Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The "SCENE": What it is, What it actually does

Many beginning writers are afflicted with a chronic condition known as “scene-itis.” Years of impassively viewing movies have led them to mistakenly believe that a film is nothing more than a collection on scenes. This misbelief is often compounded once they get their first look at a shooting script, with each of its scenes chopped-up and cut off by INT.'s and EXT.'s and then brought to a close by a CUT TO: at the end. Writers stricken with scene-itis come to believe that the scene is the basic unit of the cinematic story, that scenes are self-contained, and all one has to do to create a great screenplay is to string a collection of great scenes end to end in a somewhat related fashion. The scripts created by these writers often do have great scenes, but the story itself doesn't hold together one bit. This is all because these writers have failed to see the forest because of all of the trees. A cinematic story comes not from a collection of scenes, but rather from a firmly established Story Spine and the actions the characters are willing to take to achieve the goals contains within that Spine. The scenes themselves are just the physical times and places where these actions are performed.

The idea of writing a screenplay in scenes comes far more from pragmatic concerns than creative ones. Scenes originated in their archaic form in the theater, where the opening and closing of the curtain was necessary for the stage crew to change the location and lighting, or to indicate the passage of time. Therefore, the limitations of the stage demanded that the story be separated into clearly defined chunks of action. Modern editing eliminated the curtain as a story device, however the notion of writing in sectioned-off scenes continued for the sake of the complex procedures of film production. For the sake of efficiency, movies are shot out of sequence, and the necessity to keep track of what part of the script should be shot when and where created the use for “sluglines.” The writer him or herself has no real need for the INT/EXT. LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT gobble-de-gook that junks of the top of every scene. The slugline is only there so that production staff can easily break a script down so the production may be scheduled in the most logical and efficient manner. But, if a writer would ignore these artificial barriers that bookend every one of a script's scenes and look at the cinematic story as a whole, the writer will see that the story is not merely a series of self-contained segments laid end-to-end like bricks, but is rather one continuous flowing line of action that starts in the very beginning, and continues its development unbroken all the way to the story's end, moving like a river from its source to the sea with no barriers in between. The “start” and “stop” of a scene is merely an illusion. People use terms such as story “line”, or story “thread” to refer to the fact that the scene itself is just a small section of a constantly developing current that began long before the scene's start and continues long after the scene is over.

To create a story that achieves this constant flow, a writer must always remember this one simple rule: A story must ALWAYS be MOVING FORWARD. By moving forward, I mean it must always be developing, growing, evolving. And in order to do this, every scene which the writer creates must be done so in order to create some sort of CHANGE in the story situation. The situation the characters find themselves in must be somehow different at the end of the scene than it was in the beginning. Their world has been altered, whether this change be big or small, for better or for worse. If a scene does not alter the situation in any significant way, it does not belong in the story. Nothing happens. The scene keeps the story stagnant, damming the flow of the narrative river, and accomplishes nothing but to waste time and slow things down.

The story-altering change that occurs in every scenes is known as the scene's FUNCTION. The function is the reason why the scene exists. It is why the scene is in the story. The function is what the writer needs to get out of their scene in order to advance the story and move the characters on to the next scene. In essence, the function creates the next scene. The change that occurs in one scene sets up the actions that need to be performed by the characters in the following scene, in a cause-and-effect manner. To put it as simply as possible, this is all a scene really does. Its task is to create a moment of change that forces the characters to move forward to the story's next step, pushing the story closer to its eventual completion.

But how does a screenwriter do this? How can he or she make the scene do what it has to do to serve the story without it seeming contriving and artificial? The writer can just “make it happen,” have the characters go straight after what need to get done, or have events conveniently fall into their laps so the scene can move on. But the audience will not accept this.

Here lies a paradox of our artform. The fact is, storytelling is the art of creating dramatic contrivances. Everything in a movie's world is phoney and manipulated. Screenwriting is the theory of Intelligent Design in miniature form. You are a storyteller-god. You created your entire story world and the people within it. The people do what they do because you make them do so. Things happen because you are purposely pulling the strings. You, the story-teller god have every person's fates mapped out before hand, and you create the seemingly random events that get them there. Of course, the audience understands before going into the theater that the story's world will be artificial and contrived, but they do not want to believe this! And they certainly do not want to see it. Movies are meant to create the illusion of reality, and audience wants to hold on to the illusion. And, they will not believe in your Great and Powerful Oz if they can see you hiding behind the curtain.

The only way to make your scenes achieve their function without seeming contrived is through action that is logical- based on the wants and needs of the characters within the scene, and inevitable- based on what must come from the characters' pursuit of these wants and needs. (Or as Aristotle would put it, the action must be “necessary and probable.”) In short, the scene accomplishes what it needs to do indirectly through the actions of the characters within it.

If the writer has bothered to create characters with well thought-out character spines, this means that every character has an overall Story Goal they wish to achieve. To achieve their large, overall goal they must take a series of smaller actions. This means that in every scene, the character will have his or her own scene goal, a smaller goal they wish to accomplish within the individual scene that is somehow related to their overall goal. If they achieve this smaller scene goal, it will mean that they are one step closer to their main Story Goal.

However, different characters have different goals. This means that characters want contradictory, if not completely opposite things. This creates conflict within the scene. Also at play within a scene can be forces outside of the control of the characters: the pouring rain, the unexpected explosion of a roadside bomb, the intrusion of a third character. It is through these three conflicting elements; the scene goal of Character A, the scene goal of Character B, and any forces outside their control, that the writer creates the action within the scene that will in the end accomplish the scene's function, the change the moves the story forward. Sometimes the change occurs by one character winning the scene's conflict and getting exactly what he or she wants. Character A defeats Character B and moves the story forward by claiming his or her goal. However, more often or not the outcome of the scene is an unforeseen third option that comes as a result of the conflict between these characters. Let's say we have a scene where Character A confronts Character B. Character A's scene goal is to force some sort of vital information out of Character B. Character B's scene goal is to keep the information a secret. The two come into conflict. As a result, a scuffle breaks out. Character B pulls out a pistol and shoots Character A. The shooting is the CHANGE that advances the story (the scene's function). Character A is now dead. The story situation has been irrevocably altered. Now, neither character expected this is happen at the top of the scene. Neither character wanted this to happen. Nevertheless, the moment of change happened as a result of their conflict. The shooting is the scene's function. The character's scene goals and the conflict caused by them were merely the means by which this moment of change became necessary and probable.

Let's look at a few simple scenes from the beginning of Star Wars to illustrate how characters' scenes goals work to bring about the change necessary to move the story forward- not through direct achievement, but through indirect consequence:

C3P0 and R2D2 are two droids owned by the Rebel Alliance who have become stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine. R2 is secretly carrying vital military information. They become captured by Jawas, a band of nomadic merchant creatures. In our first scene, Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen meets with the Jawas to purchase some droids to work on his farm. Owen's scene goal is to get some quality droids at a fair price. He selects C3P0 as one of his purchases. C3P0 does not wish to be separated from his companion R2D2. So, C3P0's scene goal is to convince Luke to get his uncle to buy R2 as well. Although both characters achieve their individual goals in this scene, the important change that advances the story comes about only as an indirect consequence of those goals: both rebel droids are now the property of the Skywalker family. Owen and Luke did not know these are rebel droids, nor are they trying to protect them, however, their actions create this indirect consequence.

In the following scene, Luke is tasked with cleaning the new droids. Luke has other plans, so his scene goal is to finish this job as quick as possible. In his haste, Luke inadvertently triggers R2 to play back part of a message recorded by Princess Leia for an Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke never intended to do this. It was in indirect consequence. However, it achieves the scene's function: to get Luke to want to find Obi-Wan. The scene ends with Luke being called to dinner.

At dinner, Luke tries to convince his uncle and aunt to allow him to leave home and join the rebellion. Uncle Owen flat out refuses. Though Luke fails to reach his scene goal, the scene's function is still achieved through indirect consequence: Luke becomes even more motivated to leave home. Also, as part of Owen's argument against Luke leaving home, he actually helps the scene's function when he mentions that Obi-Wan knew the father Luke never met. This has the indirect result of giving Luke a second reason to seek out Obi-Wan Kenobi.


In a screenplay, the purpose of an individual scene is to serve the Story Spine by creating an event that moves the story forward down its path of action, towards the story's climax and the Spine's resolution.

How this works:

Characters enter a certain time and place with certain desires. They go after these desires using necessary and probably action. This causes them to come into conflict with others who have contradictory desires. Through the heat of this conflict, and CHANGE occurs that alters the story's situation. This is what happens in a scene.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Laughing at Pain: a serious guide to comedy

(Related article: Comedy Behaving Badly)

When it comes to writing for film and television, there are dramatic writers, and there are comedy writers. Execs like to categorize writers as either one or the other under the impression that it is impossible for a single writer to do both. If an established dramatic writer pitches his new pant-wetting comedy, the exec tends to look at him with the same absurdity as a fish trying to fly.

However, writing comedy and writing drama turn out to be shockingly close to the same thing.

Drama and comedy are both forms of story, so they both obey the same dramatic rules of storytelling.
They are both cinematic narratives, so both must follow the same guidelines of structure, of character, of communication with the audience. Both are powered by conflict. Both center around a human being dealing with a problem, pursuing a goal in order to overcome that problem.

