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Structure--stories with changing goals

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Incanus, Aug 5, 2014.

  1. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    I've noticed that some stories don't have a goal that goes all the way from the beginning through to the end. This pertains to the overall story goal, however, and not to any particular character's personal goal.

    I've been thinking about the structure of two movies that seem to work this way:

    Jurassic Park (not the book version, which I haven't read)
    Alien (the very first)

    As far as I can tell, the story goal changes as the situation changes.

    In the case of Jurassic Park, however, it could just have a really, really long set-up. It is fully an hour into the film before the characters begin the goal of--we're in trouble, let's get the hell out of here.

    In Alien, the goal keeps changing. At first, they're just heading back to earth (or wherever they're bringing they're payload). The computer gives them a mission and they have to investigate a planet (new goal). And then, again, it is fully an hour into the movie before we have a full-grown alien and a goal of--survive, or defeat the alien.

    Another curious feature about alien: The alien is the antagonist, but isn't a full-fledged character until half-way through the story.

    I'm contemplating a story that has similarities with these structures.

    My questions are: Has anyone around here worked on anything like this? Are there any pitfalls to these structures? What effect do these structures have on a personal character goal that does go through the whole story? If I make each goal a logical extention of the previous one, will that be enough to make it work? Am I missing anything crucial?
  2. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    I might be misreading this, but I think it's wrong to think of a story as changing goals. So apologies if the following seems too obvious:

    The goals aren't the point of any story - they're what the characters are trying to do - which isn't the same thing at all.

    Jurrasic park is about Hubris and how it can all go wrong. The character arcs for each character are totally different - and it's the character arcs for each - what they learn and how they respond that are important.
    e.g. Hammond comes to realize his folly by the end - (in the book he doesn't and dies as a result).
    Grant starts out by denying the creatures their right to exist (they're manufactured - more so in the book) but accepts them by the end. Speilberg added family values on top of it all which makes the film very different from the book.

    The alien in Alien is similarly brought into existence by Ash's actions, and from then on its really a force of nature rather than a 'character' as such. The goals aren't really changing for the story - it's always about the unknown and how to approach it.
    I wouldn't classify the as an antagonist in the strict sense of the term - it's an obstacle to overcome. It could equally well be a swarm of bees, a twister or even a ship turned upside down that has to be escaped.

    A Character's apparent goals will change constantly in many stories as their situation changes, but these aren't the story's goals or what the overall story and its message is normally about - which is normally consistent.

    In a story a character (hero) will normally learn something by the end of the story (what they learn is the real goal of the story)- this could be anything: how to be a good father, how to tell who the bad guys really are, how to use the force etc.. The act of learning it makes them grow in some way and they can't go back to what and where they were before.

    An antihero by comparison will miss the point and continue to make the same mistake not learning by their actions - they end up in largely the same position as at the start of the story . (This can be tragic, comic or just sad).
    Jabrosky and Incanus like this.
  3. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Thanks Terry. You're definitely on point here. Any vaguery in my original post is the direct result of my own gaps in understanding these issues.

    I clearly misused the term 'antagonist' when referring to the 'Alien'. I usually know better...

    It's possible that I'm just over-thinking this. It wouldn't be the first time!

    For my own story, I think I may be OK then: my MC has a goal from the the beginning of the story, but there is a separate, more immediate issue to deal with at the time that doesn't seem related. This immediate goal yields questions and events that spur another immediate goal, and so on, until it is seen, in the end, that it is all connected. And like the stories being discussed here, there really is no single, personified antagonist--and it may be this point that's got me going around in circles.

    Regarding Alien, though: Ripley is the MC. I don't see her as having a character related goal that runs through the whole story. She is reacting to changing, developing circumstances. If the 'unknown' is the issue, then the story is really a 'mystery', but it doesn't seem to play out like one.

    The other thing that seems to confuse me in general, is when you have a group of characters with a goal (as so much fantasy and sci-fi does), like having a quest or mission; and the individual members of the group have goals. Is there a story goal? Or only a character goal?

    Maybe the term 'story goal' is my hang up? Do I need to think of goals only in terms of characters, rather than a whole plot?
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    The WIP I am attempting to finish rewriting/editing these days is something like that.

    Titus Maximus was sent to the other side of the world to 'lay low' after a bit of skullduggery blew up in his face.

    Family elders told him to track down some long missing family heirlooms while he was at it.

    But once he finds the heirlooms, other things change. Titus begins to see the world differently, and develops new goals accordingly. His original mission fades to the point of irrelevance.
  5. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    Usually the character goals complicate the story goal or change as a result of complications others wrought.

