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!