Stories Are About Struggle
An interesting and deceptively simple concept in storytelling is that stories are about struggle. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But it’s surprising how difficult it can be to put into practice.
I think that’s because stories need two layers of struggle in order to be successful. If you have just one or the other, it simply won’t work. Those two layers of struggle are the internal and external struggles, or, the spiritual and the tangible goals.
Let’s take a look at this idea a bit more in depth.
What Are the Internal & External Struggles in a Story?
According to Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwritesr to Get Into…and Out Of by Blake Snyder, the hero of a story must have a spiritual goal and a tangible goal.
“Every hero in every good story has to demonstrate a burning desire to do something and be proactive about it throughout. In addition, the hero has a lesson to learn, a change to experience that is subterranean to the story, and in truth the real reason for the tale.”
Let’s look at a few examples to clarify what this means.
I’ll use Inception as an example anywhere I can till the day I die. In this Christopher Nolan classic, Dom’s external/tangible goal is to incept Robert Fisher. That’s the main plot of the movie. Dom’s internal/spiritual goal is to get back to his children, and he’ll only be able to do that by finally letting Mal go. This internal goal, or need, rather (because in the beginning of the film Dom doesn’t want to let Mal go), is critical for the success of the tangible goal, incepting Robert Fisher.
In this other Christopher Nolan masterpiece, Cooper’s tangible goal is to save humanity by finding a suitable host planet. The spiritual goal is to save his family and get back to his children, whom he regrets leaving behind. Once again, the spiritual goal, getting back to his kids, proves vital in saving humanity, the tangible goal, when Cooper enters the tesseract.
I Am Legend
A book from my list that shows this dichotomy well is I Am Legend. In this story, Robert Neville’s tangible goal is to survive the zombie/vampire apocalypse. His internal spiritual goal, I would argue, is to get over the deaths of his daughter and wife and to accept his loneliness, but he’s unable to do so, descending into alcoholism.
Even though I Am Legend was about one man for almost the whole story, and his life all alone fending off the zombies, it was still really compelling because it featured both an internal and an external struggle. You might think such a story would get boring quickly, but it was gripping the whole way through.
Tangible Without the Spiritual & the Spiritual Without the Tangible
Now that we’ve seen a few examples of what these two layers of struggle look like, let’s look at how stories can go wrong when they omit one or the other.
Tangible Without the Spiritual
Concussion is the 2015 biopic that saw Will Smith play Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American physican and forensice pathologist, who was the first to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players. Now, this movie is pretty good, well-acted, and a good story to tell, with a 75% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and who doesn’t love Will Smith!
Where this film fell flat, however, is that there was no spiritual goal/struggle for the good doctor, and, because of that, not much character development. Dr. Omalu was a good person at the beginning of the film with no real faults, and Dr. Omalu was a good person at the end of the film, with no real faults. Yes, he went through the hardship of contending with Big Football to get them to recognize CTE and take better care of their football players, but, as we know, that’s the tangible goal of the film. There was no personal fault or weakness that Dr. Omalu had to overcome in order to achieve the tangible goal.
It seems a bit backwards, because we love stories about the underdog, about people standing up to the man, and winning, about David versus Goliath, and Concussion is just such a story. But when the protagonist starts out a great man already (a well-known, kind doctor at the top of his field), and the story is simply about how he continues to be a great man in standing up to his adversary (contending with Big Football), then the win doesn’t seem that, well, great.
So that’s an example of the tangible without the spiritual. We also recognize this problem with many big budget, action-packed movies. And this is not to hate on them because I love me a good shoot-em-up, blow-em-away movie. DC unfortunately falls into this trap a lot too by trading character development for cool fight scenes in their superhero films.
Other examples of stories including a tangible goal but not a spiritual goal are those of Robert Heinlein. This is the reason I’ve had to stop reading some of his stories on my list, such as Methuselah’s Children and Space Cadet.
