Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Your Characters Need Intentions As Well As Goals

In a recent article referring to the annual ritual of setting goals for the new year, meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt writes about the difference between setting goals and setting intentions.

A goal is a specific, concrete result, set in the future. Something you envisage yourself attaining, an outcome you are emotionally attached to, invested in. Because it’s concrete and specific, a goal leaves no room to adjust or change direction (unless you change the goal).

By contrast, an intention is rooted in the present, it’s a commitment to adhere to certain values, regardless of where that leads. An intention is a kind of yard stick with which you can always measure up your actions. Because it’s abstract, no matter what the situation, you can always hold your choices up against it.

As Moffitt writes:

You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Not only can this be a constructive way of approaching your work as a screenwriter, it can also be a useful lens through which to view your characters.

Think for a moment about your professional goals. Maybe your goal is to get an agent, finish a spec screenplay, obtain certain qualifications, hone particular skills, earn more than you did last year, etc.

Now, what about your intentions? In the sense I quoted above: the commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values? That’s altogether a more tricky question, because it requires you to recognize what matters most to you. And that’s not always simple.

In fact this question can bring up all sorts of professional dilemmas.

Is it more important to write screenplays about meaningful issues, or is it more important earn a living writing screenplays, whatever the subject matter? Should you focus on one project you’re really committed to, or do you need to keep your options open? Should you work with people who disrespect you, in order to get ahead?

Of course, these are not black and white choices. It’s clear you need to be flexible in this business and that – as the Stones once sang - You can’t always get what you want. But it’s an interesting an illuminating question nevertheless! Because when you’re aware of your intention and that intention clashes with the concrete goal you’re trying to achieve, a dilemma arises which you can’t avoid. Conflict, in other words.

Conflict, the thing that drives all great screenplays, right?

Now ask yourself for a moment what kind of intention would clash with your main character’s goal? Are they even aware of this? Are they in denial? Is it perhaps another character who points this out, thus creating a dilemma?

As I’ve pointed out before, moral ambiguity is the life blood of great fiction. Articulating how, specifically, the discrepancy between your character’s intention and their goal interferes with their life, is just another way of exploring that moral ambiguity.

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