Does Your Screenplay Have a Goal Problem?

(And how to recognize and fix two common ones!)


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting

The story goal is a vital part of your story’s foundation, as we’ve talked about manymany (many) times.

So you, smart writer that you are, diligently defined it and plotted your screenplay around it.

Off to a great start!

And then you sat down and wrote all of those scenes, and… somehow the goal vanished. It’s just not there, no matter how hard a reader looks for it.

How did this vital story building block get lost on the way to the screenplay?

It’s actually more common than you might think.

Because there’s a difference between understanding the concepts we need to know in order to write an effective screenplay, and being able to execute them on the page.

Which is why we’re exploring techniques for actually getting it on the page in this series. (Today is episode 2 of 4; catch up here.)

The goal is the movie

There’s one thing at the heart of a movie’s plot, and that is the story goal. The story goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve by the end of the movie. It’s what the entire story is structured around.

Watching the character attempt to achieve this thing – whatever that goal is – that IS the movie.

The protagonist’s goal is typically:

  • established in the screenplay’s setup (Act 1),
  • pursued throughout the middle (Act 2),
  • and achieved (or not) in the story’s climax and resolution (Act 3).

When the protagonist’s goal isn’t clearly established, it can result in a couple of things:

  • The story lacks a sense of direction, we don’t know where we’re headed, so the reader feels confused.
  • We don’t know what the protagonist is trying to achieve, so we don’t know why he’s doing the things he’s doing, and so the reader feels confused.

(Notice a pattern?)

And if the reader feels confused and believes it’s not intentional on the writer’s part, that reader will quickly lose confidence in the script.

Instead, we want to know what the protagonist is trying to achieve. That target orients us to everything that’s happening in the script. It helps us understand why the action is happening. As the story progresses, it’s how we know whether the protagonist is winning or losing. It’s part of the tension equation you create in the script.

In other words, if we understand where we’re trying to go then we can tell how we’re doing. If we don’t know where we’re going, very little makes sense.

(And if we know where we’re going and we care about it, then we’ll be on the edge of our seats. But more on that in next week’s stakes article.)

What’s the worst that could happen?

When it comes to the story goal, the issues I’ve noticed tend to fall into these two types:

  1. The script doesn’t clearly establish a goal, which affects the structure (it feels like there’s no Break into Act 2), and the pacing (the script lacks a sense of momentum), not to mention that the reader ends up feeling confused and bored because we just don’t know enough to understand why things are happening.

    But there’s also this other issue that we sometimes see…

  2. The script establishes a clear story goal, but does it via one big exposition-y scene. In this case, what comes before it (the rest of Act 1) can end up feeling sort of inconsequential, or at least not as effective as it should. And, in addition to that, this type of Break into Act 2 scene can feel clunky and bogged down in too much dialogue, which can make it feel slow and – well, clunky. We want that Break into Act 2 to feel more like a sharp turn, or a slingshot shooting us into Act 2. We want energy and momentum. It can be hard to achieve that in a scene that’s very information- and dialogue-heavy.

So your goal, as the writer, is to make the story goal clear to the reader, and to do it elegantly.

We’re going to look at how to avoid both of these issues today. And the whole point of this series is to look at real examples, to see the theory in practice. So let’s see it on the page!

Children of Men, screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton

(Download the screenplay here, if you’d like.)

Just to recap: usually the goal is firmly established at the Break into Act 2 or just before it. The commitment to that goal helps create the turn in the plot. It gives us the feeling that the story is now launching into a new direction, into the Act 2 Adventure.

In the Children of Men screenplay – page 30 – protagonist Theo says:

“I’ll do it.”

Now that’s commitment! But what is he going to do?

That information was set up earlier so that this scene doesn’t have to be a big exposition dump, and it also lets the story build tension and stakes before Theo does commit.

So where was the goal set up?

In this script there are two other scenes that help establish exactly what Theo is going to do:

  • On page 18, Theo’s ex-wife Julian asks him for help getting an exit visa that she needs in order to move a girl who is in danger out of the country.
  • On page 26, Theo hands over the exit visa to Julian’s associates and we learn it’s a specific kind that would require him to accompany the girl if they’re going to use it. They tell Theo he will have to come too. But at this point, Theo is unwilling to go along.

It’s not until page 30 that Theo finally agrees to the goal: to help transport the girl out of the country.

In this scene we get a few additional details around what’s going to happen, or how Theo thinks it’s going to work – they have to leave tomorrow, he says he’ll take the girl to Paris and then he’s done. But the heavy lifting of establishing the goal comes earlier.

And I just want to point out that it’s very, very clear exactly what Theo is committing to, but it doesn’t feel clunky or cliché or on the nose.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think sometimes writers get a little skittish about stating things clearly because they’ve been warned off of being on-the-nose. But being unclear doesn’t help anyone.

Game Night, By Mark Perez, Revisions By Dana Fox & Katherine Silberman, Current Revisions by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley

(Download the screenplay here, if you’d like. Warning: adult content and language.)

Just for some quick background, in this script Max is the protagonist, Annie is his wife, and Brooks is Max’s brother. Max and Annie are competitive people and have a long tradition of hosting game nights. Max and Brooks love each other but have a strong sibling rivalry, and Brooks seems to be winning at life (more money, glamorous job, etc.)

On page 25, Max is complaining to Annie about how Brooks is constantly undermining him and he says: “You know I’ve never won a game against him?” Max is at a point where he needs to feel like he’s not inferior to Brooks (all established on the page!), and when Max asks Annie what to do she tells him simply:

“I don’t know. Beat him?”

The scene description then ends on, “Max considers this. It’s a damn good idea.” And here comes the Act 2 Adventure.

So this is the moment of commitment to the story goal. Nice and clear, which creates a strong turn in the story.

But what is Max going to “beat him” at? Game Night! (It’s right there in the title.)

And just like the Children of Men example, there are details that help clarify what the goal is and how it’s going to work – which are conveyed prior to the Break into Act 2 scene. Specifically:

  • We see how a typical Game Night works for this group of friends.
  • Brooks announces he’s going to host the next Game Night (stepping on Max’s toes), so we already know the what, when, and where before Max commits to beating Brooks at it.

Since these things have been established prior to the moment of commitment, there’s no need for Max and Annie (and anyone else) to dump a bunch of exposition on us about what beating Brooks means, how, when, or where it should happen, etc.

What if your protagonist doesn’t have a goal?

Now, while I use the term story goal to talk about what the protagonist is going to do in Act 2, I absolutely acknowledge that for some movies this term doesn’t feel like the best description. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s a specific goal that the protagonist is trying to achieve.

Sometimes it’s a little easier to wrap your brain around a particular story if we think about Act 2 simply as “where the main conflict plays out.”

But even in that case, we still need clarity on what that main conflict is, and it should still be in place right around the same spot – the Break into Act 2 – so that the bulk of the movie will show the protagonist engaged in that main conflict.

About A Boy might be a good example of this. By the end of Act 1, what’s been established is that protagonist Will would rather have no obligations or attachments. But he’s met young Marcus, who needs Will in his life and will soon force Will into a relationship whether Will likes it or not.

The act break isn’t a clear, “And now the protagonist is off to achieve the story goal!” type of turn. Instead, it sets up what the protagonist wants and what he’s afraid of (close relationships), and then shows us the antagonist (Marcus) who engages Will in the main conflict (Loner Will vs. Needy Marcus).

If you’re going to make this kind of non-goal story work, it’s important to pay attention to creating some sense of a turn in the story so that we still have the feeling of entering the Act 2 Adventure. Without that, the script can feel like it never really gets going. The turn gives the story momentum; it’s propulsive.

Additionally, with a non-goal story we still need a sense of defined direction so we know where the turn is sending us (here, we know what Marcus wants, which gives the story direction), and the conflict must still be strong and consistent in Act 2 (characters have to engage and take action to get what they want in some way).

Without these things, it’ll feel like nothing meaningful is happening. There may still be action, but we won’t understand the purpose of it.

(And, like the examples above, all of this context should be layered in throughout Act 1, not given to us in one big exposition explosion! )

And that’s your goal

Not everyone struggles with defining and establishing the story goal, but I hope you’ll take this as an opportunity to look at your own screenplay and see if your story’s goal is actually showing up on the page. (Because it’s no good to you if it’s just in your head!)

If not, consider what the audience needs to know in order to understand the goal, i.e. what the protagonist is going to do, and when, how, where, etc. the protagonist is going to attempt to achieve it.

And then look at your screenplay to see where this information can be conveyed in organic and interesting ways.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.