Most screenwriting books have it wrong. The story isn’t about your hero pursuing a goal and overcoming obstacles. Your story is really about your villain.
The standard screenwriting book says that you should pick a hero and give him or her a goal to pursue, overcoming obstacles in the way. The problem with this approach is that the obstacles that get in the way are often disconnected from each other. Here’s a shortcut. Before you define what your hero’s goal is, define what your villain’s goal is.
Your villain is trying to pursue a goal of his own and that goal is what really drives the story. Your hero’s goal is always dependent on the villain’s goal. The only way you hero can win is if the villain loses and vice versa, so to make sure your hero and your villain have to confront one another, you must know what your villain wants first.
In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader’s goal is already clear. Capture the stolen plans of the Death Star and destroy the rebels. This goal provides the background for Luke’s goals.
Initially, Luke just wants to get off the planet, but Darth Vader’s pursuit of his goal causes R2D2 and C3PO to show up, which leads Luke to Obiwan-Konobi, which leads Luke to escape his planet, which leads Luke to getting captured by the Death Star, which leads Luke to rescuing Princess Leia, which leads Luke to escaping he Death Star with Princess Leia, which leads Luke to destroying the Death Star before it can blow up the rebel base with Princess Leia on it.
Without knowing your villain’s goal, your hero doesn’t have a goal. Your villain gives your hero a goal so you must know what your villain’s goal is before you can define your hero’s goal.
In “WALL-E,” the villain’s goal is already defined, but we as the audience, only gradually learn what that goal is along with WALL-E. In this case, the villain’s goal is to keep the human race marooned in outer space and never come back to Earth. Initially, we don’t know that but as the story progresses and the hero overcomes obstacles, we gradually discover the real villain’s goal that’s been driving the story all this time.
In “Die Hard,” the terrorists have a goal to break into a vault that drives the entire story while Bruce Willis reacts. Without the villain’s goal, Bruce Willis doesn’t have a goal.
In “Avatar,” the corporation’s goal is to uproot the native people and mine the minerals underneath. That goal is what drives the story and gives the hero something to fight against.
If you plan your hero’s goal first, you’ll wind up with disconnected obstacles that seem to come out of nowhere. If you define your villain’s goal first, then define your hero’s goal, you can plot your hero’s goal as a gradual revelation of the villain’s goal. Now each obstacle is organic, unified, and connected, giving your whole story a more coherent feel.
Your villain’s goal defines your hero’s goal, so make sure you define your villain’s goal first. From the beginning of your story all the way up to the beginning of Act III, we should be gradually learning more about the villain’s goal until it’s crystal clear to us right at the start of Act III. Now that we know what the villain really wants, Act III can focus on the hero and villain battling.
Know your villain’s goal. If you don’t know your villain’s goal, you won’t know your hero’s goal or how your hero will get through your story, so make sure you clearly identify your villain’s goal first.