The real difference between comedy and drama turns out to be so whisper-thin that it comes down to a single element. Any tear-jerker can be turned hilarious, and any hijink-filled comedy turned serious with the simple addition or removal of the element that splits these genres in two.

This element is EXAGGERATION.

Comedy is nothing more than real life exaggerated. What we find funny in movies and TV is nothing more than the worries, annoyances, confusions, fears, and anxieties we see and experience every day, exaggerated to a point where they become absurd, and therefore laughable. Audiences laugh at characters in situations that they themselves would dread to be in. Characters face danger, embarrassment, degradation. Played without exaggeration, the audience would feel fear, pity, or discomfort for the characters. But with the exaggeration, the same audience feels free to point their fingers and laugh.

Human society invented comedy for a psychological reason. Comedy takes what we dread and fear, what makes us angry and frustrated, and lets us to release that pent-up anxiety by allowing us to mock the very things that cause it. This is comedy's social function. We need it to stay sane. Dramas sympathize with an audience's problems by giving them characters to which they can relate. Comedy helps and audience forget about their problems by belittling them into insignificance.

This is why it is said that the best jokes are wrapped around a grain of truth. Comedy IS truth. It has just been inflated to grotesque proportions. Look at the television mega-hit “The Office.” The show instantly connected with an audience because anyone who has ever worked in an office could identify their own work life reflected in characters of the show. They have all experienced incompetent superiors, annoying coworkers, days of drudgery, and the constant urge do anything other then work. It is funny because it is true. However, I will bet my life not a single viewer has a work life that reaches the level of absurdity as the one found on television. The program gets its humor from reality, but reality exaggerated. While not so humorous in their own lives, exaggeration allows the audience to receive the pleasure of mocking the things that bother them day in and day out.

This may be a simple concept, but you would be surprised to find how many burgeoning screenwriters are ignorant of it. I have read so many spec screenplays that are supposed to be comedies, but are NOT FUNNY - all because the writers fail to exaggerate their situations to a sufficient degree. They half-step their humor, deliver dull underserved situations, and are afraid to PUSH IT to the absurd. As a result, these scripts only get a smiles when they should get laughs, a chuckle when it the audience should be rolling on the floor. These scripts fail to be comedies. The best they manage to be is weak drama.

One general, and somewhat ironic rule about narrative comedy, is that most humor comes from viewing situations that are extremely unhumorous to the characters experiencing it. This phenomena can be explained with two principles.


What a coincidence! Drama also comes from conflict. Conflict is what makes a story interesting. Nothing is more boring than two people getting along perfectly. And nothing is less funny.

Characters are rarely having a good time in comedy. They are quite often miserable. This is because unlike the work of stand-up comedians, and literary humorists who write in a style that speaks directly to the audience, narrative comedy on film and television is not “first person” comedy, but it is rather “third person.”

In first person comedy, Person A is intentionally trying to make Person B laugh. However in film and television, neither Person A nor Person B (the characters on screen) find their interaction to be amusing. They are usually angry, confused, upset, aggravated, even frightened with each other. But, to a third person watching their interaction (the audience), their interaction can be very funny. Most comedy comes from an audience observing characters react to FRUSTRATION. And the only way to create this frustration is through conflict.

However, the type of conflict that causes the humor in a scene is different than the dramatic conflict that powers the action of the story. Comedies, like any other genre, still follow the same rules of storytelling. Every scene moves forward through characters with contradictory goals who inevitably come into conflict with each other. This is the dramatic conflict that keeps the story moving forward. However, in comedies, there tends to be a second side-conflict at play in a scene whose sole purpose is to create the humor.

The most common of these comedic side-conflicts is Conflict of Personalities. This formula for humor has been a writer's staple for centuries. Simply take two or more characters with greatly incompatible personalities and then put them into a situation where they are forced to interact. Then, watch as they drive each other nuts. The classic formula is the straight man/funny man routine. Or the smart guy/dumb guy. Or the snob & the slob. But really, any slight discrepancy between two personalities can be exploited for comedy. Take a look at the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David portrays someone with a personality so bizarre that he can't help but conflict with every single person he meets. No matter what type of person he encounters, he invariably ends up in some sort of comedic argument.

Again, the difference between this and the normal character conflict found within non-comedic movies is the level of exaggeration in the behavior between the two parties. The divide is usually so wide between these two personalities they seem to be on different planets. In drama, the conflict would simple feel frustrating. In comedy, this other person is so unreasonable, it makes the character want to tear their hair out.

Another person-to-person conflict is Conflict of Understanding. Two characters are interacting, but they clearly do not understand each other. Abbot & Costello's “Who's on First?” is a perfect example. “Wacky misunderstandings” have been a staple of sitcoms since television's invention. The comedic frustration come from one character is certain they understand what's going on, only to have the situation contradict that certainty in a confusing manner.

Another common type is Conflict between Expectation & Result, which is commonly known as situational irony. A wife answers the door naked, expecting to surprise her husband. Only she herself is surprised to find her mother-in-law on the other side. The disparity between character's expectation and the result is a common way to advance a story's plot, but when used comically it can create a great amount of comic frustration when the result is of such exaggerated difference that it results in humiliation or unbelievable failure on the part of the character.

Conflict with Environment is the source of most physical comedy. Slipping on banana peels, falling down stairs, the suitcase that won't close, the bird that poops on your head. The character is merely trying to make his or her way through their environment without incident, but finds frustration when something in that environment refuses to cooperate. The more exaggerated the resistance, the more comedic it can be.

More sophistication forms of conflict-based comedy come not from conflicts between characters and other things within the story, but from a conflict between the elements of the story and the audience- namely, the audience's own knowledge and understanding. This creates a state of irony.

Sometimes this conflict comes from information the storyteller has given the audience to which a character is oblivious. For example, the character Inspector Clouseau is an idiot. The audience knows that he is an idiot, but Clouseau mistakenly believes he's a genius, causing him to say and do stupid things the audience knows could have been avoided. The audience knows that John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Tranes, & Automobiles are going the wrong way on the interstate, but they don't know that, putting both the characters and audience on a collision course for wackiness.

Satire is the most difficult and advanced method of comedy because it is based on a somewhat abstract conflict created by a disparity between the knowledge and ideas about reality that the audience has brought with them to the story, and those of the warped story world they see on screen. Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove is a comedy about nuclear war. Based on their preexisting knowledge, the audience knows that nuclear war is something that should be taken seriously, but the comedic irony comes when they find the characters reacting to it like buffoons. Terry Gilliam's Brazil presents a world with rules, ideas, and values that the audience, with their preexisting knowledge of reality, should clearly find absurd. However, instead of agreeing with the audience, the characters behave as if this absurdity is not only normal, but completely rational. What the audience finds silly, the characters take seriously. Conversely, in Strangelove, what the audience finds serious, the characters treat as silly.


“Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.”

(Well, maybe not die, so to speak. But, we will get to that.)

So, most comedy is the result of the audience laughing at characters in a state of frustration. But that is far from the worst of our comedic cruelty. How many thousands of times have we watched characters flee for their lives, hang off the edge of buildings, get bludgeoned with frying pans, get humiliated in front of a roomful of people, or have their soul crushed by the person they love- only to find ourselves laughing at their misfortune?

Is it sick of us? Not really. It all depends on how the action is presented. The difference between comedic and tragic is a matter of personal perspective.

Have you ever fallen on your face in front of a group of friends and get laughed at? It wasn't very funny for you, was it? But from their perspective it was (as long as you weren't too hurt.)

Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy in the close-up, a comedy in the wide.” Take a look at some comedies on film and TV and try to find any with a style that depends heavily on tight close-ups. Most comedies have a shooting style dominated by long takes of wide master shots, rarely going in tighter that a shoulders-up shot of a face. Tight close-ups are a tool of dramatic filmmakers. Dramatic filmmakers want an audience to empathize with characters. They want the audience to feel the emotions the characters feel. So, they design an intimate experience, where the audience sees the story from as close to the character's own eyes as possible. A comedic shooting style, on the other hand, has been intentionally developed to distance the audience emotionally from the action. Comedic audiences are placed in a withdrawn perspective that in result subconsciously gives the audience permission to laugh.

Try to remember an unfortunate incident in your past that hurt very much at the time you experienced it (because you were close to it and the pain still very fresh), but now, you can look back on it and laugh. You can laugh because you now have distance from the pain. We can find humor in misfortune as long as we are not currently close enough to it to experience the pain ourselves. Comedy in film & television can work in very much the same way.

Imagine a scene of a young man who is about to reveal to the girl he has had a crush on for years that he loves her. Only he screws it up monumentally. He ends up humiliated, disgraced, and seems to have ruined any future chance with the girl. At this moment, the character on screen in miserable. This is worst moment of his life. Now, if an audience member has recently suffered a similar situation, he or she would NOT find this scene funny, because it relates to pain that the audience member is still very close to. However, the rest of the audience can find the humor in the character's misery, because every one of us have suffered a similar humiliation in our lives, an incident that we now have enough distance from that we can now laugh at it. Likewise, if a character is in a state of fear and does something incredibly stupid out of panic, while it is no joking matter for the character, we can all laugh because we can all relate to a time when we did something very stupid out of panic.

It is not callous to laugh at characters suffering misfortune. It is actually another form of audience sympathy that helps us draw closer to the characters. We laugh at their misfortune because we can look back on our own lives and relate our own experiences to it. The characters are just like us. From our distanced perspective we remember how we survived own misfortune, so it is okay laugh since we can be certain the character will end up alright as well.

