Thursday, December 17, 2009

Things I Learned from DIE HARD, Part II: Conflict and Plot Development


The plot of Die Hard demonstrates how quickly and easily a story can develop when both the protagonist and the antagonist have fully conceived, separate yet opposed, character spines. Since protagonist John McClane and antagonist Hans Gruber possess individual story goals that are completely opposed to each other, it means that every act John takes to reach his goal, simultaneously works AGAINST Hans achieving his goal, thus creating direct conflict. Likewise, every action that Hans takes to reach his goal of opening the vault and escaping with the money creates conflict in John's spine because it works against John's pursuit of his goal. This situation creates a story with what we can call “Push/Pull Plot Development.”
When it comes to action movies, it is best to always follow the rule, 'no matter what the protagonist does to try to make things better, the situation always ends up getting WORSE'. With every action, the hero tries to make gains, but, win or lose, it always ends up making things worse by creating unwanted complications. A push/pull relationship between your hero and antagonist illustrates how to make this happen. Simple physics states that with every action, there occurs an equal and opposite reaction. The physics of plot progression are similar, but slightly different: “For every action taken, there occurs an opposite, and even GREATER reaction.”
Like two men operating and old fashion railroad handcar, Die Hard's plot progresses by each side taking turns pushing and pulling. In the process, it moves the story forward, gaining velocity with each effort.
To demonstrate:
John McClane's ultimate story goal is “to get him and his wife out of this situation alive”. For the first half the the story, John's immediate goal that will work to achieve his main goal is “to get the police's attention.” So, John takes an action to try to achieve this: he pulls the fire alarm. However, this act only ends up creating unwanted consequences for John.
Han's immediate goal is “to maintain control over the building.” John pulling the fire alarm interferes with this goal. So, John's action creates an unwanted reaction from Hans: he cancels the alarm and sends a gunman to find John. But it doesn't stop there. Having a machine-gun wielding terrorist sent after him definitely gets in the way of John achieving his ultimate goal of survival. So, this action from Han's creates a second unwanted reaction from John. John not only reacts, but escalates the level of conflict: he kills the gunman, and uses the dead body to taunt Hans. However, this escalation by John is immediately followed by a greater escalation from Han's side. The dead gunman was the brother of Han's #1 henchman, Karl. Karl now wants to hunt down John and kill him.
The plot continues in this fashion, starting with a new first action by John:
- John makes another attempt to contact the police by calling from the roof with a radio.
- Unwanted reaction from Han's side: Karl and two others are sent to the roof to kill John.
- Unwanted escalated reaction from John: John flees their attempts to kill him and escapes into a ventilation shaft.
- Unwanted escalated reaction from Han's side: Karl attempts to track down John and kill him while he is trapped in the vent.
This sequence is resolved when John is saved by the bell. (A police officer has arrived to check things out). But the action/reaction once again begins anew at the top of this new sequence.
Every time a character reacts, their reaction is never random. Every action is always done for reasons that will achieve either the character's immediate goal or their ultimate goal: In John's case, survival/contact the police. In Han's case, control. (or in Karl's case, revenge).
A closer look at Die Hard also shows a push/pull between opposing sides can create great action sequences when done on a smaller scale, at a higher speed. Observe this short piece of action:


1. John's immediate goal is to get the hostages off the roof. The action he chooses to accomplish this is to fire his weapon into the air.
2. This action creates an unwanted reaction from FBI Agents Johnson & Johnson. The Johnsons think that John is a terrorist and begin to fire on him.
3. Shooting at John creates a reaction that the Johnsons do not want. John runs away and hides on the other side the the building where they can't get at him.
4. But, once again, John's action causes the agents to react in a way John doesn't want. They decide to circle around the building and kill him with a sniper rifle.
5. We have to wait until the next scene to discover John's reaction, one much bigger than his previous ones – to jump off the roof.
In any movie that demands a fast pace and strong conflict, character actions must not exist in a vacuum. Each move must be challenged by a countermove. When done at a slower pace, the push/pull creates suspense, when done quickly, it creates the sensation of things hurtling out of control.

Die Hard's storyline progresses with this simple two-sided push/pull up until the midpoint of the story. (The 58 minute mark, after John has gotten Sgt. Powell's attention by throwing a body onto his car). At this point, new players are suddenly added to the story. The story complicates quickly as new story forces arrive outside of the building. First, it is the Los Angeles Police Department, led by the self-important and incompetent Lieutenant Robinson. Then, (after being humiliated and defeated through conflict by both John and Hans) they are replaced by the far more menacing FBI agents Johnson & Johnson.
The first thing to notice is that although John has been working so hard up to this point to contact the authorities, doing so does not make his life easier. It, as always, only makes things worse. The LAPD and FBI are not on John's side. They refuse to listen to him, and for the most part refuse to even acknowledge him. Rather than do things the way that our hero knows they should be done to save the hostages' lives, they would rather foolishly do things in a way that plays right into the villains' hands. And these actions all end up THREATENING John's chances of achieving his goal. Because the LAPD/FBI stand in direct conflict to John achieving his goal, they become a SECOND source of antagonism.
But, just because the cops/feds outside are a source of antagonism, it doesn't mean they are on the same side as Hans. Far from it. They are in direct conflict with Hans as well as with John. The authorities are neither good guys nor bad guys. They are a completely separate force. What the writers have done is develop the story from a two-side conflict into a three-sided one. Each side of the conflict is directly opposed to the other two sides. The conflict has gone from linear to triangular.
The advantages of a triangular conflict over a simpler linear one become clear in Die Hard's second half. The story's midpoint could have been an event that weakened story tension (John McClane no longer has to fight the terrorists directly, because the cops are now here to take over), instead, it ends up escalating the tension exponentially. This is simply because there are now more levels of conflict, and thus far more potential for dramatic action. There was one conflict in the first half of the story: John-Hans. In the second half, there are three times as many: John-Hans, John-LAPD/FBI, and Hans-LAPD/FBI. Not only is there now no shortage of conflict, but having three lines running at the same time allows the storyteller to jump from one to the other, keeping suspense high and action tight in each line so none of them have any chance of running out of gas. This cross-cutting between levels of conflict is something like tag-team wrestling for writers. Always keep sending the fresh man in.
Note that Lt. Robinson nor the Johnsons never become strong enough to usurp the role of main antagonist from Hans. Though antagonistic, they are not villainous. They exist in a moral grey area. They are more like pests than villains. Their antagonism comes from ignorance or incompetence, not evil intentions. It's just like the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A triangular conflict is the Hero, the Villain, and the Pest.
Triangular conflicts can be found in other places in the script, particularly in a certain scene sequence at the 1:20:00 mark. Holly's obnoxious coworker Ellis creates a triangular conflict when he approaches Hans to offer his help in negotiating John's surrender. Though he claims he is doing it on their behalf, Ellis is only looking to serve himself. Neither Hans nor John likes Ellis. They are both in conflict with him in these scenes. Just like the LAPD and FBI, Ellis's actions are based on ignorance. He complicates things by making himself a pest. This makes a great scene with three levels of conflict: Hans-Ellis, John-Ellis, and John-Hans.

Lt. Robinson: Anytime you want to go home, Sergeant... consider yourself dismissed.
Sgt. Powell: No, sir! You couldn't drag me away.
The midpoint of Die Hard created a particular challenge for its writers. For the protagonist John McClane to have any dramatic relationship with this third new party and create this triangular antagonism- John needed to be in DIRECT conflict with them. Without any direct conflict between John and the LAPD/FBI, the storyline would suddenly be split into with two separate conflicts (John/Hans, and Hans/LAPD-FBI). This would have severely weakened the story by forcing the hero into a passive secondary role with no influence over the actions of the third party outside. John would be able to do nothing but sit and watch while the authorities screw up everything.
But here's the problem: how can a writer maintain direct conflict between these two sides when the story's situation prevents any kind of direct contact between them? John McClane is trapped inside the tower. The police and the feds are stuck outside. It is hard, next to impossible even, for John to conflict directly with them if he cannot physically BE there with them.
I can imagine that early drafts of this script were burdened with this problem. There might have been scene after scene of John trying to contact the LAPD on the radio to argue with them, only to be ignored time and time again. Our hero John would be powerless, turned into a weak protagonist unable to have an active control over story events. Or perhaps, there were drafts where John actually was able to have meaningful contact with Lt. Robinson. But that doesn't work either. Robinson is supposed to be a source of antagonism. He is supposed to stand in the way of John achieving his goal.
So what did the writers do? They did the same thing that any high-power businessperson would do when they can't be somewhere they really need to be. They send someone to represent them. They create a proxy to act on their behalf. And on John's behalf, the writers created Sgt. Al Powell.
Officer John McClane and Sgt. Powell (played by Reginald VelJohnson) are two characters cut from the same cloth. The are both urban street cops with working-class values. They act alike, think alike, have the similar opinions, and laugh at each other's jokes. Powell always thinks what John thinks, knows what John knows, and wants what John wants - no matter how arrogant or incompetent everyone else on the police force is.
John does not need to spend much time trying to conflict directly with Robinson or the Johnsons, because Powell is there to do it FOR him. Every one of Powell's scenes after the midpoint involves Powell fighting for John. Fighting for John to be recognized, fighting for John's safety, fighting to get those in charge to do what John needs them to do, almost as if John were down there arguing with them himself. Powell represents John in a place where John can't be. These scenes work because Powell is used as a proxy for the protagonist.
Powell isn't the only character used as a proxy. In the third act, John finds himself in over his head in a long, climactic battle to the death with Karl. Meanwhile, the story continues to develop on the other storylines. Since John is currently too busy fighting with Karl to conflict with the antagonist Hans, the main John/Hans conflict threatens to go flat at the worst possible moment. The writers succeed at avoiding this by allowing Holly to pick up the slack and take over the Hans conflict on her husband's behalf. In a way, she saves the third act, holding it steady until John is finally able to meet Hans face-to-face for the film's dramatic climax.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Things I Learned From DIE HARD: Part I

