Archive for the ‘protagonist’s arc’ Category

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I recently taught a webinar for The Writers Store on Story Development. In it we talked about the importance of testing your story concept before you end up like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation lost in a sea of notes and pages with no idea how to move forward.







What you want to do is find a process for evaluating your story concept before you get to page 60 and have written yourself into a corner only to discover it doesn’t work. This causes you to waste precious time, get frustrated and even worse… give up!

The heart and soul of a screenplay is its premise. Whether this is  something high concept or more independently minded a successful script starts with a really great idea. But a great idea isn’t a story – a story is the chain of events set in motion by the central disturbance. A well written screenplay has a great idea that naturally leads to a compelling story.

It’s important to learn how to assess the strength of your idea as the first step in your story development process. Asking yourself some key questions about your concept before you go to draft can help you determine if your story idea is solid enough to warrant developing it. If you’d like to hear the full webinar where I share tools you can use to find ideas, test your concept, find the spine and shape of the narrative and begin to outline you can find it on demand at The Writers Store here.


The protagonist’s actions drive the story forward so it’s important to look at spine of the piece from your main character’s perspective.

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • Do they have a flaw or subconscious problem they need to heal?
  • Do they have an external goal / problem they need to solve that drives the story forward and will sustain 90+ minutes?
  • Is this a goal the audience can get emotionally invested in them achieving?
  • Does this goal naturally lead to action ie: plot?
  • Does this goal/action naturally lead to an all is lost crisis moment?
  • Does the action that drives the plot result in your protagonist growing in a meaningful way over the course of the story?


The crux of any story is the chain of events (plot) that stem from the main disturbance. Looking at the plot is an important part of determining the strength of the premise.

  • Does your story have a clear inciting incident / disturbance that kick starts the story and creates a problem for your protagonist to solve?
  • Does the problem your protagonist faces create the opportunity for compelling, high stakes obstacles that escalate (chain of events)?
  • Are there at least three major obstacles (ideally more)?
  • Does this problem naturally lead the audience to ask “and then what?” after each obstacle is overcome?
  • Does the problem your protagonist has to solve create tension and suspense around the outcome?
  • Can you clearly plot the inciting incident, first act turning point, mid-point, second act turning point and climax?
  • Does the action naturally propel the protagonist to a compelling climax?
  • Does the action of the story lead to meaningful resolution?
  • Does the story have a clear theme?


While generally we don’t want to write specifically to the marketplace we do want to write a script that will eventually sell and attract the attention of agents, managers and producers so it’s important to evaluate your idea from a commercial perspective as well.

  • Does your story have a clear genre?
  • Is your protagonist, their goal, obstacles and resolution unique and something we haven’t seen before?
  • Does it have an original hook?
  • Does your idea naturally attract cast and a director?
  • Is the world of the story unique and visually compelling?
  • Does your concept have a built in audience?
  • Can you envision the marketing campaign?
  • Is this concept in line with current trends in the marketplace?
  • Is the concept in line with the budget needed to make it?
  • Does the concept feel like a movie?


A personal investment in the story you’re writing is key and it’s vital to assess this as well.

  • Are you passionate enough about your idea that you will be able to spend the next year (probably longer) developing it?
  • Why is this particular idea important to you?
  • What are your goals with this screenplay?
  • Does this particular concept move your career forward?

Testing Your Concept

The process of answering these questions will help you to assess the strength of your overall premise and the resulting story. No one wants to spend six months to a year on a project that isn’t going anywhere so evaluating your ideas before you go to draft is an important first step to see if what you have is worth investing your time and energy into. At the end of the day it just might help you tell a stronger story too!

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Imagine Bridesmaids without Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Her without Samantha, The King’s Speech without Logue, or The Dark Knight without The Joker. These movies simply wouldn’t be the same without these well-crafted secondary characters. While it’s easy to see what role the protagonist plays in the story secondary characters are often given a backseat and left underdeveloped. This is a missed opportunity to take your screenplay to the next level. Knowing how to create unforgettable secondary characters starts with understanding that their main role in the story is to shed light on the protagonist in some way. They do this by interacting with the protagonist in one of five archetypal ways – as the antagonist, the best friend, the love interest, the mentor, or the fool.

These archetypal secondary characters create conflict, move the plot forward and are the catalyst for the protagonist’s transformation. The relationship the protagonist forms with these secondary characters informs their overall arc and how these relationships are resolved is a key element of the story. This is some pretty heavy lifting for characters that are often relegated to the sidelines. Crafting the kind of unforgettable secondary characters that are unique and three dimensional will help elevate your story and ensure they feel anything but minor.