    Story goal: get the ring to Mordor

    Character goals: help Frodo, but these change to:
    Boromir: Take ring for Gondor
    Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas: Save Merry and Pippin
    Merry and Pippin: first, convince the Ents to attack Isengard, then serve Eowyn and Denethor, respectively during battle
    Sam: share the load, before going back to helping Frodo
    Gollum: help nice hobbitses, then steal ring for self
    Frodo: don't let ring defeat him before he gets to Cracks of Doom
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I think changing goals are vital to a story. They reflect character growth.

    In my own WIP, my MC starts out only wanting to negotiate a treaty for Rome. Then he finds out there's an invasion pending. Then all he wants to do is get is legion safely back into Roman territory. Then he finds he must fight the threat himself. He starts out caring mostly about himself, but he ends up fighting for the Empire itself. Every change in goals reflects a step along the path of growth and self-discovery.

    Characters can, of course, start and end with the same goal. Sam Spade does that in the Maltese Falcon and in The Big Sleep. In short, it all depends on the story you want to tell.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Stories are made up of different types of goals. There are story goals and personal goals and goals that pertain the the current situation.

    Let's use Star Wars as an example.

    The story goal is to rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star.

    The personal goal for our protagonist is to become a Jedi/pilot like his father.

    Then there's the scene to scene goals that will lead Luke toward the story and personal goals. It's the denial of and the complications arising from achieving these goals that advance the story and character.

    For example. Luke finds the message in R2-D2 that mentions Obi Wan Kenobi. So his goal is now to find out who this Obi Wan is. He talks to his Uncle and Aunt about it, but they don't tell him much. Goal denied. But he persists and remembers Ben Kenobi. Ignoring his Uncles warnings about staying away from Ben, Luke goes and searches him out. He runs into sand people, which is an obstacle to his goal. But eventually, he finds Ben and learns who he is. Goal achieved, but there are consequences. While Luke is with Ben Storm Troopers track the droids to the farm and his Aunt and Uncle are killed.

    This leads us to the next goal, help Ben get to Mos Eisley and find a ship to get off world. Obstacles get in their way. Luke gets into trouble in the bar and Ben has to rescue him, but this draws unwanted attention. They find a ship, but now the empire is on to them.


    These are broad strokes and can be broken down into a finer grain, but the goal is to illustrate a point. Story is a winding path where your protagonist is on a trail leading from one goal to the next toward the end of the story. Notice in Star Wars story goal comes in two parts rescue the princess then destroy the Death Star. And Luke's personal goal remains constant but incomplete at the end. Though he becomes a pilot, he has only taken the first step to becoming a Jedi.

    I would strongly suggest you read up on Scene Sequel plotting.

    Here are some links that may be helpful.

    Scenes and Sequels – Advice from Jim Butcher | MoreKnown

    jimbutcher: SCENES
    jimbutcher: SEQUELS

    It's kind of late, so hopefully, some of this makes sense.
  8. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    IWhat I think you're talking about is the degree that goals can appear in connected stages, or be episodic, rather than being a single unified arc-- or sometimes it's just that the characters don't see the arc they're on until they're halfway through it.

    In Alien the arc is to survive, but the crew doesn't know that until they learn what they've stirred up (and then, that the early mission was planned for that as well). Lord of the Rings starts by just getting the Ring to Rivendell, before Frodo accepts that isn't far enough to save Middle-Earth, and that in turn breaks into its parallel missions.

    For contrast: Pitch Black is a movie a lot like Alien, but it organizes its arc around the crew crashing on a planet and needing to escape; critters appear in the course of things. Does the added, organizing goal make it a better movie than Alien? Of course not (though it does alright).

    Or you can have openly episodic stories, where each "goal" is barely connected to the next, but only at the end does it come back to say they're all "making him the man who can face his problem"-- or there may be no overarcing goal at all.

    The real question is, in to what degree and in what way are the scenes, chapters, and so on connected? A strong plan can strengthen the story's theme if it doesn't feel forced, but a looser approach might work better for different stories. (Sometimes it comes down to character rather than plot; if you have a sense from the start that the hero's journey all comes down to learning X internally, that may be too good a theme not to build on.)

    So I think the idea of a single overarcing goal is one of those "rules" that every writer should both 1) know and respect (because it's the purest and easiest way to write it), and 2) then know how to break (if the story works better that way).
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Thanks, everyone, for adding to this discussion.

    I've been thinking about how this stuff applies to different stories, and while I enjoyed reading about the LoTR and Star Wars plot bits, both of these stories have the constant story goal that don't really apply in the examples I used, or the story structure I'm contemplating. And yes, I think logically connecting everything will go a long way toward making it all work out, and keeping it from being episodic.

    But, I had a mini-revelation about this last night. wordwalker's final comment echoes it.

    I realized that the 'writing rules' are useful for describing a great many situations, they have been extrapolated from the long history of storytelling, but they are not the absolute, ultimate rules that must be present in every story.

