Super Objective: “…the main inner content of a play produces a state of inner grasp and power in which actors can develop all the intricacies and then come to a clear conclusion as to its underlying, fundamental purpose” (273)
Constantin Stanislavski – An Actor Prepares
Over the last couple of weeks; as both What a Concept! and Plotting the Plotted Plot have come to the end of their current offering, I’ve had a number of writers dealing with problems concerning their endings/final resolutions, as well as their over all plot “cause and effect” through lines. We’ve had long discussions regarding the wants and needs of the Main Character, Conflict, Theme and Symbol; and while these have been helpful, there were few people who were still struggling to “connect the dots”, and bring the concept of their story’s ending into focus.
I went home after a rather intense class, trying to get a handle on how I might better communicate the idea; that, the character’s “wants and needs”, their motivation for existing in the story was what drove the plot and revealed the final resolution of their story.
I started thinking about when I was acting and how in breaking down a script, one looks for the character’s Super Objective; their over all motivation for existing in the play.
The theory of the Super Objective comes from the acting system developed by Constantin Stanislavski in the early 20th Century. Stanislavski; the Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theater; in his collaboration to mount the plays of Anton Chekov, together brought to Western Theater what some call the revolutionary concept of Emotional Realism. And, while, at its core, it is a process of bringing an actor’s performance in line with “real life”, I’ve always thought it was best used in conjunction with an analysis of the author’s intention in the text of the play.
In this case, I thought it might be used to simply focus on an author’s plot, applying it directly to a writer’s work at getting to the heart of a story’s emotional through-line…it’s spine.
Let me give you an example: The Godfather. The story centers on Michael Corleone and his rise to become the ruthless Godfather. When Michael fist appears in the story, he’s an uncomfortable outsider to his own family. He is ambiguous and unclear of his role in this family whom he knows well; he’s had his own experiences and heartbreak from the dangers of being involved in the family business, and he’s not even sure he belongs. Once the Instigating Action take place; the attempted assassination of Vito Corleone; Michael becomes a force for revenge.
The Super Objective in the story is “obtain revenge.” It is a clear through-line that everything else hangs on. And, the brilliance of the story telling is that; while the Super Objective for the story may be Revenge, neither the actor (Al Pacino) nor the writer make that a one note expression of story. The story explores all the moral pathos and emotional growth needed for that character to come to the place where he’s able to not only kill those who tried to kill his father, but his own brother as well. In fact, the issue of Revenge is such a driver in that story, that by the end of the third installment, we see Michael as this shell of a human who has continued to live out the effects of that original decision, even to the point of witnessing his own daughter’s murder on the steps of the Opera House.
I’ll give you one further and brief example of how using a Super Objective for your Main Character’s through-line can help focus a story.
I’m working with a writer who is developing a very complex story that involves a character from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He’s been working with the idea that the narrator/story teller is the Main Character. He’s been very diligent at working out the motivations of the Main Character and plot, but he’s had a very difficult time at coming to a solid conceptual understanding of his ending/final resolution. So, I asked him what he thought the Main Character’s Super Objective might be, and he had a very difficult time coming up with one. I asked him to play “what if” with me, and flip the Main Character and the Opposition/Conflict Character; a minor character in Don Quixote. I then asked what that character’s Super Objective might be. He sat for a moment, and I asked; “could it be, get Cervantes?” The light bulb when off. and I watched as numerous pieces of puzzle fell into place, and he began to see a very clear though-line for his plot.
Now, “Revenge” and “Get Cervantes” are very strong Super Objectives. But, both are attached to very strong and complex stories. I also have had a young woman working on a very sweet and lyrical story about a teacher who loses her job, opens an ice cream story and finds love. Her Super Objective might be “Find true love.” The journey that character takes to get back on her feet after being fired, risking it all on an Ice Cream shop and the various mistaken choices and turns she makes along the way to find true love can be complex, lyrical and lovely piece of work. The exact opposite of Michael Corleone’s rise to power, yet just as interesting.
Having a clear Super Objective for your Main Character can be a little like having a clothes line for your story; everything hangs dry and clean in the light of day.