The only rule to follow is that “Nobody really gets hurt.” Whatever misfortune occurs on screen, it should be presented in a way that makes clear that the character will eventually get over it. Even if a character falls down a manhole and ends up in a body cast, it should be obvious that the character is not in any real pain, and the character will eventually heal and return to normal. Imagine how gruesome the Three Stooges would be if Larry, Moe, and Curly were not so immune to pain!

When this rule is not followed, when the pain becomes too real, it removes the distance the audience has from the material. The pain is now right in their laps and they are forced to acknowledge it- they are once again too close to it and will not be able to find it funny.


Since the invention of dramatic storytelling, people have tended to separate stories into two distinct groups: those that make us laugh, and those that make us cry. But when it comes to storytellers and their craft, comedy and drama are merely two sides of the same coin. Both follow the basic rules of storytelling. Both are fueled by conflict. They both seek to create a world relateable to our own, populated by characters who face problems that threaten them with danger, heartbreak, and misfortune. The only difference comes from the level of exaggeration which the storyteller presents that world, and from what perspective the storyteller chooses to present it to the audience. There is a thin line between laughter and tears. One that a master storyteller can manipulate at will.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Story time, story time! Hooray, it's story time!

When we were all young whipper snaps, adults entrained us with fairy tales. These stories were all very simple. They were short in length, were filled with characters making clear, straightforward actions, and all had an obvious beginning, middle, and end. Fairy tales were the ideal mode of storytelling for us at that age because they were storytelling at its simplest. So simple that our developing minds had no problem following the story's action and understanding the logic that inevitably led to the story's conclusion.

Screenwriting, on the other hand is among modern society's most complicated forms of storytelling. This is mostly because of a movie's far greater length (from a three minute fairy tale to an over ninety minute movie), and because of the structural rules needed to maintain the audience's attentions for such a long span of time. Many times, a young screenwriter bravely ventures out to create a cinematic story and ends up getting lost along the way. In the attempt to just make enough “stuff happen,” to fill what to some can seem like an epic length of time, writers can end up with a first draft that is a cluttered, meandering journey where the simple structure found in the stories of our childhood has been either lost or ignored. Misguided attempts to fix things in later drafts- a tweak here, a rearrangement there, a new scene over here, often manage to only make things worse. The script's story becomes a patchwork of flaws, turning what the writer first imagined as clear and easy to understand into the kind of confused quagmire that drives many aspiring scribes into complete surrender.

However, screenplays and fairy tales, despite their differences, are both forms of the same art. They are birds of the same feather and follow the same basic rules. Whether it be Little Red Riding Hood or Casablanca, they are all simple tales of human confronted by problems, who then take goal-oriented actions to overcome them. If you are a writer currently confused in the murky depths of plotting, if you can't seem to figure out how to make your story work no matter how hard you try, if you have read all the books on screenwriting but still can't seem to put it into practice, it would well do you some good to take a look at fairy tales. This is because within the simple sentences of fairy tales there exists a microcosm of cinematic structure.

Take a look at Hansel & Gretel.

Hansel & Gretel
Once upon a time, there was brother and sister named Hansel and Gretel (introduction of the protagonists) who lived in the forest with their father the woodcutter and their wicked stepmother. The stepmother always complained of there never being enough food and demanded that her husband abandon the children in the woods (the story setup). One day, the woodcutter could take no more and took Hansel and Gretel deep into the woods and left them there. (inciting incident) However, Hansel had overheard his parents' argument the night before and had filled his pockets with white pebbles, which he left in a trail and their father led them into the woods. When night fell, Hansel and Gretel followed the pebbles back to the safety of their home. (end of the 1st act)
The next morning the stepmother was furious to find that Hansel and Gretel had returned. She screamed at the woodcutter all day until he agreed to take the children back into the woods, deeper this time. However this time, Hansel had no pebbles and could only mark their way with bread crumbs. When the time came to find their way home again, Hansel and Gretel were shocked to find that all the crumbs had been eaten by birds. (an obstacle complicates the story situation) They were lost.
Hansel and Gretel wandered the woods for days until they came upon a strange house made entirely of candy. Starved, they ran to the house and ate the candy that made its walls. But they had fell into a trap. In the house lived an old witch who lured them into the house and captured them. (end of the 2nd act)
The witch locked Hansel in a cage so she might fatten him up to eat him. With Gretel, she forced to do housework until she decided to eat her too. Eventually the day came for the witch to have her meal. But when the witch bent down to check whether her oven was ready, Gretel pushed her in and closed the door. (climax) Gretel freed her brother, and in the witch's house they found a casket of gold coins.
Hansel and Gretel went back into the woods and when they found their way home, they learned that their stepmother was dead and their father begged their forgiveness. (story resolution) And they lived happily ever after.

