There are two ways to motivate people: the carrot and the stick. With the carrot, you motivate them by giving them a goal they can move towards. With the stick, you motivate them by forcing them to move to avoid punishment. In real life, some people are motivated by one or the other, but in the movie world, your hero needs to be motivated by both.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the hero’s carrot is the chance to spend time with his kids. The stick is the fear that he’ll be banned from seeing his kids as often as he’d like. In “Avatar,” the hero’s carrot is to get a new body so he can walk again. The stick is the fear of being stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In “Groundhog Day,” the hero’s carrot is to find love. The stick is being stuck reliving the same day over and over again.
The carrot and the stick is what forces your hero to move the story forward. Without a goal, your hero is directionless. Without a stick, there’s nothing for the hero to worry about. Imagine in “Django Unchained” if the hero’s goal was to get his wife but she was living in a comfortable home and not suffering. Then the hero’s goal of reuniting with her would be far less interesting. What if Luke in “Star Wars” just had a goal of rescuing Princess Leia but didn’t have to worry about Darth Vader killing her? The carrot and the stick provide dual motivation for your hero, which makes it easier for the audience to understand your hero better.
When writing your own screenplay, ask yourself what motivates your hero to move forward? Then ask yourself what horrible thing will happen if the hero doesn’t move forward?
With everyone fearful of the Ebola virus, take a look at the 1995 film “Outbreak,” about a deadly virus from Africa that threatens the United States. The hero’s carrot goal is to get back with his wife. The hero’s stick goal is to save her before she dies from the deadly virus.
Without a carrot goal, the hero has no reason to exist. Without a stick goal, the hero has no reason to take action now. In “Outbreak,” the villain’s Horrible Consequences are revealed in the beginning when an infected group of soldiers get wiped out by their own military to prevent the spread of the disease. That threat also becomes the stick that threatens the hero’s wife in the end. Not only is the hero’s wife dying of the disease, but she’s also at risk of being killed by the military at the same time.
When your hero has a carrot goal, he or she has something to move towards. When your hero has a stick goal, your hero better move now or else that carrot goal will be gone forever. Ironically, the villain helps the hero achieve both goals. The villain defines a clear path for the hero to achieve the carrot goal, and defines a stick goal that keeps the hero moving at all times.
In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader inadvertently gets Luke involved in rescuing Princess Leia, so he provides Luke with a physical goal to satisfy his emotional goal of having an adventure. Then Darth Vader provides the stick goal in the end by threatening to blow Princess Leia up with the Death Star that Luke must stop.
Carrot and stick goals are crucial in motivating your hero. You must have both a carrot to lure your hero forward and a stick to keep your hero moving or else it will be too late. The stick goal defines a time deadline that your hero must beat or else he or she will completely fail. When it’s clear to the hero that there’s a carrot and a stick goal, your story will be much stronger as a result.