Saturday, March 5, 2011

MAIN CHARACTER: Failure Matters

“What do you have to lose?”

Too few screenwriters ask this question of their main character.

You can nail the dialog, render authentic characters and portray realistic events. You can imagine internal/external conflicts and take your reader through an emotional journey. But still, people will set down your script with a dismissive “that’s nice” if your character has nothing to lose.


What went wrong? In “real” life, we rarely have moments of compelling victory/defeat. When we learn lessons and make changes, they are generally slow in coming and we change one thin layer at a time. But in “reel life,” if there’s no drama, your reader falls asleep. You have to hold their interest. Victory needs to feel like victory.

And Defeat Needs to Feel Like Defeat.

Raise the stakes.

Whether your main character is a hero or anti-hero, he is set on a path toward a probable result. The trials and obstacles of the second act take him into unexpected places and “what he thinks he wants” transforms into “what he really needs.” If the audience doesn’t feel like he “really needs it,” they’ll put down your script to go get something cold to drink.

In “The King’s Speech” – What if King George never overcomes his debilitating stutter? Well ...he will never be able to deliver the speech that needs to unite his country in opposition to the Nazi war machine.

In “The Fighter” - What if Micky Ward fails in his last chance bout for the light welterweight title? He will never earn redemption for himself and his brother. And his brother will likely slide back into his drug addiction, leading to his eventual destruction.

In “Cinema Paradiso” - What happens if Salvatore doesn’t return to his tiny home village and confront a heartbreak from his past? He will keep living a life that looks successful on the outside but is empty of love and true caring, moving from one unsatisfying relationship to the next.

In “The Wizard of Oz” – What happens if Dorothy doesn’t learn that everything she needs is already inside her? She will always believe that somewhere over the rainbow is where her answers lie and miss out on the blessings right in front of her.

Failure matters. It is through the risk of failure that your main character’s success gains importance and keeps your audience engaged, whether reading your pages or watching your story up there on the screen.

Have a great writing day!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

THE ANTAGONIST: Even the Enemy is the Protagonist of His Own Life

“I believe in the law. I seen towns where a man used to earn enough for food on his table and grow a family. Then outsiders come in, get drunk, start fighting and before you know it that family man is lying out there face down in the mud with a bullet in his back or his head smashed in. Big Whiskey used to be one of them kinda towns before I got here. Three steps from Hell, I’d say. No law at all. I fixed that. I got simple rules: You can get drunk and whore around all you need, after all, a fella’s got to have some fun. But you leave your guns back home. And if you don’t do that, you best drop ‘em off at my office first thing. Don’t make me come and get ‘em. Hell, now I heard that some whore down at Skinny’s offered out a reward for killing a coupla drunk fool cowhands that cut up one of the girls. That’s gonna slow things down on getting my house built before winter, dammit. Well, I’ll be there every time that stagecoach comes in. And any men looking like they got ideas about that money, I’ll give ‘em a whippin’ they won’t soon forget. After a few of them gunslingers get bloodied up, word’ll get out. Don’t come to Big Whiskey. Ain’t no amount of money worth going up against Lil Bill Daggett. “ - Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven

“We have a situation, but I’ve got it handled. One of our operatives went missing. He had an assignment and missed his target. I don’t know why. We thought he might be dead but now he’s turned up in Switzerland. He cleared out his box. Took everything. Hell, he showed up at the Embassy and tore the place up. I don’t know what his game is but it’s stopping right now. Police? First of all, police are useless in this situation, you know that. This is a man we trained to be invisible, get past any obstacle and kill whoever gets in his way. And second, I can just imagine what the press would do if they ever did get this guy behind bars. The story he could --- forget it. I have the entire team on ‘stand-by.’ Castel is on him. If he fails? He won’t fail. And even if he does, I got another dozen right behind him. I don’t know if Bourne went rogue and I don’t need to know. All I want to hear is that he’s dead before he brings this whole thing down on our heads.” - Conklin, The Bourne Identity

In great writing, the Antagonist is right.

That doesn’t mean you agree with him.

In the above examples both Daggett and Conklin are set to destroy the Main Character. The stakes are raised when the Antagonist is correct from his point of view and committed to his path. He becomes a formidable obstacle to overcome and casts doubt as to whether the Main Character will succeed. Or sometimes, whether he should succeed.

In Unforgiven, by David Webb Peoples, Bill Munny is a bad man who has tried to leave his past behind. But he has killed dozens of people. Should he be allowed to kill the two cowhands and get away with it?

In The Bourne Identity, adapted for the screen by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron, Jason Bourne is a trained assassin for the United States government. He is a cold blooded killer. Some part inside him has been broken and he is a very dangerous man.

These two examples are from dramatic mainstream movies. Does this principle also apply to kinder, gentler movies and independents?

In Toy Story, by Joss Whedon & Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow, the Main Character is Woody. What does Woody want? To be Andy’s favorite toy. It’s important to be the favorite. The favorite gets played with and doesn’t end up in a yard sale box. Life is good. Until Buzz Lightyear arrives. How can an old cowboy doll compete with a doll that’s new and modern? How can Andy not tell that this Buzz Lightyear is a simple-minded idiot who believes he is an astronaut?

From Buzz Lightyear’s point of view, he doesn’t know why he is in Andy’s house. Playing is alright, but he must get back to his home planet! Buzz’s existence is an obstacle to Woody getting what he wants. Is Buzz wrong? No. He just has a different agenda. He can’t help it if he is so incredibly cool to play with.

In Lars and the Real Girl, by Nancy Oliver, Lars Lindstrom is an emotionally damaged young man who works in a bland office, minds his own business and tries to keep the world at arm’s length. He has no friends, has never had a girlfriend and is painfully shy. He spends most of his time alone. But there’s a girl at the office who likes him. He might like her if he didn’t cut himself off from the risk of feeling his emotions.

The Antagonists are his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin. Gus loves his brother but is tired of being embarrassed by him. Why can’t Lars be normal? Karen wants Lars to be part of the family and is frustrated that he avoids coming to dinner, spending time with them.

Gus and Karin are completely reasonable. But their behavior and expectations add to the stress that Lars feels. Part of Lars longs to live more fully, but he doesn’t know how. It is through falling in love with a lifelike doll that he is finally able to express the feelings he has for other people. And it is his experience of loving the doll that allows him to get past the deep and painful scars of his childhood and, ultimately, transfer those loving feelings to real people.

Gus and Karin are not bad people. Gus sees the pain that Lars feels. He witnessed the scars as they happened as kids. But he is from the same family – why can’t Lars just let it go as he has? Karin means well. But Lars confuses her. And when he brings the doll to eat with them at the dinner table, she does her best to understand. But how can anyone help Lars? He may be nice. But he also may be crazy.

As you write and rewrite your script, look for ways to humanize your Antagonist. The conflict in some stories is black and white; in other stories, it’s much more subtle, like life. The important thing is to keep in mind that your Antagonist doesn’t know that he is the Antagonist. He thinks he’s the PROtagonist.

Yes, your Antagonist needs to have an opposing view from your Main Character. But he doesn’t need to be all bad.

After all, even Darth Vader loved his son.

Have a great writing day!