    The next question becomes: Is a theoretical knowledge of these rules sufficient for my WIP, or should I first gain practicle, hands-on experience with a novel that follows the 'rules' a little more traditionally? (I've been debating this out loud in the 'practice novel' thread started by Phillip Overby.)
  10. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    @skip.knox and ThinkerX. Both these stories sound like they have at least some similarity with what I'm doing.

    Maybe what I better need to understand is the so-called 'Macguffin'.
  11. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    There are always two levels of goals for each character. There are many labels for them, but the simplest labels are probably External Goal and Internal Goal. The External Goal is usually the story goal, defeat the empire, etc., and can be shared by other characters. The Internal Goal is personal to the character, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

    The External Goal and Internal Goal often conflict with one another within one character. Eg. Does Han Solo stay help defeat the empire or leave to pay off Jabba. Other times, the Internal Goals of different characters may come within conflict. Eg. One character wants to bring the villain back alive, but the other wants to kill them.

    I'm not as intimately familiar with Jurassic Park, but I'm fairly confident that there's a overarching goal. In Alien, the way I see it, there is, so it's perfectly in line with stories like Star Wars.

    The overall story goal is to finish the job, and get paid, which changes to just survive and escape. Or you could simply just say the goal is to get home.

    It's not obvious at first, but the main protagonist is Ripley, and her personal goal got edited out to IMHO disguise this fact. She had a daughter and her personal goal was to get back to her. It's been a while since I saw Alien, but I'm confident they replace that with a personal development goal of becoming more human, less cold.

    Now there's a string of obstacles that stop Ripley and the crew from achieving the main goal. First the computer pics up an unknown signal which brings them out of hyper-sleep. They want to ignore the signal and continue on, but they'll forfeit their pay if they do. So the immediate goal becomes they have to investigate the signal.

    While landing on the planet to seek out the source of the signal, the ship's hull gets breached, getting them into deeper trouble. Now they have two goals, investigate the signal and repair the ship and get off world.

    They find the source of the signal, but there's a cost. They bring aboard the alien. And though they repair the ship and get off world, again, there's a cost. Now they risk unleashing the alien on human inhabited space if they return.

    As for if you should write something following the "rules" before you break them, from your brief description of your story, I don't see it as breaking the rules. To me, it follows a the standard one goal leading to problems and one goal leading to the next goal or forking off into more goals, which lead to more problems, etc.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
    Incanus likes this.
  12. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Penpilot, I think you are right about the overall plot of alien. The new mission introduced while en route home really does just serve as an 'obstacle' to be overcome. And when it is overcome, only more and more obstacles are introduced. So in this sense, it follows an age old plot where plot developments just put the protagonist one more step further back from their goal than they were before (To get home, I need to do X. But now, something else happens, and to get home, I need to do X, Y, and Z, etc.)

    However, I still see this as a somewhat less 'tidy, clean, straight-forward' plot than Star Wars. And as you pointed out, Ripley does not emerge immediately as the protagonist, and that at least has to be a little unusual.

    So, both Alien and my WIP may not break any plot rules, but they do seem to bend them--though how much exactly I'm not sure...

    Still not seeing any external goal for Jurassic Park that goes through the whole story (again, only the movie version).

    And then there's A Song of Ice and Fire. No protagonist, no antagonist, and either no MC, or several; many, many personal, internal goals, but an overall story goal? Not seeing it. Whatever it is, it's a curious structure.
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For sure, Alien is a hard movie to pin down and put in a standard box. I say it does fit into the stand story but it definitely pushes the boundaries.

    Maybe that's a way for you to settle into your story and get comfortable with it. First, look at the parts that fit neatly into the box and nail those down. Once you're comfortable with the stuff that fits in the box, think about the parts that are pushing the sides and spilling over the top and see how they relate to the stuff that fits inside the box neatly.

    This gives you an anchor point for your story, so you don't lose your way.

    The way I see ASOIF, which is speculation on my part, is the protagonist are the Lords of the land. The antagonists are the Others. The overall story goal is to survive the coming winter.

    The overall story question seems to be can the lords resolve their conflicts and unite the lands in time to prepare for the coming winter and the return of the Others.

    I think the reason the goals are hard to see is because the story so gosh darn long. It's like looking at the Earth from space. From that view point it's obviously round, but when you're standing on the surface, it looks quite flat, and the thought that it may be round may not even occur.
    Incanus likes this.
  14. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Great points, Penpilot. Your way of looking at GoT is useful, whether or not it is ultimately agreed upon by all. Having the protagonist position being represented by a group definitely confuses the issue in general, but makes a certain kind of sense within its own story (if that makes any sense).

    You're probably right in how I should approach my own WIP. It makes me more than a little apprehensive, though. I feel like I need to do better in analyzing existing stories, or gain experience by working on something a little more managable.

    And this segues with another idea I've been contemplating: the practice novel, which I will take up in that thread...

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