Think of some of your favorite films, films with stories that never fail to captivate your interest. If you look past all the details, and focus just on the bare bones of the how their plots unfold, you will find that any and every well-written screenplay story can be completely told in a half-page fairy tale like the one above. Here's an example.

The Matrix

Once upon a time, there was a whiz computer hacker named Neo. (introduction of the protagonist) Through Neo was successful, he was not happy. He always seemed to feel like there was something fake about the world he lived in. (story setup) One day, Neo was contacted by mysterious strangers who offered to tell him about the secrets of “the matrix.” However, his mysterious friends also got the attention of the evil Agent Smith, who now wishes to capture Neo. (inciting incident) Neo's new friends help him escape Agent Smith. They then offer him a magical pill with the promise that it will show him the truth about the world. Neo takes the pill. (end of 1st act)
Neo wakes up in a strange new world. Morpheus, the leader of Neo's new friends, tell him that the world he knows is a lie, and that humanity is enslaved by machines. Neo does not want to believe this, but Morpheus insists he does, because he believes Neo is “The One,” the man prophesied to help them defeat the machines. Neo and his friends go back into the matrix to see if this is true. However one of the friends has betrayed them to Agent Smith. (a complication to the story situation) Agent Smith's forces attack them and take Morpheus captive. (end of 2nd act)
Neo and his friends are very sad over the loss of Morpheus. But, rather than give up, Neo decides to go back into the matrix to rescue Morpheus. In an epic battle, Neo and his friends save Morpheus. However, as he tries to escape, he is cut off by Agent Smith and they are forced to fight to the death. In the battle, Neo comes to believe that he is in fact The One, and with that confidence, kills Agent Smith. (story climax). Neo and his friends return to safety, stronger than ever (resolution). And they lived happily ever after.

Now, you're probably thinking, 'yeah, of course this works for The Matrix. A fantasy/sci-fi story would naturally have a lot in common with a fairy tale. Well then, let's go a step further and try a fairy tale of a story that couldn't be further from the likes of fantasy.

Ordinary People

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Conrad. Conrad had recently come home from a mental hospital after attempting suicide due to his survivor's guilt over the boating accident that killed his older brother Buck. Conrad's father struggles to re-connect with his troubled son, but his mother has grown cold to her surviving son, and has become fixated on maintaining the appearance of normalcy around her. (story setup) One day, Conrad decides to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger. Conrad has troubles re-establishing his relationship with his friends and family, so Dr. Berger suggests he talk to someone he feels he can be open with. This makes Conrad contact Karen, a girl he knew from the mental hospital. (end of 1st act)
However, Conrad attempts to make things normal again do not get good results. His friends treat him strangely and his mother rejects his attempts to communicate with her. This leads Conrad to choose to quit the swim team, which only makes both his friends and mother more angry. Things start to look better when he start seeing a non-judgmental girl named Jeannine. However, a bad date with Jeannine and a violent fight with his friends pushes him toward depression. But when Conrad tries to call Karen to cheer himself up, he hears that Karen has committed suicide. (end of 2nd act)
Conrad is driven off the deep end by the news. He briefly considers killing himself, but decides instead to reach out in the middle of the night to Dr. Berger for help. In an emotionally agonizing battle with Dr. Berger, Conrad comes to realize that he blames himself for his brother's death- but that he was not responsible. This realization helps him overcome his problem. (climax)
Understanding this, Conrad is able to move on and start a healthy relationship with Jeannine. However through all this Conrad's father has noticed how cold his wife is to Conrad and tells her he doesn't love her the way he used to. Conrad's mother decides to leave. In the aftermath, Conrad and his father are able to come to terms with eachother. (resolution) And they lived, more or less, happily ever after.


Take a look at the script you are working on right now. Are you sure that your story is clear and easy to understand? Does the action take a clear course, or does it wander? Does the story situation develop because the action contained in each event naturally triggers the next event to happen? Or do people do things arbitrarily, without a good reason forcing them? Does it have strong, dramatic turning points that give it an obvious beginning, middle, and end? Does all the action of your story stick to a strong, dramatic Story Spine in which characters constantly struggle with a Main Story Problem, and tirelessly pursue a Main Story Goal? Don't just say “yes” and move on. The only way to be sure is to put it to the test.

Write out your script's story as if it were a fairy tale. Start out with “Once upon a time...” and using simple language, tell your entire story in a block paragraphs that takes up no more than half a page of paper. Now of course, you can't fit in everything, just the important moments and characters; the stuff your story won't make sense without. Until you can tell your story in a way that even a kindergartener can understand, your script will lack the elegant, hidden under the surface simplicity that makes a great cinematic story. A great movie is made of a simple story with complex characters. This test makes sure you don't have it the other way around.

Look at what you have written. Where you able to fit it into half a page? If not, this means your plot is too cluttered. You are trying to cram too much into a movie's limited space. You may be attempting too many subplots, serve too many characters, or it many have gone off its spine into unrelated areas. Maybe it tries to do too much with the story too fast, tearing into oblivion like a runaway train. A cluttered script leaves reader and viewer alike feeling like their brains have been fried. There is just too much to keep track of and they get confused.

Also take warning if you weren't able to make it to half a page. This means that despite your script's length, you have a story were nothing much happens. It is most likely filled with long scenes of unnecessary dialogue, or uneventful action with no relevance to the main story. Maybe it is filled with scenes unrelated to the Story Spine. Or, more likely, it has no Spine at all to guide it, creating a narrative that wanders without purpose. If you don't have enough story to fill a half page, this means that the story does not develop at a sufficient pace to keep audience interest, and they will end up being deathly bored.

Can you see a clear cause-and-effect relationship from sentence to sentence in your fairy tale? Thing should happen in manner so that because THIS happened, it caused THAT to happen. And then because of THAT, THIS was made to occur. If instead your fairy tale has a lot of “then this happened, then this other unrelated thing happened, and then the character went and did this other thing” without much of a causal thread connecting every event, this means that much of your action is arbitrary and does not effectively follow a story spine. When a story stays on its spine, removing one moment from your fairy tale would make everything fall apart, causing everything that occurs afterward to make no sense. If you can remove something and there is no real damage, this means your script is nothing more than a collection of random events, not a tightly-plotted cinematic story that unfolds with the natural momentum a movie needs to have.

Do the main turning points of your story (the inciting incident, end of first act turning point, end of second act turning point, and story climax) clearly stand out from the rest of your fairy tale? Do the turning points that end your first and second acts work to divide your story into an obvious beginning, middle, and end? Or are these moments lost in all the other details? The latter would indicate that your story still has problems with its structure, and more work needs to be done to strengthen these moments or else they will become insignificant events awash in all your other scenes.


Once upon a time, there was a screenwriter who had trouble making their script work (inciting incident). Then, one day they found this blog article encouraging them to think of their story as a fairy tale (1st Act Turning point). The screenwriter took the article's advice, did the exercise, and found where the problem lay in their script. (2nd Act Turning point). They fixed their script, and it became a wildly successful feature film. And they all lived happily ever after. (We hope.)


Monday, September 27, 2010

So what is this "conflict" anyway? - Part II: the practice

Enough of your borax, Poindexter. We need action!

While preparing for my last article, my philosophical though somewhat unresolved search for the nature of story conflict did unearth some information that proves useful and practically applicable to screenwriters and aspiring writers when it comes to actual story creation.

Everybody knows that a dramatic story cannot exist without conflict, but I have encountered many aspiring screenwriters who are unclear on what story conflict actually is. These writers think they follow the rules, yet in the end cannot understand why their scripts fail the way they do. As I have said before, if anyone is ever going to understand something, they must first define just what the hell they are talking about. I found an official definition of the term used by those who specialize in real-world conflict resolution:

Conflict is, “"when two or more parties, with perceived incompatible goals, seek to undermine each other's goal-seeking capability".

This definition could not be more valid when it comes to the craft of screenwriting. Conflict is not two characters bickering. Conflict does not come simply from two characters who do not like each other. Conflict does not come from arbitrary fighting, chasing, shooting, or blowing stuff up. Real story conflict can only exist when a.) two or more characters each have individual goals that are directly opposed to each other, and b.) the characters take action toward their goal at the expense of the other character achieving their own. Directly opposed goals are the key. Conflicts between characters must be so arranged that one person's goal cannot possibly be achieved without defeating of the other person's goal in the process. There can be no win-win situations in story. The cop wants to put the criminal in jail, but the criminal wants to remain free. The monster would like to kill the blonde teenager, but the teenager prefers to stay alive. One kid wants the last cookie, but so does another kid. It is impossible for both sides to get what they want. One of them will have to lose. When one character pursues their goal, and then sees that the other character is a threat, the first character becomes willing to FIGHT in order to win the contest. This is the only place “conflict” comes from.

As stated in my last article, human beings love to see conflict. They are drawn to it like a moth to a light. It is what makes a story interesting. This means in order to write a screenplay that holds onto an audience's interest from beginning to end, EVERY scene requires some sort of conflict within it. This conflict does not necessarily have to be between the protagonist and antagonist. It could be between any two characters. This conflict may directly involve the Main Story Conflict that drives the story's narrative, or it may have little to nothing to do with it. All that is required is that in every scene there must be two or more characters who have opposing desires, and that these characters are willing to stick to their guns and try to get what they want despite the opposition.