Definition of a Secondary Character

While the general definition of a secondary character is anyone who isn’t the protagonist this can be broken down further. For example in The King’s Speech the main character is Albert, secondary characters are Logue, King Edward, The Archbishop, Albert’s Wife and King George while there are also minor or tertiary characters such as the Chauffer and BBC Announcer.

Shed Light on the Protagonist

Ultimately we are social animals defined by our relationships. If we were to look through a stranger’s cell phone contacts or search through their Facebook friends we’d be able to tell a lot about them. This is true of our protagonists as well. Secondary characters serve the story by shedding light on the various facets of our main character. Much like a diamond these characters show us different parts of who they are and help them to feel three dimensional through their relationship with them. When thinking about your secondary characters think about what aspect of the protagonist you want to bring out and shed light on.

Approaching your secondary characters with these five archetypes in mind can help you determine how best to do this.

Five Archetypes

Secondary characters interact with the protagonist in five archetypal ways: Antagonist, Best Friend, Love Interest, Mentor and Fool. While this varies depending on the genre of your story (for example a love interest will play a greater role in a romance) and sometimes these roles are combined (for example a best friend might also be a fool) it can be helpful to define what function the secondary character serves in this archetypal way.


The antagonist creates conflict for the protagonist. They impede the action, stand in the protagonist’s way, interfere with their external and/or internal goals and help to move the plot forward. They create an opportunity to see our protagonist under pressure as they handle conflict. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave and The Joker in Batman Returns.

Best Friend

The best friend character brings out the protagonist’s inner world and gives them an opportunity to share their thoughts. They are also a way to show our main character in an intimate, non-sexual relationship. For example Amy in Her, Kowalski in Gravity, Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.

Love Interest

The love interest helps the protagonist to grow romantically and moves the plot forward. They can also create conflict much like an antagonist and provide opportunities for humor. They show how our main character handles love, intimacy, sexuality and conflict. Think Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Officer Rhodes in Bridesmaids and Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything.


The mentor instructs and guides the protagonist, offers words of wisdom, encouragement and support. They help to move the plot forward and are often a catalyst for change. They create an opportunity for the protagonist to grow internally often via conflict initially. For example Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech, Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street, Bobbi in Wild and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.


The fool shows or contrasts the protagonist’s lighter side. They add levity and humor and create an opportunity to illuminate how our protagonist handles funny situations. For example Megan in Bridesmaids, Dug in Up, Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine and Alan in The Hangover.

What role your supporting character plays depends on what you need to bring out in your protagonist. In making choices around your secondary characters ask yourself what information do we need to learn about the protagonist in order to understand their journey? What relationship will bring out this quality, trait or transformation? Answering these questions will help you to determine what secondary characters you can use to do this.

Special Circumstances

Secondary characters play a slightly different role in dual protagonist films such as The Heat, Toy Story, Lethal Weapon and Sideways, ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine and Guardians of the Galaxy and multiple storylines like Crash or Pulp Fiction.

In these situations the secondary characters often play multiple roles for example Mullins in The Heat is antagonist, best friend, mentor and fool but her main function is still to shed light on the protagonist. Even in an ensemble and multiple storylines one character generally emerges as the protagonist and the secondary characters revolve around them. We see this in Sheryl (the mother) in Little Miss Sunshine and in Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Transformational Arc

Ultimately movies are about transformation and we invest 90 plus minutes of our time to see how the protagonist will change and heal. The way we do this is through relationship to one another. One of the ways to ensure emotional impact is to use your secondary characters to show this change particularly at the end of your story.

Producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility, The Firm, Nanny McPhee) has done considerable research on the psychology of storytelling and found that movies end on the highest peak of emotional satisfaction when the protagonist’s “positive accomplishment is shared with someone they love.” (You can find Lindsay’s excellent TEDx talk called Saving the World vs. Kissing the Girl on YouTube)

We see this with Albert and Logue in The King’s Speech, Carl and Russell in Up, Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Mullins and Ashburn in The Heat, Solomon and his Family in 12 Years A Slave among others.

As you can see secondary characters are anything but minor. Using the five archetypes as a starting point we can shed light on the protagonist and bring dimension to the story. Fully realized secondary characters elevate your screenplay so that it will grab the reader, create roles actors want to play and attract financing and distribution all while telling a meaningful, entertaining story.

Want more? You can check out my Writers Store Webinar here.

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Everybody has their own way of breaking a story or finding the shape of a narrative.

One of the ways I use when I’m working with writers or working on my own stories is a variation of something Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls The Clothesline Method. You can find it here. 

The basic method involves drawing a straight line “a clothesline,” marking off the main act breaks/turning points and then “hanging” the “clothes” on it. The clothes are the scenes you know or are thinking about. So perhaps you have the final scene or know what the first turning point is going to be “hang” these scenes on the line and continue to develop the other beats from there “hanging” them on the line as you go. Gradually this will give you the general shape of the narrative.


The line looks something like this:


Inciting Incident     End Act One    Midpoint           End Act Two          Climax          Resolution


Which loosely corresponds to the following page numbers:

Inciting incident (10-15)

End of act one (20-30)

Midpoint (60)

End of act two (90)

Climax (95)

Resolution (100)


With the “clothesline” laid out you can rough in the beats you already have in mind. As you do this look for the three main plot lines which should dovetail over the course of the story:

Internal Character Arc – the main shifts in character that lead to the protagonist’s transformation.

External Plot Line – the main action.

Relationship Line – the primary relationship that helps move the story forward and brings the character to a point of transformation.


As you rough in the main beats you can see the natural progression of the story and determine what’s working and what isn’t. You can brainstorm ideas and solutions and when you’re ready take your clothesline and turn it into an outline and eventually a draft.

Obviously everyone has their own way of cracking a story and this is just one way to go about it. The Clothesline Method is relatively loose and free form and fits the way I think about story.  You, of course, will have your own process which I’d love to hear about in the comments below. Hearing how other writers develop stories can be very helpful and it’s good to share our processes.

If you want to know how David Seidler (The King’s Speech), John August (Big Fish), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and others break a story check out The Academy’s excellent Creative Spark series on YouTube. You can find the link here. 

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Some of the decisions I’ve made were the result of some seriously flawed thinking. (Combining cognac and champagne being only one of them) The benefit of time passing is that I’m able to look back and understand the roots of those choices and see the flaws in my thinking in a whole new way. And I’ve grown because of it.

Our protagonists should go on the same kind of journey. They start off hopelessly unaware of the flaws in their thinking and how this affects their actions. Over the course of the story they come face to face with these flaws and through recognizing them are able to change (or sometimes not). This overall arc is the spine of a well-constructed story.

So how can we do this?

Establish your protagonist’s belief system.
Everyone has a personal belief system honed from their individual life experiences. For example in The King’s Speech Albert’s belief system is that he’s not good or worthy enough to be king. In Don Jon Jon doesn’t think real sex can ever be as good as the porn he watches daily.

Show how these beliefs dictate your protagonist’s actions.
What we believe about ourselves, other people and the world around us then shapes our actions and choices. In Saving Mr. Banks P. L. Travers doesn’t trust Walt Disney to do her books about Mary Poppins justice. In fact she has a hard time trusting anyone even her own agent. As a result she refuses to give Disney the rights to her books and insists on script approval. During the script sessions she is outrageously demanding and belittles her songwriters making the development sessions difficult. She refuses to warm to anyone including Walt and remains aloof throughout much of the story. Historical inaccuracies aside (an ongoing discussion best left to another time) P. L. Travers’ belief that people can’t be relied on or trusted shapes her actions. If she didn’t feel this way she would have immediately released the rights and we wouldn’t have the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

Use this flawed thinking to create conflict.
Throughout the story conflict is generated from the protagonist’s faulty thinking. Albert is unable to accept his role as king creating conflict with his instructor Logue and his family. Don Jon can’t maintain a relationship. P. L. Travers can’t connect or relinquish control creating strife for everyone. Ashburn in The Heat is so uptight and shut down she can’t let Mullins help her on the case or accept her friendship complicating their attempt to bust the drug ring.

Give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see their flawed thinking.
In order to give the story an emotionally satisfying arc the protagonist needs to change. What we’re invested in from the get go is seeing how our protagonist is going to overcome their flaws and become their best self. One of the strongest ways to do this is to give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see the flaws in their thinking and therefore their actions. In The King’s Speech this is during Albert and Logue’s preparation for the coronation when Logue helps him to see how he’s the one holding himself back. In Don Jon the more mature Ester helps him to appreciate a sexual relationship that’s rooted in real life not fantasy. During a particularly poignant conversation in Saving Mr. Banks Walt Disney helps P. L. Travers to connect the dots on her past and see how this has led to her inability to trust. And in The Heat Ashburn has a moment of reflection while looking at her high school yearbook finding a message from Mullins that helps her to see the flaws in the way she’s been conducting herself.

