Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games, always finds a way to take control. SOURCE: WIKIPEDIA
by Eric Edson (The Story Solution)
When you sit down to write a movie, sometimes you’ve got so many great characters running around in your head – all doing terrific stuff while you chase after them to get it written – that it’s easy to lose track of one particular character you should maybe keep an eye on. Your lead.
If the protagonist mostly stands around watching everybody else whiz past, you’ve got a story problem.
I rank a Passive Central Character as one of the major assassins of new screenplays.
That’s why I harangue my graduate students in our Cal State Northridge Screenwriting program to remember this: your hero or heroine must always take purposeful dramatic action and lead the way in every scene of every movie you write. Movies must move, and you’ve only got about 100 minutes of screen time. Just focus on the deeds undertaken by your protagonist that drive the storyline forward. All other characters function solely as story assistants who either serve to support or attack the hero’s efforts.
Even in those few scenes where the lead may not physically be present – say, a cutaway moment to see what the scheming adversary is up to – conflict taking place there still must relate directly to the action your heroine or hero is pursuing elsewhere at that moment.
So in any film story that works, the protagonist needs to have a physical, three-dimensional goal they’re chasing after.
The hero often has an inner goal, too. There’s a struggle going on inside the lead character, some personal emotional conflict that must be overcome in order to reach their outer goal. Lots of good movies have this character growth going on. But just like with outer goals, in film stories only active behavior can reveal the heroine’s inner struggle.
That way, the audience can watch it happen. It’s what makes a story a movie and not a novel.
And your protagonist must want to reach their goal a who-o-o-le lot. High stakes are incredibly important in movies – meaning that if the protagonist does not achieve the goal, something awful will happen.
John Krasinski’s character continually works to protect his family in A Quiet Place. Photo Credit: Jonny Cournoyer
Then the critical task for your hero becomes fighting everything and everyone standing in the way of their attempt to stop that Very Bad Thing from taking place.
What sort of specific goal you choose depends on the genre of your story, of course. But in all genres there are really only four goal categories that work well: Win, Stop, Escape, or Retrieve.
Now before you start hollering in protest at this idea, let me add that each of the four categories contains thousands of more specific versions of these goals you can explore. There’s a slue of ways to WIN. Scads of ways to RETRIEVE. Take a close look at the protagonist’s main story goal in any hugely successful movie and you’ll see that all of those goals, in fact, fit into one of these four general categories.
It’s because only these four broad goals supply a physical, visible finish-line. They provide a clear endpoint for any story, and your audience craves resolution.
The Awful Thing your lead must prevent can range from the destruction of planet Earth, to the loss of the protagonist’s one true love. But whether you’re writing a small family story or a sci-fi epic, the hero’s physical pursuit of some high stakes goal is essential.
Lucky for us humans, we can experience a psychological phenomenon called “identification.” As an audience, we project ourselves emotionally into the heroine or hero and in our imagination we become the protagonist so we can personally live out their adventure. That’s what elevates any story to one we can really care about.
It’s why we all love the movies so much! We get to experience a tale from inside the perspective and emotions of a worthy hero.
The protagonist can gather other secondary ally characters to help out on their crusade, sure. But your lead must take complete responsibility for choosing, then pursuing, each story action. If the hero leaves it up to others to do all the heavy plot-lifting, audiences will soon lose interest.
Photo Credit Atsushi Nishijima
For an example, think A Wrinkle In Time. It’s a visually gorgeous, deeply felt and sincerely well-intentioned movie. But it stumbled at the box office because, for all the marvelous acting, the story as written had a mostly passive central character.
If you enjoy spending time with protagonists who sit around feeling lots of stuff but who don’t really get around to doing very much, read 19th century novels. I love those books, too. But just be aware that novels and movies communicate story in very, very different ways.
Now I am NOT saying that your lead can never sit down or have a kick-back moment. Sure they can. A plot action-line needs pace variation just like a symphony does. But even in the quieter moments purposeful dramatic action must press the story onward.
So, yep, in visual storytelling your hero or heroine must avoid passivity at all costs. Both physically and emotionally, they gotta keep moving.
Eric Edson has written seventeen feature screenplays on assignment. He is Professor of Screenwriting at California State University, Northridge and co-creator of the MFA in Screenwriting program there. Eric’s book The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take provides concrete insights about writing a screenplay and is currently #1 in its category on China Amazon. Eric’s in-depth interview with Film Courage can be found on YouTube. Visit his website The Story Solution to download a complimentary book chapter and to see video clips. “Like” the Facebook page to receive tips on scriptwriting.