I hate to rag on Heinlein, as I know he’s a sci-fi classic, but we have to remember that he was writing during a specfic time for a specific audience (usually young boys). As such, his stories often featured young protagonists on an adventure without much time spent on character development or a spiritual struggle. And that makes sense for that time and for that audience. He was writing adventure stories for boys. I can see why his style of writing was attractive to that audience in the ’50s, but it seems flat to me today.
Spiritual Without the Tangible
Stories with a spiritual goal but not a tangible goal are much less common. It would mean that the protagonist has an emotional goal, such as getting over a trauma or wanting to reconnect with a parent, but without doing anything about it, or without anything happening at all in the story. And I can’t think of any examples of novels or movies where this is the case.
However, I would put into this category those stories that are all about the protagonist’s inner world without much happening outside that. I think this was more the style of writing in the 1700s and 1800s, for example, with the deep introspective narration style that comprised mostly exposition without anything “happening” in the usual sense of the term.
But What About Inglourious Basterds?
Now, sometimes movies are just so darn good that it doesn’t matter that they’re missing the spiritual goal or struggle. A perfect example of this is Inglourious Basterds. This exceptional ensemble film from Quentin Tarantino doesn’t really feature any spiritual or emotional flaws or hurdles that the characters must overcome in order to achieve their goal of taking down Hitler and the Nazi High Command.
A good way to look at the goals of a story are to take away the main antagonist and see what you’re left with. I just read about this thought experiment and think it’s on point. The example used was that of Star Wars. Take away Darth Vader, the main villain, and what are you left with? A boy, Luke Skywalker, trying to find his place in the world. In Lord of the Rings, take away Sauron and what are you left with? A story about the power of friendship.
If we apply this to Inglourious Basterds, we see that taking down the Nazi High Command is the whole story. Take away Hitler and Hans Landa and what are you left with? Nothing, because that’s what the story is about. There’s nothing underneath to drive the characters.
You could argue that the emotional aspect comes from Shosanna Dreyfus, who wants revenge on the Nazis for exterminating her family. But this isn’t something she needs to get over in order to achieve her goal. It’s not a lesson she needs to learn. It’s simply the fuel for her goal.
So sometimes, if your Tarantino and you’ve written a banger of a script, you can get away with having only one goal in your story.
So How Does This Relate to Struggle?
With the above-noted exception, all stories are about change. The hero must change in a profound way. Even Aristotle recognized this truth about storytelling. And the only way the protagonist can change, the only way any of us can change, is through struggle, is through achieving both the tangible and the spiritual goal.
This is often a problem with first drafts of novels and movies. The hero has it too easy. As Blake Snyder says, “Change is not only astounding, it’s painful.”
“A lot of us know where our heroes end up and don’t want to put them through the torment of growth, so we avoid the pain for them. And just like raising a child, you can’t do that. These characters have to grow by getting bumped on the nose, and whether we like it or not, we have to let them.”
Both the tangible and the spiritual goal need to be painful and a huge struggle for the protagonist to achieve, otherwise, what’s the point of the story? Why are we reading or watching? As Blake Snyder says, the story should be about the single most important thing that ever happened to the protagonist. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to.
It’s an easy concept to understand, but, as I mentioned up top, it can be tricky to implement, usually because the story is so focussed on the tangible goal, the external plot, that not enough attention is paid to the internal goal, and how the character develops and overcomes his flaws to achieve the external goal. The internal goal is usually the more difficult goal to craft during the writing process, however, we’re remiss not to think about it. The best stories, see Inception and Interstellar, have both, and use the emotional struggle to achieve the tangible struggle.
In my own writing I’ve discovered how difficult it is to achieve this balance as well. It’s the reason I put down my novel for a few months so I can then go back to it with fresh eyes. I realized I had written a story with no heart, with no emotional struggle for the protagonist to overcome! It’s all external, tangible goal, but no emotional or spiritual goal.
So there you have it. Like most things in life, the art of struggle in storytelling is easy to understand yet tricky to implement. But the more we focus on it and the more we practice it, the better stories we can tell.