Douglas became a Hollywood star looking for a precious jewel in Romancing the Stone. Robert De Niro and Edward Norton paired up to pursue a valuable object in The Score. The Ocean’s Eleven franchise is based around a similar external goal. While often used in the action/adventure genre, this goal is versatile and can even be used in comedies, as we see in Road Trip, when a group of friends go to Austin, Texas, to retrieve a sex tape before it falls into the wrong hands.
2. Friends and Family
Sometimes, the external goal doesn’t revolve around what but who. We all have an innate desire to rescue and be reunited with the ones we love. Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson have both made franchises out of this goal. Robert Downey Jr. returns to his hometown to save his father who has been accused of murder in The Judge. In Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx’s desire to be reunited with his wife drives the story. Steve Coogan accompanies Judi Dench in the pursuit of her son in Philomena. A group of men desperately try to locate their friend who is to be married the following day in The Hangover.
It’s his father that brings Indiana Jones on the Last Crusade, not the Holy Grail. More recently, Dwayne Johnson traverses the destruction of a major earthquake to find his daughter in San Andreas and John Conner goes through the trouble of sending Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah, in Terminator Genisys.
3. The Destination
The oldest external goal in stories seems to be simply trying to get back home. The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered to be the oldest story that was written down. Its plot revolves around this very idea. There’s something inside us that longs to get back to what we know and where we are known. Certainly, there’s comfort in the familiar, but there’s a greater mysterious magnetism to the place of our origin. There may not be words to articulate just why, but getting back home has struck a chord with audiences who listened to stories since the beginning of time. This is all Dorothy pursues in The Wizard of Oz. The plot of E.T. is the same.
Stories evolved beyond the destination of home and people began to enjoy hearing tales of characters who journeyed to other places – sometimes far away and exotic, other times through paths filled with danger and difficulty. The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes its plot from this idea. Films such as Race to Witch Mountain and Journey to the Center of the Earth feature their destination right in the title. Comedies often send characters to a simple destination but liter the path there with comical tribulation. We see this in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and Get Him to the Greek. And while the destination is epic in Exodus: God and Kings and Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s warm and personal in Up, when Carl Fredricksen travels to Paradise Falls.
4. The Achievement
Like us, protagonists find deep meaning in achievements. In the stories we create, we often send characters after the same goals we desire in our own lives. Seeing a character achieve something we ourselves want can be quite fulfilling. We begin to believe that if the character on screen can achieve it, perhaps we can too. In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer is after a promotion at work, something most of us can relate to. The Karate Kid just wants to win his tournament, something anyone who’s ever played sports can understand.
Sometimes, the achievement has greater stakes. In Zero Dark Thirty, the external goal is to kill Osama Bin Laden. In Argo, it’s getting a group of people out of Iran without getting everyone involved killed. But sometimes the goal is small and simple. In Mr. Holmes, Sherlock Holmes is just trying to remember the details of a case and commit it to paper. Other times, the goal is ludicrous or comical. In Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, the goal is to make the world a better place by discretely killing a judge. In Ted 2, the goal is to prove Ted, a teddy bear, is a person.
5. To Stop the Madness (and the Monsters)
All of us have ideas about what would set the world right. Many times, those ideas are just to stop the madness that surrounds us and perhaps slay a few dragons in the process. This desire often plays its self out in the stories we write. We see these desires fulfilled in superhero films ranging from The Dark Knight to Guardians of the Galaxy. Franchises like The Avengers and X-Men center around stopping the chaos brought about by evil forces – usually a super villain of some sort.
However, this goal is also used in stories where the madness is being caused by non-human forces. In Jurassic World, the goal is stopping the dinosaurs. In Jaws, it’s stopping the shark. In Planet of the Apes, it’s the apes. In Independence Day and Men in Black, it’s aliens.
Sometimes, this goal exists to stop the madness of ideas. In Selma and Milk, the goal is also to stop the madness – a madness caused by the way people think. It could be argued that there are “monsters” in those stories as well. But be they human or not, the goal in stories of this sort is to restore the peace, isolate those who would disturb it, and grant equality and freedom to every person.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.