On March 3, 2018, 10:00am-11:30am Pacific Standard Time, Michael Wiese Productions will host a panel of top MWP authors for their annual Pre-Oscars Bash at the LA Film Studies Center, where they will dish and talk about their favorite picks and pans for the 2018 Oscars.
The event will be live-streamed for FREE on the MWP Facebook page for all to see and engage in the discussion of what to expect from this years Oscars. All you need to do is visit the MWP Facebook page at the date and time to join in.
The audience will be packed with smart, enthusiastic movie buffs, screenwriters and producers. Attendees must show up on time at The LA Film Academy on March 3rd promptly at 10AM and be an enthusiastic LIVE AUDIENCE (Seating is LIMITED TO 50 PEOPLE).
So you want to be a writer? Not just any old writer, but a really good one?
Desire and passion are the right stuff to help you build your stories. But the number one thing you need to produce in order to become a paid scriptwriting success, no matter how many drafts it takes, is a top-notch screenplay writing sample. Not just a mediocre draft, not the “I feel it could use some more work but hey I’m tuckered out” version. I mean a really polished script.
Because that’s how you will get noticed in filmmaking or TV-making circles.
And it takes time and learning to become that accomplished.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to become a skilled scriptwriter more quickly.
There are also many other excellent screenwriting blogs and YouTube channels to learn from. (Don’t miss the great YouTube channel “Film Courage”!) As well, there are online libraries of produced screenplays available free for downloading. Reading scores of professional scripts is critical to writing success.
And take advantage of The Story Solution’spartnership with Final Draft, the world’s most popular screenwriting software. My proven Hero Goal Sequences® Story Structure Paradigm is now available as a downloadable template included in Final Draft 10 (under “edu templates”).
Then too, you really should consider learning to create great scripts for film and TV in a classroom. Yes, I’m a university professor myself so I am partial to classrooms. But there’s more to it than that.
You might already have the passion and natural talent to be a writer, but attending film school can give you the necessary skills, tools, experience and contacts you need to become a bona fide screenwriter in a much shorter period of time. Yes, it costs money. But so do medical schools, business schools and law schools. In so many ways film school can really pay off for the committed screenwriter. Here are ten of the better reasons:
There Is A Right Way And A Wrong Way to Build Stories That Grip Audiences.
This architectural skill MUST be mastered and it’s nowhere near as easy as it looks. There’s a structure through which visual storytelling communicates both consciously and unconsciously with an audience. You also need a great story idea, of course, and then you need to add characters, write believable dialogue, and create dramatic tension throughout your story to keep an audience glued to their chairs. Film school breaks down all these elements into core fundamentals that you practice daily with mentor-instructors who are themselves experienced professional writers and filmmakers. There is no other professional experience in the world available for screenwriters that can hold a candle to this one.
You Must Learn To Write With Clarity And Depth.
Making it look simple isn’t simple at all. Very far from it. In a film/screenwriting M.F.A. program, you gain a huge advantage over your competition by learning and mastering all the concepts and tools in a screenwriter’s toolkit so you never have to waste time floundering in confusion, or being gripped by writer’s block. When you get hired to write a script, the producer is not going to coddle you. You need to be a knowledgeable pro right now – so you better be ready to rock. Remember, when getting launched as a screenwriter (or TV writer, or creative executive, or studio production executive, or independent producer, or director, or or or) the definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity. What you learn in film school gives you the confidence to analyze dramatic material quickly, accurately, and to see in any script exactly what works, what doesn’t work, and how to fix it. When opportunity arrives, you will be very, very ready.
You CanGrow Your Personal Network.
Every screenwriter needs industry contacts and friends in the business. So…why not get to know all those other film school students sitting right beside you in class? You work together and grow together and come trust each other’s opinions. In film school you gain life-long friendships who share your passions and who understand that helping each other out is good for everybody. After film school, writers also need a network of knowledgeable, insightful, trusted friends and mentors to react to the material they write so that the work can continue to grow and improve. You build relationships that become invaluable going forward.
You Can Get Out of Jail.
Writers spend way too much time alone. And the more isolated you are, the more self-isolating your temperament becomes, as well as less self-confident. Film school puts you in the active thick of what you love to do. In the old days, the 1920s Paris literati had the Les Deux Magots Cafe where Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir and James Joyce came to talk stories, share opinions and argue about their art. And Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound had Gertrude Stein’s parlor soirees to discuss each other’s work. In our current era, what a growing number of all the creative people in Hollywood have in common is film school.
You CanCreate More, and Better, Work Samples.
