Either the hero’s goal or the villain’s goal needs to be mysterious. That’s because every story is really a puzzle for the audience to figure out. Something is happening and clues trickle out gradually until the audience (and the hero) discover what’s really happening. Then the final 30 minutes (Act III) is all about whether the hero or villain’s goal gets achieved or not.
In “Star Wars,” the villain’s goal is initially mysterious. We know Darth Vader wants something from Princess Leia but the clues about this goal gradually get revealed over time. Princess Leia initially puts something in R2D2 and sends him away. Luke sees Princess Leia’s hologram that urges Obi-wan to take R2D2 to her father’s planet. Darth Vader keeps hunting for R2D2 to retrieve whatever information is hidden in him from Princess Leia. Finally near the end, we learn that Princess Leia hid stolen Death Star plans in R2D2 and now the rebellion will use that information to attack the Death Star’s weak point.
In “Die Hard,” the villain also has a mysterious goal. We don’t know what Hans Gruber initially wants because it appears to be nothing more than a terrorist act. Slowly we learn that he’s breaking vault locks and then we learn he’s doing nothing more than stealing corporate bonds. What’s even worse is that we learn that he plans to blow the hostages up on the roof to create a distraction so he and his men can escape.
Most stories focus on the villain’s goal being mysterious, but sometimes the hero’s goal can be mysterious too. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” we know that the hero, Olive, wants to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. What we don’t know is what her final routine will be for the talent portion of the show. Initially, we learn that her grandfather helped her create her dance routine. We get more hints of it later when Olive practices her routine at a gas station and her family accidentally leaves her behind.
There’s another clue when her grandfather tells Olive she’ll be fine in his last night in the motel room with her. Finally when Olive participates in the beauty pageant, we get to see what her grandfather really taught her, and it’s a surprisingly hilarious ending.
Another movie that makes the hero’s goal mysterious is “I Kill Giants.” In this story, a little girl appears crazy by running around trying to set traps for giants and kill them in a modern town. Gradually we learn that her greatest giant killing weapon is a purse named after an obscure baseball player. Then we learn that this baseball player helped defeat a baseball team called the Giants. Eventually we learn exactly what the hero is trying to fight giants but it’s actually based in reality and the pain of her life.
When you create a mystery in the hero or villain’s goal, you can leak out clues of that goal gradually, teasing the audience along from start to finish. Make sure your story has a mysterious goal for either the villain or the hero. Then your story will be compelling right from the beginning.