Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Examining Film's Two-Goal Plotting

by M.V. Shawning
2004, M.V. Shawning


What makes a good movie or novel?  The answer is two jumbo jets colliding in a mid air collision, of course!  Start with two solidly built structures, like two Boeing 747 jumbo jets.  Place the jets in different locations and headed straight for the same destination.  Next, have them collide in a spectacular explosion that rocks the atmosphere for a hundred miles.  Be sure the audience cares for the characters that are living and reflecting the spirit of the story.  This will guarantee a fully attentive, 'edge of your seat' audience.  What happens next?  With both jets disabled or crashed, there will certainly be a new expectation of outcome or goal. 

The scenario described above can also describe a solid two-goal plot.  Two jets traveling from point A and point B to the same goal drive the story.  As soon as the jets collide, there is a goal reversal, or a change in goals.  Whether or not the characters survive and what becomes of them is the new story question.  The first goal is no longer valid, or is minor and mundane compared to the new goal.

The two-goal plot, when structured properly, can be very successful in film and in print as well.  For this treatise well known movies will be used as reference examples to help the reader gain an understanding of the concepts presented.

The two main types of plots used in screenwriting today are the one-goal or linear plot and the two-goal plot.  In a linear or one-goal plot, the hero will only have one problem to solve during the film and accomplishing that will solve the story problem.  Some well-known films that use single-goal plots are The African Queen, Star Trek: Generations, and The River Wild.  Though these movies may be well known, their successes are exceptions to the rule.  Many consider single-plot movies predictable, flat, and not stimulating enough for the movie going public in today's moneymaking film industry.

A two-goal plot has the hero working towards a false goal until something in the story changes, taking the story down a new path and toward the true goal.  A classic example of a movie with a two-goal plot is E.T., The Extraterrestrial.  The main character Elliot begins with the goal to keep E.T.  as a friend; he finds his second goal at minute 53 of the 107 minute film, and goes in a completely different direction.  The goal is now to help E.T. get home.  Jurassic Park is another example; Alan Grant's first goal is to assure the safety of the new park; his second goal that is found at minute 88 of the 119 minute film is to get Ellie and the park owner's grandchildren to safety after the dinosaurs begin showing signs of being out of control.  A last example is Star Wars: A New Hope.  Luke's first goal is to get R2-D2 to the rebel base to analyze the information he carries; his second goal, after minute 94 of the 115 minute movie, is to destroy the Death Star.  Note that all of these goal reversals happen after mid-point in the films and some almost at the end.

 

The two-goal plot has proven to be far more interesting for audiences than a linear plot and is an established moneymaker.  Out of the 200 top grossing movies, 190 had two-goal plots.  Using a two-goal plot does not guarantee that a film will make over $100 million dollars; however, using a one-goal plot almost certainly guarantees that a film will not make that amount of money.  Many writers have taken notice of the two-goal plot and the great success it has had in the movie industry -- not just screenwriters, but novelists as well.  According to Variety Entertainment News, 40 percent of all Oscar winning movies were adapted from books.  Further, nine out of the fifty top grossing movies released last year were adapted from novels.  The others were remakes, adaptations of comic books, or new stories.  Three recent Oscar winners worth noting are The Lord of the Rings, Seabiscuit, and Master and Commander; these movies were all adapted from novels.  All three of these films have goal reversals in them. 

The Nine-Act Structure

How to structure a two-goal plot is the first question asked when starting a project.  The Nine-Act Structure method by David Siegel is a good one, versus the common and limiting three-act structure.  The Nine Act Structure begins with Act Zero.  This is the back-story or background of the film's characters and story.  This act is just as important as the other eight acts, but it is usually unseen.  The author must have this information to build the story.  Next, in Act One, the opening of the film takes place.  Images are good openings; usually a sweeping crane image of the setting in which the story will take place is appropriate.  For example, in Master and Commander, the opening shot is of a ship at sea.  This shows not only the setting for the movie but also the tone.

In Act Two it is time for something bad to happen.  Look for the conflict of the story to start here, usually within the first ten minutes.  This is a good time for a murder or crime to happen in an action film, or something mysterious or tragic in a character-based movie.  The incident may show the evil villain planning a hideous crime upon an unsuspecting world or a big shark attacking an unwary swimmer.  In Act Three, the audience meets the hero of the story, who will fix the problem introduced in Act Two.  Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, from someone as young as eleven year old Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to a little hobbit named Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.  During Act Three, we also see some character development for the hero.  The hero's objectives and the opposing forces are revealed.  Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker's objective is to become a Jedi Knight, and his formidable foe is Darth Vader.

In Act Four the hero commits to a course of action.  There are two ways to introduce such a commitment.  The first is when either good or bad circumstances force the hero into the jump.  The second is when the hero herself sees this jump as the only choice to make.  An example of this would be the character Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings volunteering to carry the ring of power from Rivendell to Mount Doom.  When the commitment is made, there is no turning back.

Now, in Act Five, our hero must go after the wrong goal, usually because she does not have all the facts.  This act ends with the protagonist or hero at the lowest point in the story.  Act Six begins as Act Five ended: with everything at its utter worst.  Now suddenly the missing pieces or clues come to the hero and cause the reversal of goal to take place.  The hero starts to make sense of the information first offered to him in the beginning of Act Two.  In Act Seven a new plan of action is developed.  Sometimes the plan is just demonstrated with a small sentence or a nod of the head; however, no matter how small the scene appears, its importance to the plot is immense.  Trying to achieve the new goal propels the hero towards the climax.  Often good luck or forgotten favors show up in this act, bringing the plot rapidly to a satisfying victory.  Finally, Act Eight wraps up all the loose ends.  The authorities come and take the criminals away, or, as in most James Bond films, James kisses the girl and doesn't answer the ringing phone with M on the other end.  What happens next?  Fade out.   

The story, which is very different from the plot, is important when creating a successful screenplay because the story should be a reflection of the plot.   An article by Robin Catesby that appeared in Vision, The Dual Landscape of Plot and Story, aptly describes how story and plot work together.  "Strong scripts maintain a sense of balance between plot and story.  But, to take it a step further, they also employ the craft of symmetry -- a symmetry between the outer and inner landscapes of the script's journey.  To create this isomorphic landscape, it's essential that you address the needs of your hero on both a plot level and a story level..."  The screenwriter or novelist accomplishes this by keeping the story and plots frameworks analogous. 

At last it is time to reveal the outcome of the mid-air collision.  What happened to those characters that the audience cared about and what was the second goal they needed to achieve?  The answer is rescue, of course!  The characters who parachuted from exploding jet A met up with the characters that swam away from sinking jet B.  Jet B ended up at the bottom of the ocean.  All the characters floated on wreckage to a tropical island less than a mile away and spent their days surviving harrowing events until rescued.  With the rescue, and the completion of the second goal, all the needs of the story and plot are accomplished.  The last scene is a tie up shot of the survivors whisked away on a helicopter.  The camera zooms out from the helicopter to encompass the great ocean, and the island that had been their home becomes very small in a vast expanse of blue.  Fade out.  Roll credits.