It is important to have a large polished portfolio of scripts and treatments in order to be taken seriously as a screenwriter by agents and producers. Film school works with you to build your portfolio, teaches you to expand into various genres, and to have well thought-out, pitchable ideas at the ready for when that big break comes.
Get the Straight Truth From Instructor-Professionals.
It’s nice when mom or dad tells you how great they think your writing is. Maybe they’ll even take you out to dinner to celebrate your finishing that new script. But unless mom is an established film producer, you most likely are not getting any knowledgeable, experience-based criticism. To become a better writer you need to hear the straight truth that only a circle of mentor professionals and insightful fellow students can provide. Film school puts you in the midst of people who share your passion for creating the best script you can write. Knowledgeable criticism is essential for refining any screenplay.
It Helps You Master The Rewriting Process.
Ever hear the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda talk about the work he put into creating “Hamilton,” the smash Broadway musical? He spent years creating, writing, honing and revising – but it all paid off with a record run and 11 Tony Awards. This is what it takes to create a great Hollywood script, too. Film school gives you the motivation and environment to create and refine not only one but several scripts as you come to understand the essential process of rewriting. And it shows youwhat you’re really capable of as a writer. You come out the other side a changed, more confident and committed writer than you ever thought you could be.
You’llLearn How The Industry Works.
Film school offers the advantage of getting students launched into the film and TV industries and teaching them how the business actually works, through internships at some of the most important Hollywood companies. Most Master of Fine Arts graduate programs in screenwriting or film have top-notch sponsored internship programs. And some undergraduate film programs (such as the one at Cal State Northridge) have excellent internship connections as well.
You Will Have Instructors Who Love To Teach.
Film school is a very unique environment. All the instructors have already worked creatively in film and TV, and they truly love writing just like you do. They enjoy being around eager students of all ages and backgrounds. They love engaging in the back and forth of creative dialogue. Respect is mutual, and enthusiasm abounds. You learn from the best, and the relationships, experiences and knowledge acquired in film school will inevitably change you for the better and remain with you forever. I have never heardanyone say they regretted going to film school.
The M.F.A. Degree Qualifies You To Teach At Colleges And Universities Worldwide
Each year at Cal State Northridge, a number of our newly entering M.F.A. in Screenwriting students come to us already accomplished professional screen and TV writers. They come to get that required M.F.A. degree in order to teach screenwriting and film at the university level. These student-professionals wonderfully augment our program for ALL students, and each brings a whole career’s worth of experience with them. Many mature professionals see the great value of a graduate degree in screenwriting/film because they now plan to transition into teaching at the university level. On the other hand, I earned my two M.F.A.s at the very beginning of my career because I wanted to become a master at this craft, and I already knew, too, that someday I wanted to teach. Sooner or later. It works either way.
Yes, film school costs money. Anything worthwhile does. But shop around, because the price of a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting degree can vary a great deal. One of the qualitatively best, and at the same time least expensive, M.F.A. programs can be found at California State University, Northridge. Florida State has a top-rated program, too. As does Arizona. Along with many others. And there are scholarships, financial assistance and loans available. I was paying off my American Film Institute loan for years after I got my degree there, but AFI kept the payments down and even during my struggling years it wasn’t that bad. We got through okay. And eventually with that M.F.A. degree on my wall, I became a tenured full-professor. Frankly, I wouldn’t trade my film school experiences for anything.
Here’s wishing you a joyful, creative, and productive 2018!
p.s. Be sure to visit my website athttps://www.thestorysolution.com to download complimentary film structure breakdowns for Back to the Future, Bridesmaids, and Finding Nemo.
I am asking for an honest review in exchange for entering the giveaway, because on the internet it’s all about reviews! So… I must step out of my comfort zone here to ask all you good folks to leave a review on either Amazon or GoodReads or both; every one helps! Many of you have been fantastic in showing your support and from my heart, It’s truly appreciated.
The book has really taken off in China, reaching the #1 slot on Amazon China for “Film and TV” books, and also hitting #1 in the categories of “Animation” and “Graphic Novels”.
As a reminder, I recently completed a series of video interviews for the online screenwriting community Film Courage. Also, there’s another terrific series of webinars coming up soon from my friends and colleagues, the professional consultants and educators at eiACE that you should check out.
Hope everyone is in the mood to write! Feel free to look me up on Facebook to say hello! I can’t always be speedy about it, but I aim to answer all messages that come my way!
This is an invitation from a great organization called “eiACE”, an association of entertainment consultants and educators, in which I am a founding member. There’s a terrific series of webinars coming up from these wonderful professionals that I am very pleased to share with you: