Everyone has an objective. You have one right now. All your friends, everyone you pass on the street, they all have an objective.
An objective is the thing you want. It could be the new iPhone, a bike, a car, or a puppy. Boy wants girl. Girl wants boy. Money. Diamond ring. Those shoes. It could be anything, but everyone wants something.
You might have more than one want. But for right now, let’s stick to one. (The one-objective-business is important, and I’ll talk more about that later.)
Why are objectives so tricky?
Creating an objective causes young writers more difficulty that any other aspect of screenwriting. It sounds simple: protagonist has a goal. But chances are, this is where you will run into trouble.
And the objective is an absolute necessity.
It is as important as having a protagonist. In fact, you might think of them as co-dependent. The story must have a hero, and the hero must have a want. Otherwise, there is no movie.
The Objective is the most important.
I touched on this earlier, but I’ll hit it again.
The protagonist must be active—they must move. In order to move, he must want. The “want” causes the protagonist to take action.
A protagonist who does not take action is boring. A protagonist without a goal is liable to sit around and watch TV all day. No one’s watching that guy—definitely not for 96 minutes.
Objective initiates action. Here are some examples from a few favorite films.
- In The Wizard of Oz, what’s Dorothy’s objective? Home/Kansas.
- In Up, what’s Carl’s goal? Paradise Falls.
- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy’s target? The Lost Ark.
- In Casablanca, what’s Rick’s desire? Ilsa.
The Objective Must Be Tangible.
I’m sure I’ll get blow-back on this one, but . . . I’ve never seen it fail. Give your protagonist a tangible goal and it will keep your story on track. What’s tangible, you ask? You can feel it, see it, or touch it.
I’ll repeat: establishing the goal is where young writers run into trouble. A tangible target will keep you, and your protagonist, focused.
Kansas, Paradise Falls, the Lost Ark, Ilsa… they are all tangible. For Walter White, in Breaking Bad, it’s money. Also, tangible. For Romeo, it’s Juliette. Again, tangible.
Think ‘bout it. Nearly every cop-based TV drama has the same objective: the protagonist cop wants antagonist bad guy. The bad guy is tangible.
Ignite It with Passion!
Occasionally, students begin pitching a with, “The protagonist sort of wants…”
As soon as I hear “sort of,” I know the writer’s in trouble. There is no sort of when it comes to the objective. The protagonist must want his goal passionately.
Imagine a Romeo who sort of wants Juliette, but might be interested in Sally. No go. What if Dorothy decides, halfway down the Yellow Brick Road, that she likes Oz and is no longer interested in heading home? End of movie.
How passionate is passionate? The protagonist must be willing to risk his life. If you think I’m exaggerating, you wouldn’t be alone. But . . . think ‘bout it.
Carl, in Up, nearly dies when fighting Charles Muntz.
Indy risks his life, several times over, fighting Nazis in Raiders.
And Spider-Man goes head-to-head with the Green Goblin, the meanest of the mean.
The Objective Is Unattainable…Almost
The objective should be nearly impossible (or unattainable) to reach. There is no such thing as a challenge that is too difficult, and here’s why.
A difficult goal increases the challenge for the protagonist. Greater challenge equals greater conflict. And, as you know, all drama is conflict. Here are examples.
- Carl (Up) sets out to realize his dream of going to Paradise Falls. Carl, at 78 years-old, travels in a balloon-floating house. What are his chances of making it? Zero.
- Rick (Casablanca) wants Ilsa. Ilsa is not only married—she’s married to Victor Laslo. Victor happens to be the man most likely to save the world from Nazis. What’s Rick got? He owns a bar in in the desert. Good luck, Rick.
- Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List) wants to save Jews. In order to do so, Schindler must fight Hitler’s army. It’s one man against the Third Reich. It doesn’t look good for Schindler.
And keep it focused!
One goal keeps the protagonist and the story on track. Two goals—a big no-no—will split the protagonist’s focus and confuse the audience.
A favorite trick for students is to change the objective about halfway through the second act. Students say to me, “It’s still one objective, it’s just a different one.”
As you may have guessed, this won’t fly.
Why one and only one objective? Again, the protagonist is passionate about their goal, which means he’s focused—he thinks of nothing else. Taking a new tack, finding a new target, suggests that he was not that committed in the first place. Which goes back to Romeo ‘sort of’ wanting Juliette. No can do.
- The objective should be (almost) unattainable.
- The objective must be tangible.
- The protagonist must be passionate in his pursuit of the objective throughout the entire second act.
- Making it difficult for the protagonist to reach the objective increases the stakes . . . and the drama.