There are many four-letter words that come to mind when one attempts to write a screenplay; colorful, highly descriptive terms, often delivered out of pure frustration, and more or less unprintable. Let's skip that bunch, and instead focus on a particular four-letter word, much less used, and much more important.
For most screenplays, it's a key word you must consider, before even getting close to a keyboard.
It's so obvious you'll probably overlook it.
It lies at the heart of most films produced today.
Yet I've never read about the concept, or heard anyone put it into simple terms.
Is that enough of a build-up?
Okay, here's the word:
This is really important, so I'm going to take a little extra time here, and try to get this idea properly into words.
Imagine this: it's sometime in the indeterminately-near future. A film crew is on location, actually getting ready to shoot your story. You've got one of those on-location cardboard parking signs in your car, destined to become a cherished memento. Sets have been built, film loaded, gate checked, and tape is up to speed. Lights are blazing. The camera is locked down, the shot's been framed -- and now, right now, in front of that lens, an actor is going to have to DO SOMETHING.
All the clever theory, complex characterizations, thematic resonancing, plot twists, perfect structuring, inspiration and grand aspirations aside, filmmaking, eventually, is reduced down to just that: a character taking an action in front of a camera.
That's what gets filmed. That's all that can be filmed. That, as a screenwriter, is what you have to provide to the production.
A character doing something.
Now, the screenwriting books will tell you that your protagonist needs a goal, and that you're supposed to put obstacles in front of him, and that your story is about how your protagonist overcomes those obstacles, etc., etc.
As usual, they're only about half right, and they put it in terms that are, practically speaking, nearly useless.
Because -- and here's the important point -- the task that you invent for your protagonist is not at all the same as the goal. They're not even close.
PART I: Goal & Task
As an example, let's take a look at a film almost everyone is familiar with -- THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Dorothy's goal is certainly quite clear: she wants to get back home. That's what the film is 'about'; that's our destination. And what a warm, comforting, desirable goal it is! Home and hearth, the smell of hot apple pie, and dear old Auntie Em.
Ah, but in order to reach her goal, what does Dorothy have to actually DO? What can we physically point the camera at? The task she is assigned is more worthy of one of the labours of Hercules than something you'd give a little girl from Kansas: she's got to make her way through an enchanted land to find the Emerald City, deal with a horribly intimidating and otherworldly wizard, go fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch of the North -- and it's pretty obvious that the best and perhaps only way to wrest that particular broom from the bony fingers of that particular witch is to first murder the witch.
But -- wait a second.
That's not warm, comforting, or desirable at all! In fact, it's pretty downright terrifying. This sweet little girl has to battle flying monkeys, go kill a mean, powerful witch, and return with the witch's broom? What kind of sick turn of events is this?
Welcome to the distinctively different worlds of 'task' and 'goal.' Let's focus on the differences, because there's some interesting stuff going on here.
The GOAL in a film is often a positive event, tied to the essential nature of the protagonist. Internal, from the heart, it can be a want or desire that helps define a basic aspect of the protagonist. Often a universal need, it can be the access point for the audience to connect to the protagonist as well as 'buy into' the story.
The TASK is often the opposite -- an external problem, imposed by the antagonist, fundamentally at odds with the basic nature of the protagonist. It can be so divergent that in attempting to complete the task, the protagonist is forced to face overwhelming challenges to their essential moral, spiritual, emotional or psychological makeup. Unique and particular instead of universal, most often distasteful, the task is almost never something the audience would choose to experience directly.
And yet, despite its onerous nature, the protagonist is put into the position of wanting and desiring to accomplish the task! And so we get a protagonist who is troubled, challenged, scared, or fundamentally and deeply torn -- and when you get to that point in your storytelling, man, then, you're having fun.
PART II: Characterizations
Okay. Grab your pickax, mining hat, and rope, and climb with me down into the inky black mine shafts of storytelling theory. We're going way down -- that creaking and groaning you hear is the sound of rationality straining to hold back the nonsense. Maybe this is all best left to instinct, intuition, or inspiration, but let's give it a try.
