Ivo Raza is an independent filmmaker. His award-winning films have played at dozens of festivals. Visit his website for more information.
If you’re like most screenwriters, you’ve probably read a handful of books on the topic (if not a box-full). And you might have noticed that most preach a variation of the following: in order for your screenplay to work, your Hero MUST have a story-level goal. A goal that starts around page 10 (inciting incident) and which she or he actively pursues throughout the story (plot), overcoming various obstacles (conflict) and in the process dealing with their own flaws and growing as a person (arc). Those books use examples such as Chinatown, The Fugitive or 007 films and explain how screenplays must be structured around goals such as stopping the villain, finding the murderer, freeing someone, stealing something, etc.
But, while goals are certainly crucial to a screenplay’s DNA, there are films that are not constructed using this “required” element and still work. And not only work but are great, and fun, and entertaining, and sometimes award-winning. American Beauty, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas, Psycho, Amadeus, The Breakfast Club, Midnight In Paris, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Juno, Being John Malkovich, 8½, Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket, The Swimming Pool, As Good As It Gets, Sideways, Il Postino, City Of God, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, The Visitor, Persona, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rachel Getting Married, Platoon (and many others including silly comedies like Ted). In The Breakfast Club, the kids must sit through eight hours of detention. From a goal level, they have no say in the outcome of their day, i.e. they cannot leave. In Reservoir Dogs, one could argue that the goal is to find out who the “rat” is. But they don’t do much to reach that goal (with the exception of the ear cutting sequence). In Full Metal Jacket, there’s a goal only towards the very end when the platoon must take out a sniper. And what’s the goal in Sideways? Have a weekend of golf, wine and sex? If that were the case, Sideways would have been a short. Platoon? Don’t get killed?
Of course the above stories employ goals on scene and sequence levels, but on a screenplay level, these stories are built around questions, not goals. They raise the questions and then keep us in suspense about the answers, in the process, escalating the plot and raising stakes for the protagonists.
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the question is: will Ferris and friends get away with their day off? And this question sets up character issues as well, such as Cameron’s need to confront his father. The goal-based story line here belongs to the principal (to catch Ferris). But this goal is an element that raises stakes and helps maintain suspense for the main question.
Walter Vale, in The Visitor, spends a good part of the film trying to release Tarek. But this is hardly a film constructed around this goal. That would be a different film, perhaps a courtroom drama. Rather, it deals with the questions set up around Walter Vale’s character.
In Midnight In Paris, some of the questions are: will Gil and his girlfriend stay together? Will Gil remain in the past with Marion Cotillard? Will he move to Paris? Will he quit Hollywood and finish his novel? And, of course, the thematic question… Is the past better than the present?
In one of my favorite films, 8½, the goal is for Guido to finish the film. But that is not how this great film is structured. Rather, it raises various questions around Guido’s creative and mid-life crises and then explores the answers. And this structure is partly what elevates it from a mere comedy to a cinematic masterpiece.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with building a screenplay around a goal, but there is an alternative. Questions are an awesome tool to add to your screenwriting arsenal, one that is more subtle and perhaps more suitable to an indie sensibility. Questions allow us to take a specific issue or situation and put it under the microscope by exploring various sides of it and without having to have big cinematic goals. Next time you watch a movie and don’t see a clear goal, ask which questions are being raised and analyze how these questions are being explored and answered.
While you’re at it, think about some of the other immutable rules, such as the inciting incident having to happen on a specific page. In The Breakfast Club and Juno it happened before the story even starts (not on page 10!). And what exactly is the inciting incident in Eyes Wide Shut, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 8½? (I’ll keep that rant for a future post.)
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Get more advice on crafting a screenplay with
Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure