Changing Your Hero’s Goal

I’m sometimes challenged when I proclaim that the hero of a story must decide on his or her Outer Motivation during the New Situation, and that the pursuit of that one goal begins at the Change of Plans and carries us all the way through to the Climax. (If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, or with my approach to plot structure, see The Hero’s Two Journeys or my article, “The Five Key Turning Points of All Successful Stories.”)

Trevor Meyer, a Newsletter subscriber, puts it quite well:

Your Screenwriting for Hollywood and The Hero’s Two Journeys recordings have given me a brand new insight into my own writing – especially when it comes to the hero’s Inner Journey. The only concept I just can’t seem to wrap my head around is the idea that the hero needs to be aware of his end goal by the beginning of Act II. In most movies that come to mind, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

For example, at the Climax of STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. And we know that’s the ultimate goal of the film when we see it. But at the Change of Plans turning point, he doesn’t even know the Death Star exists.

And in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Steve Rogers wants to stop Hydra from killing millions of people. But he doesn’t even know that Hydra still exists until the midpoint. At the beginning of Act II, he just wants to catch Nick Fury’s killer.

Is it necessary for a story to have only one clearly defined Outer Motivation? Or can it be broken up into segments?

This is a question I generally like to avoid, because the biggest weakness I find in many of the stories I encounter is that they are too complicated. Characters seem to jump around pursuing one goal and then another, until we’re lost in the thicket of the plot with no clear outcome to root for.

Because my goal is always to make the process of developing a story as simple, clear and consistent as possible, anything that might confuse writers and storytellers concerns me. So at the risk of leading everyone astray, here is my answer:

Trevor is correct.

A hero’s goal can – and often does – change in the course of a film, a novel, or even a presentation.

But what you as a storyteller CAN’T do is create a hero who just hangs out for half the movie, then wants to stop an alien invasion, then tries to rob a bank, and then ultimately falls in love.

This is an absurd example, I realize, but it only seems absurd because we expect stories to follow a clear through-line.

So you hero’s Outer Motivation doesn’t so much change as it evolves. These multiple goals must easily transition from one to the next.

So in STAR WARS IV, Luke starts out wanting first to help save the Princess, then to become a Jedi Knight, then to help the rebels fight the Empire, and finally to destroy the Death Star. But these are all logically connected desires, and the audience is clear from the beginning of the film that they want Luke to save the day for the good guys.

In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Steve starts out wanting to find and stop Nick Fury’s killer. But that leads him to HYDRA, and his goal evolves into stopping that evil organization. His Outer Motivation has simply grown in scope and difficulty; it hasn’t significantly changed.

This type of evolving Outer Motivation is quite common in successful stories. But there are also instances where the hero’s goal actually DOES change – usually because the hero realizes there is a more important objective than his or her initial desire. Giving up the original Outer Motivation is a sign of growth and transformation – the hero is putting other’s needs above his or her own limiting desires.

In UP, Carl wants only to get his house to Paradise Falls – to give his late wife Ellie the adventure he promised her when she was alive. For the first half of the movie, he wants nothing to do with Russell or Doug or Kevin, who all stand between him and his self-centered desire.

But as Carl begins to shed his identity and allow himself to connect with the others, he realizes that helping Russell and Doug get Kevin to safety – and to her family – is more important than his own attachment to his house and his past.

So rescuing Kevin becomes Carl’s new Outer Motivation – his “higher calling” if you will – which the audience roots for, because we’re more emotionally invested in Carl living his essence and finding connection and fulfillment than we are in his achieving his original outer motivation.

As you develop your stories, first decide on your hero’s ultimate goal and destination. What do you want her to achieve at the climax of the film? Then, if that goal wouldn’t be logical at the Change of Plans (the 25% mark), or if that goal would not be consistent with the hero’s identity at the beginning of the story, then create an initial visible goal that will eventually evolve into the finish line your hero will cross at the end of your story.

– Michael