I’m sure you’ve heard Machiavelli’s quote, “The ends justifies the means.”
And of course there are a number of counter-quotes that disagree with this justification of utilitarianism, but I want to force a semantic shift to talk about it in terms of structure.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Setup, Conflict, and Payoff. Well, there’s another layer to this: the means to the end. Often, the story hasn’t yet started because there is no obvious path of how to achieve the main character’s desire, which is defined in the Setup and resolved in the Payoff. Basically, the protagonist wants something, but doesn’t know how to get it: (s)he is lacking the means to achieve this end goal.
This could be guidance in terms of a hint or suggestion, an opportunity, even a “call to Adventure.”
What is important is that the means and goal are not confused: the means is the way the protagonist can achieve their original goal, not a new goal that replaces the original desire.
A great example is in Wreck It Ralph, where Ralph’s desire is to be valued and included by both Felix & the townsfolk, as well as himself.
The means is provided through his leaving of his own game, and his subsequent support of Vanellope- through her he learns that flaws are really “super-powers” that are useful elsewhere; and meanwhile, Felix realises that he loses value without Ralph’s contribution. Vanellope teaches Ralph that he isn’t “just” a villain, and he helps her succeed– but the story feels complete when he returns to Fix It Felix Jr and is prized for his role in the game. Through their friendship, Vanellope and Ralph transform themselves and each other, and individually get their desires fulfilled. If Ralph only succeeded in helping Vanellope and this was celebrated as the end of the story, his victory would feel hollow or at most, bittersweet: it would be a different story, one about escaping limitations others put on you, rather than one about being valued for what others put down or take for granted.