Some short time ago, for the sake of my own self-education, I began the in-depth study of a particular film using the “Start/Stop” technique of story analysis promoted by UCLA screenwriting professor William Froug in his book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting (Silman St. James Press, 1996).
I had used this study technique on a couple of films before now, but this time I spent far more time and energy, went far deeper into the text, and gave far more attention to how and why the film's story worked than Froug possibly ever intended. After several months, and 207 individual scenes, I had 81 pages of single-spaced, type-written notes. I then condensed that into 23 pages of hand-written notes.
You may be surprised that the subject of my study was not a revered “art film”, or one of the hailed modern “masterpieces” of cinema, but 1988's Die Hard, (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza, directed by John McTiernan). What drew me to study Die Hard was its tightly structured plot and its endless ability to create suspense in its audience – plus, the fact that, more than 20 years later, all of its hundreds of imitators have failed to match the experience of the original. I now know why. Die Hard is an excellent piece of writing by a set of artists who KNOW how to create a story experience for an audience. I probably learned more from this movie than from my final year of film school. What follows are some of the highlights of that education:


A staple element of the action genre, an absolutely necessary component that makes an action move an action movie is the BAD GUY. The Villain. A pure embodiment of antagonism, unconditionally dedicated to stop at nothing to destroy the hero.
The worth of a story's hero is based on the value of the hero's actions. To follow that, the value of the hero's actions all matters on the strength of the force of antagonism opposing the hero. A hero's victory means nothing if it was easy to come by. Therefore, you must agree that the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the story experience, especially in the action genre.. It is actions from the antagonist that start the story and propels the hero into action, and it is the continued pressure from the antagonist that forces the story to develop forward to a climax.
Yet sadly, in many of the unsatisfying action movies out there, the antagonist is the weakest link. I have seen so many cartoonish antagonists that are flat, cardboard little men who seem to do nothing more than scowl, laugh manically, intimidate others, or just generally loiter abount being “evil.” Many action villains seem to exist for no reason other than to wait around until the hero to finally manages to kill them.
A great antagonist should be an equal to the protagonist. He is in fact a second protagonist- a protagonist gone wrong, your hero's evil twin. The villain deserves – even demands – equal attention from the writer as the hero. The hero and villain must be evenly matched, and each need to be developed as much care and attention as the other. This principle is shines clear and bright in one of moviedom's best villains, Mr. Hans Gruber.

As briefly mentioned in my October article on the Story Spine, it is not enough for only the protagonist to to follow the course of a well-planned character spine, but all important characters should follow spines of their own, including the antagonist. The only way to turn an action villain from a stagnant cartoonish fiend to an exciting, unstoppable force that threatens to flatten the hero at every breath is to give the antagonist an ANTAGONIST SPINE, an spine of action just as strong as the protagonist's.
The protagonist of Die Hard is NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane's spine is clear.
His PROBLEM: He and his wife Holly are trapped in a building seized by terrorists. His GOAL: to get he and Holly out of the building alive. His PATH OF ACTION: McClane takes various actions to first get the attention of the police, and then to keep LAPD and FBI incompetence from killing them all. His CONFLICT: Hans Gruber and his dozen or so gun-wielding henchmen wish to kill him, as well as the LAPD and FBI members who refuse to listen to him. His STAKES: His and Holly's life.
Now, lets flip the script. Lets look at this movie as if McClane were not the protagonist, but Hans Gruber. What is Hans's Story Spine?
Hans's GOAL: To steal the money from the building's vault and escape scott-free. Han's PROBLEM: Achieving this is a nearly impossible task. Hans's PLAN OF ACTION: Carry out and intricately planned series of actions to get into the vault and escape right under the authorities' noses. Hans's CONFLICT: Officer John McClane, a “poisoned pill in the works” is running around free in the building, actively working to wreck his plans. Hans's STAKES: On the up side, he can escape with hundreds of millions of dollars. On the down side, imprisonment or death.
John McClane and Hans possess completely separate spines aimed at separate goals, but the situation forces these goals into conflict with each other. All John wants to do is get out of the building alive with his wife. Unfortunately, Hans can't achieve his goal if that should happen. The plot of Die Hard plays out as two main characters in constant pursuit of separate spines, constantly reacting as the actions of the opposite character infringe upon the pursuit of their own goal. With only a little re-writing this entire script could be completely reversed, with Hans as the protagonist and John as the antagonist, and the plot would still work.
Not only does Hans have his own spine, he possesses his own three-act plot structure, complete with turning points. These three acts and their associated turning points are not the same as the plot structure of the main story. Those belong to the main Story Spine- (the protagonist's spine). THAT structure belongs to John McClane. Han's spine has its own structure and each of his turning points exist in direct relation to Hans advancing towards HIS goal.
Let's take a look at the story structure as it belongs to John McClane, and compare it to the story events that relate to Hans's spine.
Main Plot Structure (the Protagonist Spine)
John's entrance to the story: John's airplane lands at LAX (Scene 1, 0:00:01)
Inciting Incident - (the moment where the direct conflict first appears that forces the character to take action): Terrorists invade the Nakatomi building. ( Scene 19, 0:21:00)
First Act Turning Point: John watches Hans execute Mr. Takagi. John now understands that these men are willing to kill and he is the only one who can stop them. (Scene 35, 0:31:30)
Midpoint: John achieves his immediate goal- he finally gets the attention of the police by throwing a dead body onto Officer Powell's police car. (Scene 91, 00:58:00)
Second Act Turning Point: John discovers the explosives on the roof. (Scene 166, 1:46:15)
Climax: John saves Holly by causing Hans to fall to his death (Scene 201, 2:02:15)
Hans's Plot Structure (the Antagonist Spine)
Hans's entrance to the story: A truck carrying Hans travels towards the Nakatomi building. (Scene 17, 0:13:00)
Inciting Incident: John sends a message to Hans through the dead body of one of his henchmen (Until now, things have gone as planned for Hans. This is the first moment he learns of any direct conflict in the way of his goal) (Scene 50, 0:40:00)
First Act Turning Point: Hans learns that John has stolen the detonators (something his plan cannot succeed without) (Scene 98, 0:56:30)
Midpoint: Hans gets the detonators back. (Scene 149, 1:32:30)
Second Act Turning Point: Hans successfully opens the vault. (Scene 158, 1:41:00)
Climax: Hans fails to achieve his goal of escaping with the money. He is defeated by John and falls to his death. (Scene 202, 2:02:50)
Since Hans entered the story seventeen minutes late, each of his turning points are displaced timewise from the main plot's turning points by approximately that same amount – but, the turning points continue to occur at the same interval of time as those of the main plot (appx 15 minutes between Hans's inciting incident and his first turning point, appx 30 minutes between his first turning point and midpoint, and so on). The structure of both spines starts to move closer and closer to each other as the story progresses until they ultimately meet at the climax where both spines are resolved, one in victory, the other in defeat.

Which would hurt you more? A betrayal by someone you hate, or by someone you love and respect? Which would be more unexpected?
Let take a look at the stereotypical one-dimensional villains found often in cartoons, comic books, and bad action movies. These guys are 100% bad. And they never miss a chance to prove it. Every moment, pushing it over the top, snarling, yelling, wringing their hands in twisted glee, berating their allies, threatening the innocent, constant acts of cruelty and immorality. Then, let's say this villain decides to kill a man in cold blood. Well, this doesn't have that much impact on the audience, does it? Why? Because the audience expects it! They have seen nothing of the villain except villainy, so killing a man is just another drop in the bucket. It is normal, it is boring. If the writer wants to surprise the audience, he should make the villain do something nice. However, this murder, no matter how gruesome will fall flat because the audience has become desensitized. These villains aren't scary. They're boring.

Now, lets look at Hans Gruber. Sure, Hans is as cruel and black-hearted as anyone. But, damn if we aren't given enough good reasons to like him in spite of it! Hans is witty, sophisticated, urbane, well-spoken, confident, and brilliant. He would be a fascinating individual should you meet him in real life. Even if one doesn't like Hans, they must admit that they at least admire him. Even if one doesn't want to be his friend, they would at least want to remain within earshot of him at a party.
There is a sequence soon after Han's first appearance in the story, where Hans and his men take Mr. Takagi, the boss of the Nakatomi Corporation, to the executive conference room to ask for the vault's code. We learn a good deal about Hans on the way. Hans shows his sophisticated tastes by recognizing the designer of Takagi's suit. He reveals a high level of education by quoting Plutarch. He never yells, pushes, or threatens Mr. Takagi in a typically criminal manner. Instead, he is nothing but polite and respectful.
Then he blows Takagi's brains out.
It is a shocking moment. Why? The audience does not expect it. They have been led to see Hans as a charming, rational man. The audience has been led to admire him. And then Hans stabs them in the back.
But just like anyone who has fallen in love with the wrong person, the audience is led back to finding things to like about Hans. He charms us with his wit, impresses us with his genius, gains our respect by how he deals with Holly, shows far more restraint and good judgment when contrasted to the one-tracked brutality his righthand man Karl. He's not an evil man, just a thief trying to do his job.
Then he orders a pair of policeman to be burnt alive.
“Why, Hans, why?” asks the audience. “We thought you were our friend!” Even John McClane is shocked by how black-hearted the formerly reasonable Hans is revealed to be. It stings more because the audience has been allowed to like him. We can't believe that someone we like so much could do something so terrible. To make a great antagonist, he must become your audience's friend. Then let him stab them in the back!
Die Hard goes so far as to not only allow the audience to like their villain, but even give a few moments where the audience is encouraged to EMPATHIZE with him! At the 1 hour, 20 minute mark, Holly's coworker Ellis approaches Hans with what we find out to be the foolish proposal of negotiating John's surrender. Ellis's character is, to put it bluntly, a jackass. He is easily the most contemptible character in the script. Pompous and arrogant, a soulless phony in every way- someone you would hate to be stuck in a conversation with. Ellis chews the scenery in this scene, attempting to be charming, attempting to be clever and worldly – and failing miserably. Then we see Han's reaction. His tired, irritated reaction. In this scene, we the audience feel Han's pain. We know exactly what he is thinking. We have empathy for the antagonist. Sympathy for the devil. And we feel more connected to Hans as a result.
Then he shoots Ellis in the head.


Whenever I see any low-grade action movie, movies such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando, or nearly anything with Steven Seagal, there seems to be an obligatory third act sequence where the hero breaks into the villain's hideout and starts gunning down waves and waves of enemy guards. The same question hits me every time. Just who in the hell are all these people? Where did the villain possibly find so many poorly-trained morons who are willing to fight and die for someone so evil?
Time and time again, the most under served characters in any action movie is not the villain, but the dozens of supporting characters who work for that villain. The henchmen, the cronies, hired goons, whatever you want to call them. They are usually given such labels because writers treat them as nothing but a collection of faceless extras, devoid of any name, personality, or significance. These characters exist for nothing more than to be eventually slaughtered by the hero.
One thing I love about Die Hard, the one thing that sets its cast of characters apart from most action movies, is that its creators always made the effort to give EVERY character a personality. Nearly every one of Han's villains has been given some little thing to make them unique. I don't mean just the important supporting villains such as Karl or the clownish computer genius Theo, but nearly every one of the bad guys, from Karl's brother Tony to Theo's young assistant is given a moment or two to show us who they are.
Now, it isn't necessary to do a full character development on every single supporting character. You don't need to waste the time to communicate every person's name, background, the childhood trauma at age 6. All that is needed is one small moment, pausing for one moment to give a TELLING ACTION that communicates something unique about them. If the telling action is interesting enough, it can be all that is needed to let the audience's imagination fill in the rest.
I doubt anyone can remember the name of the blonde henchman tasked with impersonating the security guard in the front lobby, but he has been given a bunch of personality with his cowboy boots and friendly Texas accent. There's an Asian henchmen with a ponytail. We never hear his name, but know he has a sweet tooth! The little moment where we see him snagging a free candy bar humanizes what would otherwise be a faceless goon. Early in the first act, Karl's brother Tony is meticulously cutting off each individual phone line one by one, paying great attention to detail- then becomes incredibly annoyed as Karl cuts them all at once with a chainsaw. How much do we learn about these two people just by this one moment?
Actors always say “There are no small parts, only small actors.” This old saw applies to you the writer as well.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Spine Expansion Pack, Part II: The Path of Action, Revisited

At the beginning of this series of articles, I presented this diagram to represent the Story Spine:

Though it is designed to be clear and easy to understand, the truth is this diagram is not completely accurate. The Story Spine for a feature-length cinematic narrative not exactly this simple. The Spine of a feature length film should look more like this:

The difference is that the first diagram shows the Path of Action to be a single, straight, arcing arrow going straight from the protagonist's Problem to the protagonist's Goal. This representation is misleadingly simplified. A single long line seems to suggest that the protagonist needs only to take one broad action is order to pursue his or her goal, and that ultimately through persistence, that one action will be successful.

One single action from the protagonist might be enough to support short forms of storytelling, such as a folktale or an anecdote, but a cinematic narrative demands that the storyline take up ninety minutes or more of screen time. Watching a character continue to plow forward after one line of action, never changing or deviating from his or her original course, will quickly becomes a repetitive and even dull experience for the audience. What audience members call the “movie experience” is created by watching the protagonist's Path of Action continue to DEVELOP and ESCALATE throughout the course of the story.


Here is how a cinematic narrative usually works: The protagonist encounters the Story Problem. The protagonist then proceeds to take the SMALLEST action that they think will manage to achieve the Goal. The protagonist honestly believes that this first small action will be enough to fix everything.

But something gets in the way. Something blocks their path to the goal. In common screenwriting parlance, this is quite aptly called an OBSTACLE – something that literally creates a roadblock to cut off the protagonist's intended path to the Goal. The obstacle can come from the actions of another characters, or the introduction of a new element to the story, or perhaps the protagonist finds out that the situation is much more difficult than they originally imagined, or any number of things. One thing is certain about the obstacle – the protagonist cannot continue forward on the current path they are on, or else they will fail. The protagonist must choose to take a NEW ACTION. The hero turns down a new path that they hope will circumnavigate the obstacle and will still eventually get them to the Goal.

The obstacle in the protagonist's path combined with the decision to take a new action creates a TURNING POINT in the story's narrative. These turning points are represented on the diagram by the white circles that connect each line segment in the Path of Action. For more detail on story sequences and turning points, check out my November, 2008 article.

Now our protagonist is off in a new direction, taking a new action - on the second leg of the journey that the protagonist hopes will get them to their Goal. The protagonist now believes that he or she is on the right track, THIS is what will achieve the Goal. But before too long the protagonist runs in ANOTHER obstacle. Just like the first obstacle, it is once again impossible for the protagonist to continue along their current path. In order to achieve the goal, the protagonist must once again decide on a NEW ACTION. They must turn in a new direction and do whatever they need to do to get around this new obstacle if they wish to continue. We have reached another turning point.

The story continues on like this, action after action, turning point after turning point, as the protagonist weaves a crooked path that they desperately hope will eventually get them to the Goal they so strongly desire. The protagonist always has a plan in mind, but that plan is always being FORCED to change by whatever obstacles the Conflict puts in the protagonist's way.

One way to think about a character's path of action is to imagine yourself taking a road trip. You're going to drive from Dallas to Denver. Your GOAL is to get to Denver. So, you take what seems to be the easiest route to get you there by hopping on the interstate highway. BUT, right across the Texas border you find that there is a detour. You are forced to turn off onto a different highway to get you to Denver. Okay, this road isn't as good, but it will still get you where you're going – BUT, after a few hundred miles you find that this second road road is closed due to flooding. You now have to find a new road to bypass the flooding and get you to your destination. So you double back and find a small winding road through the mountains that will do that. BUT, after a few hundred miles more, you find that the bridge over the canyon is out. You now must find a new road, a little dirt road that's not even on the map in the hope that somehow it will get you to your Goal. Your path may always be forced to change, but your GOAL still remains the same. You want to get to Denver.


Like I said before, when your main character first begins down his or her path, they take the smallest action that they think will succeed in reaching their Goal. But when they encounter an obstacle, the character is forced to ESCALATE. The smallest action isn't enough. They must take a somewhat bigger action to get what they want. But when they encounter the next obstacle and the slightly bigger action proves to be insufficient, they must again go bigger, and bigger, and bigger. This escalation continues to the point of the climax, where the protagonist, after all previous actions have failed, must be forced to take the BIGGEST action possible. One enormous effort, all or nothing, everything they have on the line. When your character takes this ultimate action, only one of two things can happen. Either the protagonist finally defeats the conflict and achieves the goal, or they are completely and irrevocably defeated and any future chance of success is destroyed completely.

It is not only the character's level of action that escalates with each turning point, but also the character's level of DEDICATION to the Goal, and the RISK that the character is willing to take. When your protagonist takes that first small action to his or her goal, their level of dedication is not very strong and the risk is quite low. When they run into an obstacle created by the conflict, your protagonist has a choice: quit or escalate. With the decision to take a new, bigger action, the character also decides to become more dedicated to the Goal. As each action become bigger, so does the level of risk your protagonist must take. Dedication and risk continue to escalate with every turning point until the climax, where the protagonist has become so dedicated that he or she is willing to risk everything (quite often their lives and everything they care about) to finally conquer the Conflict and seize the Goal.

Look at Star Wars. When Luke Skywalker is first presented with the idea of leaving home to join the Rebel Alliance, he isn't too keen on the idea. His dedication is low. He would rather stay at home with his family. But, he then returns home to find it destroyed by Imperial Troopers and his family murdered. He now has no choice. He must dedicate himself to a new cause and take the risk of leaving home. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes shows about as little personal dedication to his cases as a detective could have. Until someone plays him for a sap. Gittes decides to find a little dedication and take a little risk to find out why. This ends up with him being roughed up by hired goons. At this point he could quit, but instead he decides to up his dedication and take on more risk to continue onward.

There's another thing. Notice that on the new Story Spine diagram that as the Path of Action advances, not only do the line segments become bigger and bigger (representing the protagonist's actions), but so do the green arrows representing the force of Conflict acting against the hero. As the actions escalate, so does the Conflict.

Obstacles don't just pop up in front of your hero randomly. These obstacles are the work of your source of Conflict (usually this source is the antagonist). The antagonist does not WANT your hero to achieve his or her goal. So the antagonist does things to STOP it. The antagonist is hoping that the obstacles it creates will be enough to make the protagonist quit for good. When the protagonist chooses to escalate in order to get around those obstacles, the antagonist must escalate as well. Whatever level of effort the protagonist makes to get their goal, the antagonist must continually bring more to stop it. A great conflict is a test of wills. Both sides are willing to push it to the very edge. In the end, the side who is most dedicated will win, and the other will be destroyed in the effort. This model works as well for stories without a real antagonist character. In these cases, the conflict created by the situation must continue to escalate and continue to force the main character into bigger and bigger actions.

Next Article: Things I Learned from Die Hard

Friday, October 23, 2009

The SPINE Expansion Pack: Part I

In my last article, I laid out what the Story Spine was, and the importance of each of its five elements in creating a story capable of successfully engaging an audience. Before moving on to another topic, I feel it is necessary to go a little deeper, in order to prevent a few potential misconceptions about the Spine which I have seen cause crippling problems in many of the scripts I have analyzed in the past.

1. The Story Spine is SINGULAR
Every plotline can only have ONE Story Spine. The main plot must revolve around your protagonist facing ONE problem and pursuing ONE goal. This is how you make a story strong, clear, and easy for an audience to follow. Your body works because it has only one spine. If you had more, you would be a disjointed mess. One of the best pieces of advice on writing I have ever receiving was that key to writing a great script is to create “a simple story with complex characters.” Having a strong, singular spine is the method by which one achieves this.
One of the surest ways to turn a story into a dense, complicated, hard to follow mess is to try to force your protagonist engaged in multiple, competing lines of action at the same time. You can't do two things at once. Don't try to give your protagonist two separate plot problems or two simultaneous goals. Don't have your hard-boiled cop be trying to take down the mafia and catch a serial killer. You can't have your medieval warrior struggle through the entire film to to both kill the dragon threatening his town and fight off the invading English Army. One might think that adding a second set of problems and goals would increase audience excitement just by the fact that there is more going on at once. In truth, the result is the opposite. Instead of increasing the excitement, it spreads the excitement thin. Story #1 winds up gets sapped of its energy and momentum every time it gets put on the shelf to change gears to Story #2, and vice versa. Meanwhile, both stories will suffer from underdevelopment in both plot and character since they simply do not have the time for it since they are forced to share their screen time with one or more other stories. Focus your main plot on a single problem, a single goal, and a single path of action. Save Story #2 for your next script.
This singularity also applies to each of the five elements in the Spine. There should only be one Main Story Conflict. Remember those two movies in the Batman franchise directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever & Batman & Robin? Terrible, weren't they? The story was all over the place. The conflict was weak. This is because in each movie, instead of create a strong, singular villain for Batman to face off with, there were two. Two villains, both given equal weight. The story was split. Two villains also gave Batman two different goals- and the entire story suffered for it. Had the writers chosen to make one villain the head villain, and the other one the subservient henchman of the other, the stories could have been saved since there would still be only ONE main conflict that the both of them were a part of (as seen in many action movies where there is a strong villain and a loyal henchman).
As with Stakes, there is some flexibility in the singularity rule. Multiple things can contribute to Stakes, but it is always best if these things are all in some way related, and like I mentioned with the villains, there should be ONE thing contributing to the stakes that stands out as the biggest and most important.

2. For every plot, a Spine must be
Okay, you might be saying to me right now, 'Wait a minute. I've seen lots of movies where the protagonist has more than one goal. I've seen warriors who are both trying to kill the dragon and marry the princess. I've seen detectives who are not only trying to find the killer, but also fix their family problems. I've seen movies where the hero fights aliens AND tries to overcome his alcoholism.'
Now we've come upon the distinction between main plot and subplot. What I said before is that every PLOTLINE can have only one spine. Your subplots are separate plotlines. And in order for your subplots to be strong and effective, they need their own Story Spine too. Your hero's main story goal may have to deal with slaying the dragon, but there also needs to be a problem, goal, path of action, conflict, and stakes involved in his separate romantic subplot involving the princess as well.
Subplots do a lot to help a story in general. They add depth and dimension to a story that would otherwise be too thin with the main plot alone. They give opportunities to develop your characters and theme in ways that might not be possible within the swiftly-moving action of the main plot. What is important is the ability to to tell if you have a singular main plot and subplot that supports it, or if you have two main plots that steal attention from each other (two main Story Spines instead of one).
Subplots are often described as “smaller” stories. However, subplots are usually more like interior stories. They most often deal with personal struggles and relationships, while the main plot is an exterior story (the main story on the surface), involving physical conflict and direct action. Nothing can have two exteriors, that just wouldn't work. But an exterior and an interior can co-exist in harmony.
The key to a good subplot is that it is separate from the main plot, yet at the same time connected. The subplot does not take away from the main plot, rather, it adds to it. There is a symbiotic relationship between the Story Spine and subplot spine. The actions that take place in one work to influence the other, thus the spines work together to help bring about each other's resolution. Here is a link to a good article that uses the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids to present this interaction (separate yet connected) between the spine of the main plot, and that of the subplot.

Alright. I don't want to confuse you. Or seem like I'm contradicting myself. So, I'll try to express this the best way I can. First, I said that the Story Spine had to be singular. Then, I said that each subplot had its own singular story spine. But guess what? There are more spines. The protagonist has his/her spine to follow. But the other characters have spines too!.
Before things get too complicated, back up and take another look at my previous article. Notice that all five of the Spine's elements are described in terms of their relationship to the PROTAGONIST. The protagonist's problem, the goal the protagonist sets, the path of action the protagonist takes, the conflict that seeks to prevent the protagonist from his/her goal, the stakes the protagonist faces. The “Story Spine” is in fact the “protagonist character's spine”. The two terms are synonymous. It is because the traditional Western film narrative focuses its entire attention on the actions of a central protagonist, the protagonist's character spine and the spine of the story are one in the same.
But, notice that in films with well crafted characters, the protagonist is not the only one with a problem, goal, path, conflict, and stakes. Though the narrative pays them less attention, all important characters should have these elements in their lives as well. When writers on screencraft say that every character should have their own wants, needs, things they are after, what they mean is every character must possess their own, separate (and singular) CHARACTER SPINE. A character spine is the one thing that makes your supporting characters into dimensioned, active, true to life human beings - with their own lives and their own reasons to exist. Character spines are the difference between having an antagonist who is a snarling, clich├ęd cardboard cut-out, and one who is an active, flesh and blood human being (or whatever type of being your antagonist is). A character spine is the difference between your supporting characters just being living props that exist solely for the convenience to your protagonist, to having a world populated with motivated individuals who do what they do for good, strong reasons.
Let's look at one of the most famous antagonists, Darth Vader. What is his character spine? 1. Vader's Problem: A Rebel army threatens the Empire's dominance in the galaxy. 2. Vader's Goal: To find the location of the Rebel base and destroy their army for good. 3. Vader's Path of Action: Among other things, to capture Princess Leia and force her to give the location. 4. Vader's Conflict: Members of the Rebel Alliance are doing all they can to stop that from happening. 5. Vader's Stakes: If he succeeds, his power in the Universe will be solidified for good. If he fails, it might mean the Empire's complete destruction.
Like subplots, character spines should be both separate yet connected in some way to the spine of your protagonist. The spines of all your supporting characters must in some way work to either assist or conflict with the protagonist's spine. Otherwise, if they have nothing directly to do with the protagonist's spine (read: the MAIN STORY SPINE) why are these characters in the story?
Character spines can apply even to the smallest of characters - though this spine doesn't need to be developed to such a large degree. Say you have created a one-scene bit part of a surly file clerk whom your protagonist is trying to get an important file from. If you give the file clerk a character spine it could potentially turn an otherwise dull scene into something dramatic. Observe:
1. File Clerk's Problem: The protagonist is making him do something he does not want to. 2. Goal: get the protagonist to go away. 3. Path of Action: whatever strategies the file clerk chooses to get the protagonist to leave. 4. Conflict: The protagonist refuses to go away. 5. Stakes: If he fails, it means a whole mess of work he does not want to do, or possibly get him in trouble with his supervisors. The ensuing battle between the two conflicting character spines is what will make this scene entertaining.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I'm going to share with you a magic key to the craft of screenwriting.

The sad thing is that it should not be a magic key. Or a big secret. It is a concept that has been at the very heart of the art of storytelling since the caveman days. Yet, in nearly every book on screenwriting that I have read, the authors either seem to be completely ignorant of it, or they dedicate only a few vague, mumbling paragraphs to the concept, suggesting that they do not understand it themselves.

It is called THE STORY SPINE

The central importance of the Story Spine to any form of storytelling, and especially screenwriting, simply cannot be understated. It is what unites every element in a story, what focuses and gives meaning to events, and what creates the forward momentum that advances the story to its ending. More importantly, the Story Spine orientates the audience to understand where the story is going, why things are important, and why they should invest their time and emotions into finding the story's outcome.

In my experience as a script analyst, I can honestly say that over 90% of the poorly-written scripts I have read could have been vastly improved if only the writer understood the Story Spine.

Let me repeat that:

Over 90% of the poorly-written scripts out there could be vastly improved if only the writer understood the Story Spine!

So many books on screenwriting spend a bulk of their pages on Three-Act Structure. But, Three-Act Structure is merely a method of organizing plot. It has nothing to do with what a story true needs to be well told. I have seen several attempts at screenwriting that followed the Three-Act model to a T, yet they were still unbearable to read because the writer did not know how to construct a functional story, thanks to the lack of a Story Spine.

A Story Spine is the difference between your script being a STORY, and it just being a collection of arbitrary events. The Story Spine is what makes events a STORY. Without a Story Spine, a story does not exist.

Let me repeat that:

Without a Story Spine, a story does not exist.

Let me repeat it again:


Am I making myself clear on how important this concept is by now?

A complete Story Spine is made up of five equally important parts:

1. The protagonist's main STORY PROBLEM,
2. The protagonist's STORY GOAL that, once achieved will overcome the problem,
3. The protagonist's PATH OF ACTION to get to that goal,
4. The MAIN CONFLICT that stands in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goal, and
5. The STAKES that constantly push the protagonist against the conflict in order to get to the goal.

All five parts must be present in order to have a complete Story Spine. If one part is missing, your Spine is broken, and a real story does not exist. The five parts of the Spine are like the parts of an engine. If you remove one, it stops working altogether. It doesn't matter how strong the other four parts of your Spine are, they can never overcome the absence of the part that is missing.

The Story Spine can be visualized using this diagram:


At their heart, stories are all about problems. At the beginning of every well-told story, something disrupts a character's life in such a way that they cannot go on functioning the way they have so far in life until they do something about that problem. Without a Problem, the character would never have a good reason to do anything, everything in life would stay the same and there would be no story. It is this Problem, constantly looming over the character's head and threatening to ruin their life that, first, starts the story, and afterwards is the force behind every event in the story from that point on.

I've read a number of scripts where the writer neglects to give the protagonist a Story Problem. Of all bad scripts, these feel the most pointless and dull. I call them “Zombie Narratives,” or “Wandering Protagonist Scripts.” They basically amount to a main character wandering arbitrarily from place to place, situation to situation -for no real story reason- accomplishing nothing of importance because there is no REASON for them to accomplish anything.

Whether the problem be something big and physical (alien spacecrafts attack the Whitehouse), or something small and abstract (a character feels unhappy about his/her life and wants to know why), the Problem must be something that the character believes they MUST do something about, NOW.


Once a character recognizes that there is a problem in their life, and feels compelled to do something about it, they must decide on some sort of end goal that, once achieved, will overcome the problem and make life better again. Everything from that point on will be about the character attempting to achieve that goal. Whether that goal be some specific action involving a physical journey (“to travel to Mordor and destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom”), or something less physical that the character wishes to achieve but may or may not know how (“to find happiness,” or “to find their place in the world”) the goal must create a question in the audience's mind as to whether or not the character will achieve it and overcome the problem. This question CANNOT be answered until the story's final climax. Once this question is answered - either the character achieves the goal or they irrevocably fail - the story is over. A story starts when there is a Problem, and it ends when the character reaches the Goal. These two elements make up the beginning and end points of the Spine.

I like to call the bad scripts that fail to create a Story Goal “Emo Whiner Narratives.” These scripts involve characters who have a problem, who recognize that they have a problem, but never decide to take action to do anything ABOUT the problem. Instead they just whine, and complain, and talk endlessly about troubled their lives are. It gets tiresome very quickly, and furthermore, the plot never manages to develop, or move forward, simply because the character never, ever gets out of the first stage of a Story.


If the Story Problem is Point A on the left end of the Story Spine, and the Story Goal is Point B on the right, the Path of Action is the line that connects them. Once your character recognizes that there is a problem, and decides on a goal that will hopefully overcome that problem, the character must then proceed to TAKE ACTIONS that they think will help achieve their goal. A bulk of any given movie's screen time is made up of characters following their Paths of Action (this includes everything that occurs between the plot's inciting incident and the climax).

Success must not be easy for your protagonist. It must be earned. The Path of Action contains all the trials and hurdles the character must fight and overcome in order to get what they want.

The most important things about the Path of Action is that it NEVER STOPS MOVING FORWARD towards the Story Goal. The Path of Action is a journey to an ultimate destination. Your character must at all times, in every scene, be involved in something that is somehow related to achieving the story goal. A story is just like a shark, if it stops moving forward, it dies. The moment you pause your story, stop pursuing the Goal, or go off on tangent material unrelated to the spine, the story tension dies and the audience becomes bored or distracted.

This is where most poorly-written scripts falter. And it usually happens in one of two ways. The first are “Lazy Narratives.” In a Lazy Narrative, the protagonist has a problem, and a goal, but never bothers to take much strong action towards achieving that goal. They are usually passive characters, reacting to situations that are thrust on them rather than taking action and making themselves the agent of change. Often these scripts are incredibly slow-moving and dull, with only a few scenes that involve the character taking any kind of relevant action. The rest of the script is often filled with unimportant material unrelated to the Story Spine.

Other times, writers will included lines of action that are off the Path of Action, tangent material that has nothing to do with the Story Goal. Doing so makes the story confused, unfocused – it weakens the Spine and the story experience for the audience. Some writers go so far off the Path that they create a “Fractured Spine.” The story seems to be going along the Story Spine as expected, but then suddenly (usually in the Second Act) the story goes off in a completely different direction. The story abandons the Goal that was established early in the story for an altogether new, unrelated goal. This is the point where these writers will lose their audience. The audience has been orientated to understand that the story was about one thing, then suddenly it is changed to be about something else. Keep your story train on its tracks. Once you establish your Path of Action, stay on that path!


The character's journey down the Path of Action cannot be easy. What is dramatically intriguing about watching someone complete a task without any problems? Nothing is less exciting than when things go exactly as planned. Let's say I told you this story: “Early this morning I noticed that my dog Rex was missing from my house. I was worried because Rex is very old and could get hurt or lost easy. I had to find him. So I left my house – and there he was sitting on the front step.” Now, you would probably be staring at me with a look on your face that says Why did you just waste my time with that? How was that in any way interesting? This is because the story had no conflict. I achieved my goal with no problem at all.

We should all well know by now that CONFLICT is the lifeblood of all drama. Drama cannot exist without it. We should have been hit over the head with the concept by now. (If you don't know this yet, PLEASE hit yourself over the head with it so you know.) I have yet to figure out the logical reason behind this, I just know it is true. NOTHING is less dramatic than watching things go exactly as people want them to.

When your protagonists pursue their goals, there must be some force of conflict that opposes them. Someone or something must be dead set against your character achieving his or her goal. The conflict can't be no pushover, either. The source of conflict must be just as dedicated to stopping the protagonist from achieving his/her goal as the protagonist is to achieving that goal. The main source of conflict may be the cause of the Story Problem, or it may not, but what is required of the main conflict is to directly oppose the main character every step of the way along the main character's Path of Action – from the very beginning to the climax at the end.

In general, a single, strong source of conflict opposing your protagonist (such as an antagonist character) tends to be far more successful dramatically than a collection of smaller sources of conflict. (There's an old Hollywood phrase: “One shark is worth ten barracudas.”) But this is all relative to the needs of the particular story. There are types of stories where the protagonist is fighting against a situation, rather than a person or a thing. For instance, a story about survival in the wilderness, the conflict would come from various elements of nature: lack of food & water, dangerous animals, weather. Or, a story where the protagonist is fighting against unjust or bigoted views found in an entire society, the conflict would comes from a variety of persons in a variety of different ways. However, even in these situations, building one conflict up to be the most threatening the the protagonist's success will serve to strengthen your Spine to a more audience-satisfying degree.

Believe it or not, I have encountered many scripts where the writers have failed to included ANY conflict. Their characters breeze through their actions with no problems at all, everyone getting along with everyone else just swell. If any script makes the reader want to slam their head into the wall, it is these. It creates a boredom akin to watching eight hours of someone else's vacation videos. There is simply no drama. It is simply not a story. Another frequent problem I see is writers who, instead of creating one strong main conflict that opposes the protagonist from beginning to end, create many small sources of conflict that they pepper throughout the script. They have chosen to create ten barracudas rather than one great white shark. These conflicts pop up in some arbitrary place, fail to do much for the story, and then are easily defeated ten pages later. Approaching conflict this way does not develop your story, it makes it episodic. A feeling of tension from conflict never escalates, because it is constantly being thrown in and then killed off before it has a chance to develop. You should think of your source of conflict as your protagonist's shadow. It's always there, dogging him/her from the very beginning to the very end.


Okay, now your main character has a problem, a goal, a path to get to that goal. But with the conflict in the way, the journey to the goal is now very hard for the main character, even life-threatening. What is stopping the main character from realizing that the goal is not worth the risk and giving up? This is why a story demands STAKES. “Stakes” are defined as what is to be gained or lost upon success or failure. A story demands that there be a very important reason that forces the character to continue on to the goal. Either there is something of great value to be won if the protagonist should succeed, or there are dire, unthinkable consequences that should befall the protagonist should he/she quit or fail. Often the best stories contain both.

The stakes must be BIG. As shown in the diagram, the force of the Conflict is constantly pushing against the protagonist. The Stakes is the force that constantly pushes the protagonist forward towards the goal, pushing him/her through the continuous resistance of the Conflict. Therefore, in order to be successful, the strength of the Stakes pushing the protagonist forward to act must be as strong or even stronger and the power of the Conflict that is trying to stop the protagonist. No matter how much pain and misery the Conflict throws the protagonist's way, the Stakes must still be big enough to keep him/her fighting on.

Great movies have big stakes. We constantly see movies where if the main character should fail, they will lose their home, the people they love, and very often their lives. Even if the stakes may not seem very big to the outside world, they need to seem very big and important to the character, such as a story about a character who is fighting for her self-respect, or of a young boy who is dying to get a kiss from his schoolyard crush.

When a script lacks Stakes, character actions will seem arbitrary and implausible. A character will seem to foolishly throw themselves into risky and dangerous situations for no good reason whatsoever. With each escalating action, the script will turn off the audience more and more because they will continue to ask “Why are they doing this? It's not natural. What's in it for them?”

Stakes are also a key element in orientating the audience – the way that we communicate to the audience why events in the story are important and why the audience should invest their emotional energy into the story's outcome. If for instance the audience is watching a scene and knows that the outcome of a scene will decide whether or not a character lives or dies, they will be far more emotionally invested in the events of the scene than if they did not know that something was at stake. The audience would remain emotionally detached. Many times I am reading a script, and everything seems okay – the plot is okay, structure and characters are good – but despite all this I find that I don't give a damn about anything that is happening. I couldn't care if the characters live or die. Nine times out of ten, this is because the script Spine is missing its Stakes.

Now why is is called the Spine? Sure, my diagram sort of looks like a spine, but let's look at the spine's biological counterpart to find why. In vertebrate animals, (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles...) the spine runs the entire length of the animal, from head to tail. The spine is what unites every part of the animal, joins every limb and appendage, connects the brain to control the legs. It is the body's system of support, its nerve center by which it moves and functions. It allows the cheetah to run, the shark to hunt, and the human being to stand upright. Without their spines, these animals could not function – and neither can your script. Without a Story Spine, your script is a dramatic invertebrate. It is a slug, a worm, an unevolved piece of slime existing at the bottom of the dramatic food chain.

Now which would you rather your script to be? A cheetah? Or a slug?

(Next article: The Spine Expansion Pack, Part 1)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Finding Your Character Arc

We all know the importance of character arcs. (We DO all know the importance of character arcs, right?) And though it is always good to have some sort of idea on how your protagonist changes from the start of the story to its end before one begins to piece together their first draft, in many cases it is not feasible to tackle these details in the first attempt. Let's face it, first drafts are hard enough the way it is. The focus of early drafts should be to just get your story ideas on paper and form them into some kind of workable narrative. The structure of your character arc is something that is often left to later drafts, lest it make your first attempts more muddled and difficult than they already are.

However, whether you are paying attention to them or not, your character arcs are already starting to form in your early drafts. More often than not, they are not something that has to be created from scratch. Rather, just like your story's theme, they are already there, hiding in primitive form inside your narrative, waiting to be identified and brought to the surface.

What follows is a technique I have developed to do just that.

Step 1

Look over your script scene-by-scene from the opening sequence to the inciting incident. On a sheet of notebook paper, list block-paragraph style each and every character trait that is communicated to the audience within those scenes. Include everything that the audience could possibly gather on your character, from superficial characterization, (such as “tall,” “smoker”, “dog lover”) to the deep, possibly hidden, impulses that influence the character's behavior, (such as “afraid to connect with people,” “resentful of the past,” “feels a need to be recognized”). Make sure you list only the traits that are physically present in the scene. Don't make the mistake of listing all the things that you, the creator think you KNOW about the character. You might know it, but that information may not exist on the page. Look at your scenes with an objective eye and list ONLY the traits that the audience will be able to gather from the physical evidence on the screen.

You should wind up with nearly an entire page filled with traits. If you don't have nearly a page, this is your first RED FLAG. You have not put enough effort into developing who this character is and what makes them unique to their particular world. Most likely this character will come off as flat, generic, hollow, boring. Go back and flush out this character until you know them as well as your best friend before moving on.

Step 2

Look through your list of traits. Some traits will be physical constants that cannot change (such as height, physical appearance). Some will be personality constants that do not change (such as your action hero's confidence, or your child hero's enthusiasm and curiosity). Most of these will be somewhat “positive” traits, traits your protagonist has at the beginning that serve them well in their adventures, remaining unchanged through the end. The traits we are looking for are personality traits that go through a significant change or a complete reversal during the progression of the story. These will most likely be “negative” traits that hold the character back at the beginning of the story. As the story progresses, the character must eventually overcome these bad traits in order to reach his or her goal. (In rare cases, we find scripts that tell a “downward spiral” type story about a character who goes from virtuous to corrupt. In this case, the pattern is reversed).

Mark these traits with a highlighter. You will most likely have several synonyms that could be grouped together as the same trait. “Ashamed,” “regretful,” and “guilt ridden,” for instance can be combined into a single group.

Out of your page full of character traits, you should find anywhere between three to seven highlighted traits or groups of traits. If you don't have at least three, this is another RED FLAG. Most likely it would seem that your character doesn't change throughout the course of your story and a character arc doesn't exist. You need to go back into your story and pay attention to this. No human being could possibly go through the life-changing events found in any feature script and not be forever changed. Another problem may be that you have failed to give your character any negative traits. You have instead decided to create a dull, bland, goody-goody character incapable of any of the faults and hang-ups we all have ourselves. Audiences connect to flawed characters because they identify the character's problems to their own inadequacies . Any story experience is immeasurably enriched by a watching a flawed character reach their goals in their life by finding the courage to change for the better . This is one of cinema's greatest social functions, to constantly teach us that success is possible if we are constantly willing to become better people.

Step 3

List your highlighted traits or groups of traits on a second piece of paper, spaced evenly down the side. Then, draw an arrow across the page from each one and write the opposite of that trait, the trait that you wish your protagonist to embody by the end of the story. For example, if your protagonist starts out “valuing work over family,” the opposite of that trait would be “valuing family over everything.”

Now, in the five or six lines beneath each set of traits, briefly come up with the reason why the character possesses this negative trait. Delve into the psychology of the character. If you were a psychiatrist, what about this character's past life or present way of thinking could have caused their negative behavior? After you have done that, identify what in your story acts as the catalyst that forces your character to begin the journey to change. It must be something real and distinct, something that physically exists on the screen. Personalities, like physical objects, have inertia. Some sort of real force must exist to get the ball rolling in order for the character to overcome years of bad habits.

Step 4

If you are like me when I first tried this exercise, you will begin to see some sort of pattern form in the answers you came up with in Step 3. Some variation on the same cause for your character's negative traits may start to come up in nearly every group of traits. Find this pattern. This will show the ROOT of your character's problem – to take a phrase from Robert McKee, your character's “starting value”.

When analyzing my script Morrigan, I found that all my male protagonist's problems came from the fact that although he was a moral person, he lacked the inner strength to do what was right. His change came when he is forced to do something so bad he cannot accept it and finally fights back. His character arc is WEAKNESS to STRENGTH. My female lead character was angry and spiteful towards the world because hurt feelings over past experiences had created a false set of beliefs about the world. Her change came when actions by the protagonist caused her to questions those beliefs. Her character arc is IGNORANCE to WISDOM.

Find this pattern. State the starting value in one word or short phrase. Then find its opposite. This is your basic character arc.

If you find that there is no pattern, that your negative traits are created by radically different, or even contradictory causes, this may be another RED FLAG. You may be trying to make your character's arc go in two or more directions at once. Take careful consideration of this if you find this is the case. If you have two separate arcs acting at the same time for the same character which have no direct relationship to each other, it threatens to confuse your character's development and sap it of its strength. The narrative power of each arc might just work to cancel each other out. Just as a writer has to watch out for plot tangents that work to sap the narrative of its forward drive, a writer should look out for character tangents as well. Pick to strongest arc and drop the other, or find a way to create a connection between the disparate arcs so it will become part of a single, cohesive one.

Step 5

This step is not mandatory, but I find it creates a nice, easy to read guide to my characters that I can return to time and time again during the revision process.

On the top of another piece of paper, write the basic character arc that you discovered in Step 4, such as WEAKNESS to STRENGTH. Then, in a paragraph about a quarter page long, summarize how your character's starting value, (i.e. “weakness”) creates the your character's negative traits (the traits you analyzed in Step 2), and how the events in your story work to cause change in your character until they ultimately wind up possessing the final positive value (i.e. “strength.”). This should create a quick encapsulation of your character's inner journey from the beginning of the story to its end.

Step 6

Now that we have a basic idea of our character arc, we can look into the script and find the structure of that arc based on the events in the plot.

Look over your plot and find the story events that work as TURNING POINTS for your character's development- events that end up effecting your character in a personal way that caused some sort of change to occur. Mark these out on paper, labeling them TP1, TP2, TP3.... You should start to see some sort of structure arising already. Like the story arc, a protagonist's character arc often has a 3-Act structure, with its major turning points coinciding closely with the story's major turning points. If you find this is not in the case while performing this step, you should make some effort into re-shaping the structure of this character arc in your next revision.

Below each turning point, briefly describe how and why this plot event creates a change in your character, and how the character is different from this point onward. This will serve as a character guide when rewriting each section of the script.

Keep in mind that your characters are human beings, not light switches. They cannot abruptly change who they are based on a single, sudden event. It must be a slow, gradual process. A believable character arc has multiple moments of change, a gradual, and slowly escalating, wearing down of bad habits. Old habits die hard, and like a lump of coal, a human being needs constant pressure to eventually turn into a diamond.

Some RED FLAGS to look out for: the first is the “light-switch moment” mentioned above, one single, big turning point where the character's behavior suddenly does a 180. This is never believable. You need to seek out multiple events to gradually change your character. Some people might point out Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol as a light-switch character. Maybe to the other characters in the story he would seem that way, but if you look closer at the story you will see a slow gradual change in his character from his first ghostly visit to his eventual epiphany.

Another problem is that you might not be able to find your character's turning points in your plot. In this case, you need to go back over the major events of your story and put more thought into what kind of effect they might have on the mental, emotional, and physical state of your characters. These character reactions can create opportunities for character change. You might also have to create new story events for the sake of your character's development – but make sure these new events remain directly relevant to the advancement of the plot. Bringing the plot to a halt to shoehorn in a character arc moment not only kills story momentum, but usually comes off as a contrivance that the audience sees right through. This can be just as bad as having no moment of character development at all.

Step 7


You now have a strong grasp on the arc of your character's change, and a map of the moments that create it. Now all there is left to do is to go back into your script and make sure that these moments, and the changes they create, are clearly communicated to the audience in a way that is clear, consistent, and natural.

Scribble on.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Either your script has a GOD, or it DOESN'T. Know the difference.

Inevitably, when discussing cinematic narratives, stories always end up being lumped into two fuzzy, hard to define groups. You always hear about a narrative as being either “plot-driven” or “character driven.” But, these two labels have never been much help in defining the stories considered to be in each group.

The first reason for this is because neither of these groups has ever been clearly or conclusively defined. What exactly makes a story “character-driven” rather than “plot-driven”? It is mostly open to subjective interpretation. To what degree is a story driven more or less by its characters to qualify it for one category or the other?

The second flaw comes from the fact that both groups are erroneously named. EVERY cinematic story is driven by plot. And at the same time, EVERY cinematic story is also driven by character. In all but the most experimental of art films there is some sort of plot that drives the story. As long as at some point in the narrative one event is caused by the actions of a previous event, a plot is at play. Conversely, every film except the most abstract contains characters. It is the characters who perform the actions that create the plot. Plot and character are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. In every cinematic narrative, both are driving the story.

These two groups can be better defined by looking at their story structures from a different perspective. This approach may seem strange at first glance, but with some thought it reveals itself as simple, logical, and far easier to judge than the old model. To define a story type, look at the script and ask,

Does this story have a god?

Now, I don't mean god in the traditional religious sense. This has nothing to do with any existing theology in the outside world. It has nothing to do with you, the writer's, personal beliefs nor the personal beliefs of your characters. I mean it purely as a metaphor applied to narrative structure. What type of philosophical structure is at play in your story's universe?

Philosophical thought on human existence breaks down into two broad categories. In one, the theist philosophies, outcomes in life are to some degree decided by forces outside of the individual's control (a benevolent/malevolent god, fate, evil spirits...). In the other, the nontheist human-centered philosophies, man in in complete control of his own fate and his success or failure in life are completely based on his personal choices and actions. To put this into screenwriting terms, look at your script and ask, where does the conflict that drives the story come from? Does it originate from sources outside of the protagonist? Or is the conflict created by the protagonist themselves? We are talking about the MAIN CONFLICT here - the conflict that kicks in at the inciting incident and disrupts the status quo. Is the protagonist FORCED into action? Or does he/she do it by choice?

It turns out upon close inspection that all cinematic stories can break down into these groups: Theist or Humanist. Humanity's ultimate philosophical argument continues to be battled out in the way we tell our stories.

Category #1: YOU ARE A CRUEL GOD!

When people say a script is “plot-driven,” what they really mean is it is driven by antagonism. Forces outside of the protagonist's control force the protagonist to act. And you, the “storyteller-god”, are the malevolent source of all antagonism.

Your story is your own personal universe. You created it. You are its god. Whatever you will to happen, can happen. And your protagonist is forced to deal with it. Most action movies, comedies, and genre films are “theist-driven” films.

However, if you wish to create a dramatic, exciting, emotionally compelling story, you cannot be a kind god. You must be a CRUEL god. It must be your job to rain down as much trouble, pain, and hardship on your protagonist that your story's universe can allow.

Think of your protagonist as a puny mortal who must be judged. It is your divine duty to test your protagonist's true character with a level of bullshit so ridiculous that they must fight, and fight, and fight, until they finally prove themselves worthy of success, happiness, and a happy ending. You are the god of Odysseus, flinging him with wind and waves from one life-threatening situation to another, punishing him for past sins and making him prove himself worthy of returning home. You are the God of Job, smiting him with misery after misery in the ultimate test of Job's true character.

Coincidence seems to play a big part in these types of stories. A lot of things just seem to happen by pure luck. Sometimes good luck, but usually bad. But of course, they aren't really coincidences. They are all orchestrated by the story's creator and backed up in a plausible way so that they happen to logically intersect the hero's path at the right time and place.

To illustrate, let's take a look at a section of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indy's universe has a god. And his god HATES him! Indy's goal is to find and retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. By the film's midpoint, Indy has managed to overcome the hoards of Nazis, thugs, and sword-wielding Arabs that have been put in his way through skill and perseverance, and has finally located the Well of Souls, the Ark's keeping place.

So, all Indy and his ally Sallah have to do is go into the Well at night and get the Ark. Easy, right? NO! The Well just happens to be filled with SNAKES! Thousands and thousands of poisonous snakes – the one thing Indy hates most in the world. Now, the critical viewer has to wonder as they watch this scene, just how in the world would thousands of snakes, from dozens of species from around the world, happen to be living in this sealed-off chamber in the middle of the lifeless desert, with no source of food, and no source of water? They logically couldn't be. The only real reason is that Indy's storyteller-god has put them there just to make Indy's life SUCK as much as possible!

Okay, Indy overcomes the chamber of snakes and finds the Ark. All he has to do is get the Ark out and get it back home. Easy, right? But, who just happens to be waiting outside? The antagonist Belloq and an army of Nazis. We don't really know how they got there. They are just there. Indy's storyteller-god has screwed him again. The Nazis take the Ark, and seal him and Marion inside. Indy must now overcome yet another ridiculously difficult test of his character. But Indy once again proves his worth and finds a way to escape.

Okay, Indy and Marion are out. They can just steal a plane and escape. Easy, right? Wrong. The biggest, meanest German in the whole camp just happens to see them and starts pummeling the crap out of Indy. And guess who decided to put him there? That's right. Indy's cruel god. But still, the storyteller-god doesn't think this is enough for Indy. So, he makes the pilot of the plane just happen fall dead on the controls, the hatch just happens to trap Marion inside, and the plane's wing just happens to scrape against a fuel truck, spilling an ocean of gasoline that threatens to explode any minute.

Indiana Jones manages to become a heroic character on the level of a modern myth or legend, not simply because he accomplishes his goal- but because he EARNS it by overcoming test after impossible test, proving his place in a pantheon of immortal heroes.

To make this type of story work, the writer must at all times look at the situation their puny mortal protagonist is in, desperately struggling to reach his or her goal, and think, “Okay, my protagonist seems to be having a hard time, *evil laugh* now, how can I make it WORSE?!” Once you have given you protagonist this new challenge, come up with a way for them to prove his or her worth by overcoming it. But, you can't let your protagonist have any time to rest. They can't get cocky just yet. Even fresher hell needs to be right on his heels. And the next test of character needs to be even more impossible than the last. If your protagonist is not at some point, looking up to the sky and and wondering “Why, god, WHY?” you haven't done enough yet!

But, the storyteller-god doesn't always have to be all bad. Every once in a while you can throw your characters a bone. On a number of occasions Indy is trapped in a situation that seems impossible, only to be given a little help. At one point in Cairo, the drunken Indy has been found by Nazis and taken to Belloq. Surrounded by gun-wielding Arabs, Indy is backed into a corner and about to fight to his death- only to be saved at the last moment by an mob of children and the revelation that the Arabs are in fact US Marines. When Indy is trapped in the Well of the Souls, all seems lost. If the storyteller-god had not chosen to give him a hint by showing the snakes entering through holes in the walls, he would have never escaped.

Thus, here is the role of the writer in these antagonism-driven stories. The writer is a god, always making things harder when they are too easy, and to giving a helping hand when things become too hard.

Category #2: All is Chaos, Hope is an illusion

When one calls a film “character-driven,” that does NOT mean it is supposed to have a thin plot, filled with dialogue, or as some think of it, a dull film filled with “feelings.” Character-driven means exactly that. The actions of the character are what solely pushes the film forward. There is no outside force making them act, the character IS the force that creates change. These films are “Humanist” films.

God does not exist in this world. The whole of existence is a single solitary human struggling day in and day out for survival in a cold, uncaring universe of randomness, filled with millions of others humans, all desperately fighting their own existence. Nothing is going to step in and help them. If they want success and happiness, they are going to have to earn it themselves with their blood, sweat, and tears.

I am a great admirer of French author/philosopher Albert Camus. Camus's view of life was, in a nutshell, that of a constant conflict between the natural human desire for order, meaning, and control , and the cruel reality that the world is in fact random, chaotic, and uncontrollable. Human misery comes when a person takes action with a certain positive expectation hoping that the world will turn out the way they want it to, and then having that expectation smashed by the true nature reality that refuses to conform – or even care about - their hopes and expectations. (Those of you who are familiar with Robert McKee's approach to plotting in his book Story will see some clear parallels.) Camus used the mythical figure of Sisyphus (pictured) as the metaphor of existence. We are each forced to constantly push ahead against an immense uncaring burden that will never be lifted. Happiness can only be achieved by first recognizing recognizing the illusions of the reality we live in, and then working hard to create some personal freedom and achievement within its limits.

The protagonists of these films are Sisyphean ones. Unlike the protagonists of the theist films who lead pretty normal lives until an outside event forces them into action, these characters are unhappy from the start. Their life IS the motivating action. Something is making them unhappy and one day something motivates them to start the long, hard task of pushing their boulder uphill.

In theist films, conflict occurs when the problem attacks the protagonist. In the humanist, the PROTAGONIST attacks the PROBLEM. Furthermore, in films of the former category, conflict comes from forces of antagonism that are actively trying to stop the protagonist (antagonists and the like). In the latter category the conflict often comes either from forces that are either indifferent about the plight of the protagonist, or they may come from the protagonist's erroneous expectations or a lack of understanding about themselves and their world (the bank forecloses on the protagonist's house for lack of payment, a father who has grown apart from his daughter due to past failures, a character who can't find true love because they are ignorant of the faults that hold them back.)

Theist story types usually lean towards fantasy, adventure, and escapism. Because humanist story types seem to mirror daily life with more authenticity, so you will find this type of structure mostly in straight drama, biopics, stories that deal with social problems or injustice, naturalistic dramatic comedies such as Sideways, and even in rise-and-fall type stories that are driven by the protagonist's ambition, such as Scarface and Wall Street. This type of structure is also highly at play in any film that contain troubled protagonists with strong inner conflicts, stories where the source of the protagonist's problems do not come from the outside world, but from their own emotional and social flaws, such as Five Easy Pieces or Taxi Driver.

For a good example, let's look at Erin Brokovich. The title character is down and out from the beginning of the story. She's a single mother of three, has no money, and has just unfairly lost a lawsuit over an accident that has left her broke. The world is indifferent and unkind to Erin. Through her own actions, she persuades her lawyer to give her a filing job. The inciting incident occurs when Erin stumbles upon some documents that don't make sense belonging to a corporate negligence case and decides to investigate further. Note that SHE has chosen the conflict. The conflict did not choose her. If she had chosen not to pursue the discrepancies in the case, the status quo of her life would most likely have continued unaffected.

The story developments that follow are solely caused by voluntary actions by Erin, pushing forward against the conflict out of a desire to put wrong things right and create some sort of order in the uncaring universe. Erin encounters all the conflicts that a cold, uncaring universe can give: indifference, greed, corruption, poverty & desperation. The more she tries, the crueler she finds reality to be. Her actions work to cause new conflicts at home, as her children and boyfriend become unhappy with the time she is spending on the case. She succeeds not through any divine help or coincidence, but by pluck and perseverance, gaining happiness from a small victory in a cold world.

To develop these types of stories, the writer must pay attention to their protagonist's desire and their expectations on how to achieve it, and then constantly look for plausible, logical ways for those expectations to fail. Then, have him or her pick up the pieces, get back up and continue pushing forward in another direction. Or, if your protagonist is a the deeply flawed type who always creates his own conflicts by being his own worst enemy, constantly think of how the errors in his ways of thinking/behaving can keep rising up and destroying his attempts at his goal.

If coincidence should occur in these stories, if the character should be in the right place at the right time and some benevolent or ill-meaning force should seem to present them with something, it would come off as phony and inconsistent. Whereas in theist films it would feel completely plausible, when an audience encounters coincidence in these types of stories, the audience has a hard time accepting it, and will declare that the falseness of Hollywood is shining through. For instance, The Pursuit of Happyness for the most part is a humanist narrative, but at a certain point coincidence occurs. Will Smith's character sells portable bone scanners, worth about $300 in the era the film takes place. While running from an unpaid cab fare, Smith loses the scanner at the subway. A crazy homeless man whom Smith encountered in the movie's setup who thinks the scanner is a time machine just happens to be there and takes it. Later in the film, at a point where Smith is the most hard-up for money, he happens to encounter the homeless man again and takes the scanner back. This coincidence becomes the weak spot of plausibility in an otherwise realist non-theist film. It is as if the film's god suddenly appears from nowhere to lend him a hand.

Humanist-structured films are harder to pull off than theist-films. They demand a lot more out of both writer and audience, which is one reason they are rarely as commercially successful as films of the theist category. One could even argue that theist-structured films are so enjoyable because they give that illusion of an ordered, controlled universe we all desire, rather than revealing something closer to reality has the humanist films do. However, when done well, these films have the potential to be masterpieces. They touch far closer to the audience's daily lives and experiences, allowing more emotional resonance and the ability to speak far more truth than a hundred Indiana Joneses.