You know that eternal question -- what drives the creation of a story, plot or character? They're almost always looked at as separate elements, often with one dominant over the other.
But how about this:
The creative act of defining the differences between goal and task also implies fundamental characterizations that may be appropriate to the story.
That's pretty obscure; it might be better to define this by example. Let's look at the romantic comedy ROMANCING THE STONE. The goal for the Kathleen Turner character was certainly noble and desirable: to rescue her sister. The task, as you might expect, was arduous and frightening: travel to a strange, third-world country and confront deadly kidnappers.
Now, notice how the CHARACTERIZATION was precisely crafted to exploit each of these two elements to perfection: as the bookish, insecure romance novelist and sister, she would be wholly desirous of the goal (idealistic by profession, and strongly motivated by family ties). At the same time, her essential nature put her fundamentally in conflict with and incapable of completing the task.
You could have started with the romance novelist character, and crafted that task/goal to fully explore her psyche. Or, you could have started with the task/goal, and invented the character to make maximum use of the situation.
What we may have discovered here, then, is how character and plot can in fact be aspects of one another. (A unified field theory for writing? Whoa, let's not go crazy here.)
One more example, just to drive home the point -- this time using story elements from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The goal in that movie is noble and desirable: to capture a serial killer, and thus put an end to a killing spree. The task undertaken to accomplish this is truly hideous: build a relationship with an imprisoned serial killer, and convince him to help you solve the case. So, what's the characterization designed to fully exploit the situation? A young, inexperienced, idealistic, attractive, female Federal Investigator.
You can work out yourself why this is so effective -- goal, task, character, along with clear inner and external conflicts, all expertly designed in conjunction with one another.
PART III: Unique Details
Because the task is usually not in the LEAST bit obvious from the goal, inventing and clarifying the task is at the very heart of the creative process.
The task becomes an essential aspect of your movie -- one of the key elements that makes it unique and distinctive. Other than character design, it's the single aspect of the movie where your particular creativity, your personality, your own unique vision and experiences come most fully into play.
After all, there could be many films with the same goal that you've selected. Remember, goals tend to be universal, common, and thus accessible to an audience. Whether it's 'find the killer' or 'rescue the maiden' or 'discover the truth' or 'save the world' or 'find a way home,' the goal is not likely to be new -- nor does it need to be.
Ah, but the task.
The task allows you to be specific. To select an interesting milieu. To move out of the realm of general story beat, and create a memorable, filmic moment. There are many films with the goal 'to find your way home.' But there's only one film where a girl clicks together a pair of ruby slippers.
Moving from the general to the specific, finding the situations, the people, and the objects to execute the task in concrete form -- that's your job as screenwriter.
Let's examine another 'return home' picture, BACK TO THE FUTURE. Like Dorothy, (like Lassie, like E.T.), Marty's goal is 'to find a way home.'
But what is his task? It's not just a film about a guy trying to get home -- it's uniquely a film about a guy trapped in the past, trying to get back to the year 1985. Being in the past has consequences -- his very future existence is at stake. So, working to make this 'return home' story a little more particular, a little more concrete, Marty is faced with the challenge to:
"Get his parents to fall in love so he can use a time machine and return to his own (restored) future."
This is better. A milieu has been chosen -- time travel -- and two specific tasks are now in play: getting his own parents to fall in love, and using the time machine to get home.
But it's still somewhat vague and general. And this is where many writers would stop, and that's too bad, because the next step is where true creativity comes into play. The unique details of the action still need to be chosen or invented -- details that are task-oriented and filmic. And in so doing, the story is made all the more memorable and compelling. What if Marty had to:
"Play rock 'n' roll guitar at his parent's high school dance, causing them to kiss and fall in love, and then drive a DeLorean 88 miles an hour to make a rendezvous with a lightning bolt in order to time-travel home to his now-restored future."
