Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?

Just as your heroes begin with a false or shortsighted philosophy, they should also pursue a false or shortsighted goal for the first half of your story. This can take many forms: 

Wrong Solution to Right Solution. In 2006, the Lupus Foundation gave the TV show House an award for all it had done to spread awareness for the disease. But it was strange because, at the time, Dr. House had never correctly identified a case of lupus. Instead, House’s team would falsely identify the patient’s mysterious ailment as lupus before realizing the patient had a far more exotic disease. Lupus is a little-understood, catch-all diagnosis that can explain all sorts of symptoms that don’t normally fit together, so for House’s team, it’s a tempting but false way to think of the puzzle in front of them. Nevertheless, it gives them tests to run, and these tests unexpectedly lead them to the real diagnosis they hadn’t suspected before.

Likewise, on the show Supernatural, the demon-hunting brothers always try to exorcise ghosts by finding their graves and salting the bones, even though it’s never worked before. It’s just their fallback, false goal that gives them something to do until they uncover the real mystery.

Why use the “wrong solution” approach? It gives heroes a reason to get moving so they can learn and grow on the job. While it may seem cooler to have heroes know what to do right away, or at least withhold judgment until they have all the facts, you will often find the audience actually likes them better if you first send them charging off in the wrong direction.

Micro-Goal to Macro-Goal. This is a simpler form of false goal. Frodo sets out to merely return the ring to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. In Star Wars, Luke goes from wanting to fix his runaway droid to wanting to blow up the Death Star. John McClane in Die Hard spends the first half of the movie just trying to call the cops before he realizes he’ll have to take on a terrorist cell single-handedly. These false goals make character motivations far more believable. If the heroes just woke up one day and decided to do a hugely daunting task, it would be hard to swallow. It’s far more compelling to watch them get sucked into greatness against their better judgment.

Total Reversal of Values. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol comes to love Christmas. Juno searches for a “cool” parent to entrust her kid to, then realizes in the end that she wants just the opposite. Dave in Breaking Away starts off trying to defeat the college kids, then realizes he really wants to join them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man wants to use his powers to make his own life better until his callousness gets his uncle killed. Jake Sully in Avatar goes from wanting to rejoin the marines to killing them en masse.

These characters grow, and we’re glad for it. Although we agreed with their original goal in the beginning, by the end, we’ve gone on the same journey they have, and we’re very happy that they’ve changed their minds. A total reversal of values is hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it’s one of the best ways to get your audience to truly love your hero, since they’ve shared in the character’s astounding transformation.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not really. He just wants to never change.


YES. Defend the company, follow protocol.

An Education

YES. Get into Oxford. Seems like a false goal, then turns out to be true after all.

The Babadook

YES. Convince her son that there’s no monster.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Build the railroad, mouth off.

Blue Velvet

YES. he’s there to help out with his father’s hardware store.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Well, he gets one very quickly: find out who he is.


YES. Complete her maid of honor duties without anyone knowing how broke or depressed she is. 


YES. stay out of politics.


YES. Nail Mulwray for cheating.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  to infiltrate the mob.

Do the Right Thing

YES. “Gotta get paid.”

The Farewell

YES. Tell her grandma the truth

The Fighter

YES. Win the fight against Saul Mamby.


YES. Just ask Elsa to turn her powers off. 

The Fugitive

YES. 1st:  beginning: get home to wife without talking with other doctors, 2nd beginning: convince the cops he didn’t do it.  Later: convince Gerard

Get Out

YES. He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.    

Groundhog Day

YES. Get in and out of town quickly, get a big network job.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Get a girlfriend, bring down a night fury, impress his dad.

In a Lonely Place

YES. write a quickie picture for some money.

Iron Man

YES. Sell the missiles to the army.

Lady Bird

YES. Win Danny. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Raise Nathan Jr. as their own. 


YES. Stay at Rushmore forever.


Sort of.  His plan is to use non-violence tactics to escalate the violence against himself until he moves the country to outrage, and that basically works, but reversing course at the second march implies that he’s changed course on that plan.  Again, DuVernay really makes us question that choice, even after it works.  

The Shining

YES. Jack: finish his novel, Danny: Be a normal kid


YES. Give his friend a great last week of freedom.

The Silence of the Lambs

Not really. She’s na├»ve in her initial treatment of Lecter, but she understands the size and nature of her goal immediately.  Her eyes are on the same ultimate goal in every scene.

Star Wars

YES. Fix R2, get him back, take Obi Wan only as far as Anchorhead, etc. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Yes, sell a script, save his car from the repo men. 

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