Posts Tagged ‘emotional transformation’

June 16th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

As a script consultant, determining the theme of a script is one of the areas I often focus on with writers. Figuring out what your story is really about is essential to the success of your piece. Without a clear central idea, the script can easily lose its way and the audience is unlikely to connect to the film.

Focusing the theme of your script can be surprisingly difficult and there are many theories on what your theme should be. I’m a little more flexible on that front and look to the main character and their journey to define what the story is really about.

 One way to approach fine-tuning your theme is to look at your protagonist’s arc. Generally what your story is about is articulated by what the protagonist learns over the course of the piece.

With this in mind…

The first act defines the main character’s primary goal. Ideally they should have a conscious goal (external) and a subconscious goal (internal). For example in Up Carl’s conscious goal is to fulfill his and Ellie’s lifelong dream of getting to South America. Subconsciously he’s looking to reconcile his grief and the loss of his wife.

The end of the first act is a twist that complicates their goal and raises the question: will our protagonist achieve what they want?

As the story progresses through the second act the main character encounters escalating complications on the way to achieving their goal. The end of the second act is the protagonist’s lowest point, an all-is-lost moment where it seems they are not going to achieve their goals.

Still with me? Because this is where the theme is most clearly articulated…

The second act turning point forces the protagonist to look at why they haven’t achieved what they wanted and leads to an epiphany that tells us what the story is really about.

In Up the second act turning point is when Carl is forced to choose between saving his house, which Muntz has set on fire, and helping Russell rescue Kevin who has been taken by Muntz. Carl, unable to let go of his connection to Ellie, chooses his house and in doing so upsets Russell.

Carl retreats to the house and sadly looks through his scrapbook where he finds a note from Ellie thanking him for the adventure of their life together and encouraging him to go on a new one. This causes Carl to look at his situation from a new perspective. It’s Carl’s epiphany and the moment that tells us that, while the story is a fun adventure, it’s really about reconciling loss. Carl has actually achieved his subconscious goal.

This beat reinvigorates Carl and he goes off to look for Russell only to find he’s taken a handful of balloons and set off to rescue Kevin himself. Carl, having learned what he needed to learn, chooses to go after Russell. The climax is a do-or-die battle that tests Carl’s commitment to Russell.

The resolution of the piece shows Carl stepping up for Russell at the Boy Scout meeting and confirms that Carl has indeed reconciled the loss of Ellie and is willing to move on to the next adventure. Because Carl’s epiphany is so clear, and extremely moving, the piece resonates and it’s easy to see what the theme of the movie really is.

Looking at your protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany and emotional transformation, can be one way to see if your theme is being articulated clearly enough for it to have the emotional impact it should.

June 9th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?

If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?

We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.

So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?

A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.

In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.

Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.

In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.

These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.

Meaningful Conflict

Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.

Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.

James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.

The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.

An Emotional Transformation

We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.

In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.

James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.

And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.

These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.

Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.