“Are we going to stand round here all day? Or are we going to fight?
Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
“Are we going to stand round here all day? Or are we going to fight?
Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Well, I’ve been out of commission for a while, mainly because I’ve been reading a ton of scripts lately, and I just haven’t had time for blogging. I’m back now, and hopefully will be able to carve out some time to do this more consistently. Today’s topic: how story structure and a strong protagonist are mutually dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other.
How obvious does this sound? It sounds incredibly obvious, but I’ve spent the past several weeks reading screenplays for various contests and online sights, and the most consistent issue that I was seeing was the lack of a strong protagonist, which in turn created a lack of strong dramatic structure. Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I am an advocate for strong and clean structure, especially for writers who are still trying to break in to the business. As an unknown commodity, you need to be able to show that you understand the rules before you can demonstrate how to effectively break them. Screenplays, for the most part, have one central character, the protagonist, who drives the action of the story. The drama of the story is created by whether or not the protagonist is getting what she wants, and the beats of the structure reflect her progress through the story.
I must have read a dozen scripts over the past month in which at least two people, and sometimes more, could have fit the definition of the protagonist within a single script. The writers of those stories couldn’t put an organized story together because the three major plot points depend on reflecting the internal and external states of one main character. Act I ends and Act II begins when the main character commits to whatever the adventure of the story will be. Act II is cut in half when something happens to the main character of because of the main character that causes the stakes to be raised, thus changing the direction of the story. Finally, Act II ends and Act III begins when the hero appears to be in a no-win situation, either due to her own character flaws or due to outside forces like the antagonist. That sets up the Third Act to be about the protagonist overcoming those flaws and that adversary (or not) and accomplishing whatever she had set out to accomplish at the end of the first act (or not).
The most succinct example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones receives his archetypal Call to Adventure in the first Act to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Act II begins with him flying to Nepal to see an old lover, Marion, who may have a clue to help find it, and the adventure has begun, and Act IIA is about finding the Ark. Then, halfway through the second act the stakes are raised when Indy actually discovers the Ark and excavates it from its tomb. Now, Act IIB will be about keeping the Ark away from the Nazis. Act II ends with the Nazi’s not only getting the Ark from him, but also kidnapping Marion as well. That makes the Third Act about getting the Ark back from the Nazis and rescuing Marion.
Even though it’s primarily an action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark has a clear and concise dramatic structure because it has a single, strong protagonist with a clear outer goal and a clear inner need. His outer goal is to find the Ark of the Covenant and to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, and his inner need is to reconcile with Marion. There are various points in the movie when these two goals come into conflict with each other, creating more drama, but never interfering with the arc of the story.
I mention all of this because I read a lot of scripts recently, mostly by amateur writers, who failed to grasp the concept that a single protagonist is needed to tell an effective story. Are there exceptions to his rule? Absolutely. There are some stories that are told from multiple points of view, the most prominent example being The Godfather, but the effective ones are few and far between. I actually did a breakdown here of how The Godfather is told from the points of view of both Vito and Michael.
I don’t know what it was about these batches of scripts that I received over the past few weeks, but many of them had this problem. The writers couldn’t decide in these individual scripts which of their characters was the protagonist. The scripts would start out with one character driving the action, but then other characters would be introduced that turned out to be just as important in driving the action.
Each one of these Scripts without exception, was in terrible shape from a structural standpoint. The structure was either muddled or non-existent because there was not a single protagonist whose wants and needs matched the plot points of the storyline. Instead there were multiple protagonists competing for attention in the stories and competing to be the focus of the structure of the story. There’s a saying in football that if you have two starting quarterbacks, then you really don’t even have one. The same thing applies to screenwriting and storytelling. If you have two (or more) protagonists, then you don’t even have one.
If you have more than one main character, then you don’t know what the Ordinary World of Act I is, because you don’t know whose Ordinary World you’re supposed to focus on. Moreover, you don’t know where Act I ends and Act II of the Adventure beginning begins because we don’t know whose adventure we’re supposed to be following. Most importantly since we don’t know whose wants and needs are most important, we don’t know where the all-is-lost moment occurs so we don’t know where Act III begins. That problem actually leads to the most devastating problem. Without a clear all-is-lost moment where the hero must overcome her internal flaw, the audience has no emotional connection to the story and no reason to care what’s going on. As soon as the audience decides they don’t care, you have no chance to get them back.
What this led to in many of these scripts was a simple lack of any structure at all. Many of these scripts were just one, long rambling act with little to no story arc and even less character arc. What these writers need to learn is that a story is more than just what happens. It’s why it happened and how it happened and (most importantly) who is affected by it. Without answering any of those issues, then your script will suffer from the same fate, and you’ll have no chance of getting anything other than a dreaded PASS on your coverage.
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“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
Screenplay by John Carpenter
“Crisis or no, nothing should interfere with tea.”
Screenplay by James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman
“He’s a common ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English!”
Screenplay by Reginald Rose
I saw Avengers: Infinity War Friday night, and I’m prepared to call it the best Marvel film of their relatively short history. I’m not including Logan because it’s in a different canon, and it was a totally different style of storytelling and film making. That said, it’s probably the best film to bear that Marvel flag. However, in this most popular canon of Marvel, the canon that people automatically think of when you refer to a “Marvel” movie, Infinity War stands alone at the top of a crowded pile.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog regarding whether or not the Academy should take box office numbers into account when determining nominees and winners for awards season, and I opined in that piece that the reason action films, which lately have typically been the yearly box office champs, don’t get a lot of Oscar love due to a lack of emotional engagement. The entire blog can be seen here. Well, directors Anthony and Joe Russo solved that problem big time in this film. Infinity War has as much of the action and splash and glitz of any other Marvel film, but the Russo’s did a much better job of injecting emotional components to this film that made us care about the characters in ways that had been absent in previous Marvel films.
Thanos, the villain, is actually where I’d like to start. If it’s true that the villain is the hero of his own story, then Thanos fits that notion to a tee. Introduced to us as a part of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Thanos passionately believes that he is doing the right thing for the universe as a whole and that the people who are left behind after his galaxy-wide genocide will be ultimately be thankful to him and that he’s ultimately making the universe a better place.
Obviously, there’s never a good reason for genocide and Thanos is clearly thawed in his thinking, but the Russo’s, along with screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, gave Thanos a type of pathos that at least made him marginally sympathetic. Some of the dialogue they gave him actually made sense of his senseless ideas, which made him less of a monster than he otherwise would have been. No one is rooting for Thanos, and he clearly has little to no possibility for redemption, but as an audience, we see that the evil he’s doing comes oddly enough from a good, albeit misguided place.
You know what that is? That’s good screenwriting. If you can take a character that is clearly evil and doing evil things on a level that is unparalleled in its malice, but legitimately make it look like the character is doing it because he thinks he cares about the ultimate good, and the audience buys it, then you’ve succeeded in a place in which it’s very difficult to succeed.
(Actually, he does have one way to redeem himself, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. Feel free to comment or email me if you want further thoughts on this point.)
On the hero’s side of things, the filmmakers did a great job with continuing to build the mentor/protege relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker as Iron Man and Spider-man. Then when Dr. Strange was added to that mix, it created some dynamic chemistry that was dramatic when it needed to be and sufficiently comedic when it needed to be. They also did a great job with Thor, continuing his effective comedic elements that came to the fore in Thor: Ragnarok, and combined it with the already strong comedic chops of the Guardians of the Galaxy team to create an effective plot line for them as well. Plus, they gave Thor his heroic moment near the end that brought theater goers to their feet.
The great thing that the directors and writers did with these characters was to develop these relationships into story components that allowed us to care about what happens to them. For all of the flash and polish and action of the Marvel films, I personally never felt truly engaged with the characters, with the exceptions of the first Iron Man movie and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. They were always fun and had lots of explosions, but I never really cared about what happened to any of the characters. That changed in a big way in Infinity War. We have finally been given characters to care about because, while yes they’re fighting to save the universe from some abstract super-villain, they’re also trying to save each other.
Now, is this a perfect screenplay or a perfect story? No, it is not. It’s challenging to keep up with the number of characters that are in it, and there are so many characters on the side of the good guys that it’s difficult for any of them to get any real traction in the story. For example, I thought that Captain America, Black Widow and Black Panther were kind of wasted as little more than window dressing in this film. Perhaps that’s my own fault because I was predicting big things for Captain America in this and they didn’t really come to pass.
The amount of characters also necessitates multiple protagonists, which is usually a recipe for disaster. A movie like this is an obvious exception because it’s a part of a franchise that’s been around for more than a decade, and we’ve gotten to know all of the characters well enough by now, and they all have a common goal. That last part is what ends up saving it. It would have been a hot mess had each of these characters had their own goal. But with the common goal of defeating Thanos, there was at least some clarity in the story line.
Overall, Avengers: Infinity War has almost everything you would want out of a modern movie going experience. It has all of the excitement, action and adventure that we’ve come to expect from the Marvel franchise, but it has something more that I didn’t expect. It has emotion. It makes you feel something more than you probably ever felt in one of these movies. That puts it over the top.
“The prettiest site in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
Screenplay by David Ogden Stewart
Plot is what happens. The story makes us care.
That’s what I wrote on coverage for a script that I read last week. This particular script was fairly well-structured with the act breaks happening relatively close to where they should. It had plenty of conflict between characters whose goals where well-defined. It also had a strong plot that had a series of events that escalated in intensity and danger.
But, man, was that story lacking.
And now you’re asking, “But if it had a good plot, doesn’t that mean it had a good story?” The answer to that is a resounding, “Hell no!”
So now your next question is, ” why wasn’t the story better if it had a decent plot?”
I’ll repeat the answer. Plot is what happens, and it’s the story that makes us care.
Another way to say that is that there’s a lot more that goes into making a story good then just a good plot. There are thematic elements to consider. Does the writer write with a voice that has something to say? Without that, the plot will remain hollow and empty without much story at all.
The thematic elements also makes us care about the characters. There is no story if you don’t care about what happens to the characters. Again, the plot will be nothing more than a series of connected events, but there won’t be a story there.
Now you’re saying, “Hey, Smith, didn’t you say earlier that the characters were well-defined?” Yes, they were well-defined, but that doesn’t mean they were able to generate any sympathy or empathy. They were well-defined in that they had distinct personalities and individual voices that made them come across as individuals and realistic people.
But that’s only part of what goes into creating a GOOD character. Without an emotional connection to the character, they’re just that: a character. When, as a writer, you allow your characters to act in ways that turn people against your character without giving the character a damn good reason for acting that way, you’re predictably going to lose the audience. When you lose the audience, they no longer care about what happens to your character in the script. At that point, you cease to have a story, and you merely have a plot.
That is ultimately what happened with the script that I’m referring to. It had many of the elements that it needed, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about the main character. The thing that’s most unfortunate about that is that the writer was writing about a topic that is very serious and should have been filled with drama. Unfortunately, the lack of sympathy for the characters translated in to a lack of drama in the plot.
Ah, drama, the lifeblood of any screenplay. That is another component that separates plot from story. A good plot combined with compelling characters and intriguing thematic components will give birth to drama. Without drama, you have no story, and the screenplay in question was lacking in drama. How do you get drama? By making the audience care about what happens to the characters.
That leads to your next question, “Okay, smart guy, how do you get the audience to care about the characters?”
That, my friends, is the million dollar question. Some scripts have it and some scripts don’t. There are techniques that scribes who ply their trade writing about the secrets of concocting a successful screenplay have provided. There are a myriad of classes and workshops that you can take to teach you what people in the past have done. Does the main character have to be likable for the audience to care about them? It’s helpful, but not necessary. (See The Hustler or Pulp Fiction). Does the main character at least have to do something good or find redemption? Again, helpful but not necessary. (See Goodfellas or A Clockwork Orange). The point is that there isn’t a magic bullet, but from my own perspective, I have some observations.
In order to get us to care about your characters, must have a want or a need that we can become emotionally attached to one way or another. They also must have a personality that draws us in. They need to be interesting or something interesting needs to have happened to them. Plus, what’s happening to them in the story needs to be interesting. Another thing that they need is common sense. That is unless you’re dealing with the rare occasion that not having common sense is the point. (See Forrest Gump and Dumb and Dumber). But you can’t have a character do things that defy common sense unless there is a good and compelling reason within the framework of your story.
If I had to put my finger on one thing with the script in question, that would be it. The writer had the main character continually and willingly getting into situations that defied common sense. Now, if the writer comes back with another draft of the script and the main character is continuing to do this, but with a compelling reason that makes sense within the context of the plot, then an actual story may be in the offing.
But anything short of that, and we still won’t care about what the characters are going through. If we continue to be apathetic towards the characters, then the writer will still be left with a decent plot and not much of a story.
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“I’ll remember you, honey. You’re the one that got away.”
Screenplay by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr.
“What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? Didn’t mommy and daddy show you enough attention as a child?”
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford
RIP R. Lee Ermey