Yes! Now you stop inventing, and start writing the movie. What a grand series of particular, unique, memorable elements.
Now the production has what it needs -- actions that can be filmed.
The goal has been 'dressed up' in a task that is so particular and involving, it's easy to get swept up in the momentum of the real details of the situation, get lost into the world of the movie, and forget that there's a story being told -- no, instead, there's something happening that demands our attention.
And beyond that, it's really cool.
See, it's my personal feeling -- don't know if it's true, but I think so -- that this is the solution to the 'gut instinct' choices of most studio executives. They say "There is no formula, I go with my instincts." They say, "I know it when I see it."
They really don't know what they're asking for, because they don't have the terminology. But what they're really looking for...
... are really cool tasks.
Look at TWISTER. There were many tornado projects floating around for years. But it wasn't until Crichton finally came up with the filmic task -- a group of researchers try to get the 'Dorothy' device in the path of a tornado -- that the film jumped into production.
Some other tasks, picked at random:
APOLLO 13 had a clear, cool task: let's get the astronauts back from the moon, to a safe splashdown.
In VOLCANO, the task was to funnel a lava flow through the city to the sea.
PULP FICTION had a number of tasks -- one the most effective, the simple problem of having to dispose of a dead body.
One of Ted's and my contributions to MEN IN BLACK was to help define the task: Edgar had to find the last spaceship left on earth and get off the planet, and Jay and Kay had to stop him.
Going back further in our careers, one of our first writing assignments was adapting the book "Dunn's Conundrum," a wonderful novel by Stan Lee. It was a scathing political satire of Washington D.C., from the point of view of a secret agent expert at investigating people's garbage.
But it was a story without a task. Our suggestion was that the hero had to physically make his way to a Senate Investigation hearing and to testify. Picture the empty chair, the microphone, the Senators all gathered around. Our guy's task was to make it into that chair, no matter what he had to go through to get there. The execs were very happy with the suggestion, and it helped us land the job.
PART IV: The Shape of Things
When an artist selects a task, in one masterstroke they commit to a huge portion of the movie. Your chosen task, more than anything, will serve to form the 'shape' of your film. And you'd better be happy with your choice -- you want to embrace it, and revel in it.
To explore this, let's take a look at some of the 'task' choices made by director Frank Marshall for the main action of some of his films. Specifically: 'to catch a spider,' 'survival against the elements (including cannibalism),' and 'battle killer white apes.'
Maybe it's just me, but man, this seems like a collection of pretty bleak choices. No matter how well-directed these films were, you could argue that in each case, the basic subject matter was perhaps limited in its appeal. Do we really want to see people eating dead bodies, fighting spiders, or slaughtering apes? Maybe not. In each case, a task-defined shape-of-film was chosen -- but ones that the filmmakers (and audiences?) perhaps were unwilling to embrace.
On the other hand, films like SEVEN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS have story elements that are extremely troubling, yet the filmmakers, to their credit, did not shy away from their choices -- they pushed them to their limits.
The lesson: know what your task is doing to your movie.
It's a powerful element.
Make it work for you.
Some task choices are so common, and so effective at shaping the movie, we refer to them as genres. If the protagonist is trying to identify a criminal, we call it a mystery. If what's at stake is a possible relationship between two people, we call it a romance. If proving guilt (or innocence) is the task, we may be involved with a courtroom drama. Etc.
Laying out the task -- whether it's a clear genre choice, or simply your premise -- is your promise to the audience. It's like the tape-recorder opening to the old "Mission: Impossible" television show: "Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to..." Identifying the task is a way of laying out the playing field, the arena, and the rules of your story.
As chess is a different game than poker, with vastly different rules, similarly, the semiotics of storytelling vary from genre to genre. The audience needs to clearly know what game you're playing, so they can appreciate your 'moves' and your solutions.
Another way the choice of task affects the shape of your movie is that it can define the rising action of the story.
Let's see... I have a choice here. I can pick the film ROCKY as an easy example of this, or... no, let's go with "Lord of the Rings." It has one of the most brilliant 'tasks' ever conceived.
J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is a three-volume epic fantasy set in Middle Earth, generally considered to be the most fully-realized fantasy world ever created. A synopsis can never do the story justice, but for our purposes:
Sauron, the Dark Lord, has stored a great portion of his power in the One Ring of power, the Ring that controls all of the other Rings of Power of the land. In a previous age, the One Ring was lost to him in a battle with the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. If Sauron should ever recover the One Ring, his power would grow beyond containment, immediate darkness would cover the land, and the world would be lost forever.
In the course of events, the One Ring falls into the hands of the unlikeliest of heroes -- a hobbit named Frodo. (Hobbits are a small folk, smaller than Dwarves, who live in tidy communities, enjoying fully the simple pleasures of life.)
So now here's the task: the only way the One Ring can be destroyed is in the place it was forged: Mount Doom, a volcano in the heart of Mordor, the dark land controlled by Sauron himself. If the ring isn't destroyed, Sauron will find it eventually, and rule the world. But the only way to destroy it -- and save the world -- is to take the ring right to Sauron's doorstep, deep inside his own fortressed country, crawling with his own powerful armies.
This is a brilliant set-up. The goal is a noble one, of course -- to save the world from destruction. But the task is terrible... Frodo, the hobbit, must travel straight toward the very danger that is a terrifying threat to all.
Thus, the 'shape' of the story that spins out of this task fits naturally into a classic dramatic structure -- with ever-rising menace and danger coming with each of Frodo's steps toward his goal.
PART V: Act III
You'd better invent a task for your screenplay. Or your screenplay will invent a task for you.
I've been involved in a number of so-called 'production draft' rewrite meetings. And guess what the subject always is? Number one -- deal with budget. Number two -- "Hey it's a great idea, it's a great film, we love it, great characters, great theme... only... we need something for them to do. We need a clear through-line here... okay, what if she needed to..."
If you don't invent your task, there's a real danger that someone else will invent it for you --
-- or it will invent itself, growing mysteriously out of the elements of your story, without you even realizing it.
And the trouble is, if you end up with one of those 'tasks by default,' it probably won't be very good. These lame tasks usually rear their ugly heads in Act III, out of a desperate need to give the story a sense of completion.
Here are some typical ones -- avoid them if you can, as they are either evidence of serious neglect, or simply admissions of defeat:
In a romantic comedy, the hero must RUN ACROSS TOWN in order to tell their lover 'I love you.'
The villain captures the woman, so the hero has to RESCUE THE GIRL (sexist as well as cliche).
We must go KILL THE VILLAIN in a bloody shoot-out (but only after the hero shows him mercy, and he draws his sneaky little villain-gun.)
Oh, no, we have to DE-FUSE THE BOMB before it explodes. (But since it's a movie, of course, the bomb will be tossed into a body of water and explode anyway, albeit safely.)
The most common of all default tasks is where the hero must COME TO A DECISION at the end of Act II or in the middle of Act III. It's usually just not very filmic to watch somebody change their minds, or become convinced of something. (And when you see this choice, it's almost guaranteed to take place in a script that has a 'passive lead' problem.)
In its best form, the resolution of the task, as a physical action, becomes a powerful filmic image for the movie. You could literally turn the sound down, and graphically see the story play itself out to its completion.
Rocky Balboa going the distance.
E.T. flying across the full moon to rendezvous with the spaceship.
Luke Skywalker firing on the Death Star.
Think in terms of just a goal, and your story perhaps may lack the distinctive qualities that make a film truly memorable. Think in terms of the task, and that puts you on firm theoretical ground (and Lord knows that's where we all want to be -- firm theoretical ground) and you have a better chance to discover those unique, personal, memorable story moments.
It's yet another tool to keep in mind before you sit down to write. Most likely, your heroes, your film, your audience, are going to need this utterly necessary, damnably frustrating, what-you'll-soon-come-to- regard-as a true four-letter word --