Story Promise

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon – 2 (yes, I’m behind the curve on this, but better late than never). I enjoyed it enormously. There was drama, excitement, humor, emotion, and truly amazing animation. I highly recommend it if you’re into the DreamWorks line of movies. However, I confess that the ending left me, not disappointed exactly, but just a little unsatisfied. Why? Because the story didn’t quite match up to its promise. WARNING: This discussion has spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie.

In one of the early scenes, as we’re (re)introduced to Hiccup, the protagonist, we find his major concern: that his father, the chief of his village, is grooming Hiccup to take over as chief. Hiccup doesn’t want to do it and doesn’t think he’s able. The rest of the movie shows his journey to becoming the person who can and will take over to lead his people effectively. This is an important story promise that is completely fulfilled in the movie.

But there’s another story promise that happens just a little later. Hiccup is arguing with his father about how to deal with the newly-discovered threat from his old nemesis, Drago. Hiccup wants to go find Drago to talk to him, convincing him to stop capturing dragons to build a relentless dragon army to conquer the world. His father insists that there is no talking to someone like Drago, and all we can do is hunker down and try to protect our own. Hiccup insists that he can be very persuasive: “If I can change your mind, I can change anyone’s mind.” He then takes off on Toothless to find Drago and talk him down.

So what happens? He and Toothless defeat Drago in the end, saving everyone, and it’s very heroic, with good triumphing over evil and all. Still, Hiccup never changes Drago’s mind. I kept waiting for this to happen, though it seemed less and less likely as things went on. In the end, that promise was unfulfilled, and it left me unsatisfied.

This is one of the rules of storytelling that I’m trying to hold to in my current work. What does my protagonist really want? How does the whole story document her struggle to get it, overcoming long odds on the way, growing and changing into the kind of person that can have this one, crucial thing?

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