Do you know the #1 reason people fail at screenwriting? They think it is easier than it is.
It has often been said that if we were visited by a highly advanced alien race they would probably conclude that there is no intelligent life on earth and would be as interested in communicating with us as we are in communicating with a slug.
If you were able to go back in time, even say a few hundred years ago and were to show people your smart phone, they would see it as something supernatural and you would probably be hailed a deity or burned at the stake.
Imagine if you met a being from another planet a hundred years more advanced than ours? How about a thousand years, ten thousand years more advanced? What would you say to that being?
Really, there is only one thing to say, a question: what is it that I need to know?
All knowledge in the universe—everything that there is to know, is the answer to a question.
The answer to a question. Think about that for a moment.
So, you want to be a screenwriter, a good—no, a great one?
Here’s what you need to know…
The one thing all screenwriting books have in common (in fact, books on directing, producing—anything to do with the film industry) is...Story is king.
STORY IS KING
Question: What makes for a good story?
(Sub question: what do I actually mean by that?)
I guess I mean ‘what are the core ingredients that make up a story?’
THE CORE INGREDIENTS OF A STORY
I want you to imagine three pictures in front of you.
THE 1st and 3rd PICTURE are the before and after pictures of a person. We have seen it many times in newspapers and advertisements—a ‘before’ picture of a person extremely overweight and an ‘after’ picture of the same person, now slimmer.
In a story, the before and after picture relates more to inner change—how a person evolves, grows. Ask yourself, are you the same person you were ten years ago?
You are probably wiser than you were ten years ago or maybe you took some wrong turns and are worse off than you were. Either way, the ‘before and after’ pictures will be due to certain events in your life—you will have learnt a lesson, consciously or subconsciously, and you are better or worse off for it.
Another way of saying 'Before or after' would be 'Character Arc', and who has this transformation is the Arc Character of your story.
PICTURE NUMBER 2 is the circumstances that brought about the change.
The circumstances are what happens in your story—the action. It’s what film posters try to give a taste of. If we see a picture of a cop pointing a gun or two lovers holding hands, we get a rough idea of what the story is about. For all intents and purposes, we can call this description ‘protagonism’ (active support of a worthy cause) and the person centred in and around the action - the Protagonist. 9 times out of 10 the person on the poster is the protagonist. Generally, the only time the protagonist wouldn’t be on the poster is for thematic reasons (Platoon, The Godfather, Pulp fiction).
So, a (good) story can be defined as: the before and after picture of a person and the circumstances that brought about the change.
ARC CHARACTER: the person who has the main character arc/before & after picture (emotion)
PROTAGONIST: the person centred around whatever happens/ film poster (action)
Now, sometimes the ARC CHARACTER and the PROTAGONIST is the same person, sometimes not.
One of the greatest stories ever written is ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ by Charles Dickens. I use this example first as it has an obvious character arc (before and after).
The before picture is of a vile miser called Scrooge who dislikes Christmas and people.
The after picture is of Scrooge as a philanthropist who now loves Christmas etc.
Ask yourself who is at the centre of most of the stuff that happens? Who is on the poster?
Scrooge is both the arc character and the protagonist.
As a side note, many screenwriting books incorrectly state that in creating your story you should start with giving your protagonist a major goal.
What was Ebenezer Scrooge’s goal? He didn’t have one.
In ‘JERRY MAGUIRE’, the person who has the main character arc is Jerry Maguire. (I say main because in good stories sometimes there is more than one character arc; Cuba Gooding Jnr’s role also has a character arc but the main character arc carries the theme of the film—I’ll go into detail about theme at a later date). Who is central to most of the stuff that happens? Who is on the poster? Jerry Maguire is both the arc character and protagonist.
The arc character in ‘THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION’ is Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Red’. Red has the main before and after picture, he is the one who carries the film’s theme (hope).
But who is central to most of the stuff that happens? Who is on the poster? Andy.
As a side note, anytime there is a narrator who is also in the story (Morgan Freeman’s ‘Red’ for example), more than not the narrator is the arc character. There are exceptions of course—the Native American in ‘LEGENDS OF THE FALL’ or the African in William Goldman’s ‘GHOST AND THE DARKNESS’ (one of the main reasons that in my opinion that particular script did not work was the absence of an arc in the narrator)
There is much discussion on the internet regarding the main role in ‘THE SIXTH SENSE’, is it the boy or is it Bruce Willis’s character? Once you see the stories as having core ingredients instead of having a lead role or main part it helps demystify screenwriting. The arc character is played by Bruce Willis. The protagonist is the boy.
The arc character in ‘ROCKY’ is Rocky— he has the main before and after picture. Who is the protagonist? Who is on the poster? Rocky.
The arc character in ‘ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST’ is the Indian chief. But who is centred in and around most of the stuff that happens? Who is on the poster?
In ‘CROCODILE DUNDEE’ the arc character is the female reporter. But who is on the poster?
‘PULP FICTION’ is not so obvious.
John Travolta plays the protagonist, and Samuel L. Jackson plays the arc character. If we took away Samuel L’s character arc (his decision to quit being a hitman) we would still have a cool, extremely entertaining piece of work but something would be missing—it would lack a bit of soul, humanity.
It is quite rare but there are times when it is us, the audience, who learns the lesson and the arc character does not change but still carries the theme. This type of character has been known as a dutiful or steadfast character. An example would be Charlie Bucket from ‘WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’ (1971). Take a guess at who the protagonist is.
Having an arc character that does not change (if done intentionally) is an advanced form of writing. in this course we will only concern ourselves with an arc character that has a before and after picture.
It is very rare to have more than one protagonist and neither one be the Arc Character. An example of this would be ‘THE PRESTIGE’; Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play both Protagonists while the great Michael Caine plays the Arc Character.
We have only been looking at CORE INGREDIENTS: Arc Character and Protagonist (emotion and action) we have not made any moral judgements—we have called no one a ‘goody’ or a ‘baddy’; we have not discussed forces of opposition (antagonism).
And so, with that in mind, finally…
You want to know how to make a room full of screenwriters go ‘huh?’? Tell them this:
We should know by now who the arc character in ‘JAWS’ is. But who or what is responsible for most of the stuff that happens, who or what is at the centre of it all, who or what is on the poster? Who is the protagonist?
Bring pen and paper next week, and your story idea.
I’ll be getting practical.