Show how the protagonist uses this epiphany to change.
Once the protagonist has this new insight they have an opportunity to change. Albert accepts his role as king, Jon embarks on a real relationship, P. L. Travers turns over the rights to her books, and Ashburn reconnects with Mullins and they solve the case. Sometimes you may choose not to have the protagonist change even though they come to an understanding of why they are the way they are. This worked particularly well in There Will Be Blood. Regardless your protagonist has to have some kind of shift that shows their new awareness whether they embrace it or not.

As for me, well, why I ended up drinking those cognac and champagne Wild Mustangs is a long story but suffice to say I eventually figured out the flaws in my thinking that led me to them and I’ll never, ever drink them again!

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It’s summer and people across the country are making travel plans. The first thing they do is figure out where they want to go. You can’t plan your trip until you know your final destination, right?

Lately when I’ve been working with writers to develop their scripts I’ve been using the same approach – beginning at the end. If you know where you want to end up it’s far easier to know where to begin. Looking at your script in reverse can be a really helpful tool when writing your piece.

Where your protagonist ends up tells us where they need to begin.

Screenplays are all about transformation – we want to see a character grow and change over the course of the story – this is the spine of their inner journey. In order to give the protagonist a meaningful transformation the first thing we need to do is determine where they are at the end of the story. How have they changed and grown? By looking at what they have learned we know what kind of shift needs to take place and can make sure we properly set this up at the beginning.

For example in Silver Linings Playbook Pat learns to move on from his marriage, embrace a relationship with Tiffany and manage his illness. Since we know this is where the story has to end we can backtrack to the first act and make sure we set up the fact that he’s fixated on getting his wife back, uninterested in any other romantic relationship and is not in control of his illness. In Little Miss Sunshine our family ends the story united this means they need to begin the story separated by their dysfunction. In The Descendants Matt ends the story having forgiven his wife for being unfaithful. This means he needs to begin the story being deeply upset about her infidelity.

When we know where our protagonist is at the end of the script it’s much easier to determine what information we need to give the audience about who they are and what state they are in when the story begins.  This helps us give the protagonist a clear arc. Yet in order for a shift such as this to feel emotionally satisfying and not arbitrary and forced it has to be properly plotted. Once again starting at the end can help us here.

Plotting the protagonist’s transformation – All is lost and their epiphany.

For example in Up Carl comes to terms with the loss of his wife, gains a surrogate son in Russell and becomes a happier person overall. In order for this to work we need to open the story with Carl being unable to move on after the death of his wife, avoiding relationships and being unhappy and curmudgeonly. The key beats that help make this shift feel believable are the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment at the end of the second act and their corresponding epiphany.

All is lost. 

In Up Carl’s “all is lost” moment is when he’s forced to choose between losing his house and saving Kevin and Russell who have been captured by Muntz. Carl chooses to stay with his house. This is his lowest point and suggests that while he may achieve his goal of getting to Paradise Falls he’s not going to reconcile the loss of his wife or form a lasting friendship with Russell which is what we know he really needs to do.


Carl ultimately decides to go after Russell but in order to do this he has to be able to let go of his commitment to fulfilling his and Ellie’s dream. This is beautifully done when Carl looks at their scrapbook and finds a note from her thanking him for the adventure of their life together. This is Carl’s epiphany. It allows him to reconcile the loss and fuels his decision to rescue Kevin and ultimately to let go of the house and go after Russell.

In this way the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment and their epiphany are the two main beats that work together to create their transformation. So once again if we know where the protagonist needs to be at the end of the story we can determine what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will help them to get there.

Second act linking beats.

So we know where we need to be at the beginning and at the end. We have a good understanding of what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will naturally lead them to change but we still need to link these beats so the transformation feels earned and emotionally satisfying. To do this we need to plot the protagonist’s shift over the course of the second act. This means seeding in small changes along the way.

In Up there are multiple interactions between Carl and Russell and we see Carl slowly open up to the point where we believe he would make the decision to rescue Russell and let go of his house. In The King’s Speech Albert meets with Logue giving the story a natural way to show Albert healing both his stammer and the childhood wounds that weakened his self-confidence. This helps us buy him standing up to the Archbishop and successfully giving his wartime speech. In Silver Linings Playbook Pat and Tiffany’s dance rehearsals bring them closer and help us to believe that Pat would fall for Tiffany and reconcile the fact that his wife has moved on.

Begin at the end.

The protagonist’s transformation is the destination and knowing this helps us to plot the stops along the way. Deciding where you want your story to go and how you want the protagonist to change is a vital part of your screenplay and can be a very useful tool to use when developing your piece.