Detective Jake Gittes wants to look up recent land sales, but the rude clerk just wants him to leave. John McClane wants to ride in the limo in peace and quiet, but the driver Argyle wants to talk. Jason Bourne wants a German girl to drive him to Paris, but the girl wants nothing to do with a stranger. The scene ends when one side wins by forcing the other to give in. Who wins all depends on which side is more dedicated to their goal. Gittes is dedicated enough to his case that he will not let a little rudeness stop him. Argyle wants conversation so bad he ignores McClanes attempts to make him stop. Bourne is willing to offer a stack of money to overcome the girl's resistance.

But a scene does not always end in a win-lose situation. Sometimes it is lose-lose. Sometimes they are interrupted in the middle of their conflict and the battle remains unresolved. But the result of the scene's conflict is not nearly as important as the fact that there exists a conflict to power the action of the scene in the first place.

Also, conflict is not limited to scenes with more than one character. Conflict can and should be at play in solo scenes as well. Something in that scene should make it more difficult for that one character to reach his or her goal. If a man tries to start his car, but it won't turn over, the conflict is man vs. object. The man want his car to start, the car refuses. If a man is merely walking to his apartment building, but the heat of the sun makes this act uncomfortable, the conflict is man vs. environment. A person can be alone, but still struggle with internal conflict. Internal conflict means that the person possesses two conflicting desires that cannot both be fulfilled. A man is mad at his girlfriend and wants to cut off all contact, but at the same time he is dying to pick up the phone and talk to her. Internal conflict splits a character in two, as if he were now two individual people, struggling against each other for what they want.

Internal conflict is another area of confusion for developing writers. Often I find scripts where the writer claims that the main conflict is internal, but all I really get is a long, boring narrative where nothing happens. The conflict is not internal. There IS no conflict.

Internal conflict does not mean a lack of external conflict. Quite the contrary, a writer needs to create just as much direct person-to-person conflict in a story where the main conflict is supposed to be internal as they would with a traditional external conflict. A conflict only exists when the audience can SEE on the screen two forces butting heads. If a character is wracked with conflicting desires, this internal struggle must MANIFEST itself into the outside world through the character's actions. The internal struggle motivates the character to take actions that create secondary conflicts with the people around her. This is the only way for the audience to understand the conflict, and it is also the only way to keep the story from being a complete snore.

The same thing goes for stories that in lieu of a person-vs-person conflict, attempt a conflict on the social level, or a cosmic one. A character may attempt to fight against a notion such as “injustice,” but in a cinematic story, a conflict cannot be played out against the abstract. The character needs to have a physical opponent to fight against in order for the audience to experience that conflict. If a character sets out to battle “injustice” conflict must come when she runs afoul of another character whose opinions of this injustice are the complete opposite of hers. This character comes to represent the abstract concept she is fighting against as a tangible antagonist.

Another area where people sometimes have problems with is telling the difference between general “dramatic conflict” -the type that should exist in every scene just to keep it interesting, (the type of conflict that could come from practically any two sources, from hero vs. villain, to a cat vs. a bowling ball), and the Main Story Conflict- the central conflict that drives the entire story. The Main Story Conflict refers only to the opposition that occurs between the protagonist and the antagonist (or the force of antagonism if there is no human antagonist in the story) once the protagonist begins his or her pursuit of his/her Main Story Goal, according to the Story's Spine. Here once more is my diagram of the Story Spine and its five essential components:

In a correctly-constructed Story Spine, once the protagonist recognizes that he/she has a Problem, and begins down their Path of Action towards his/her Main Story Goal, the antagonist creates an ever-present conflict blocking the protagonist's way. The antagonist is in the way because, as I have already said, the antagonist has his or her own goal that is the complete opposite of the protagonist.

It is easy for readers and writers alike to become confused between general dramatic conflict and the Main Story Conflict because they are usually referred to by the same terms. When someone talks about “the conflict” of a story, it is difficult to tell to which they refer. Ancient Greeks like Aristotle used term agon to refer to the central contest in a tragedy. Aristotle used this term in Poetics to apply to to the main story conflict at play, but perhaps we need to invent a newer, little less ancient term to make things easier to comprehend.

Further difficulty comes when one finds that it is hard to tell when exactly the Main Story Conflict begins in many movies. Screenwriters have almost unanimously adopted the term “Inciting Incident” for this moment. The inciting incident is the moment when the story truly starts in earnest, because it marks the starting point of the Story Spine. The inciting incident occurs at the point where the protagonist, a. first encounters the Main Story Problem, b. decides on what Goal must be achieved to overcome the problem, and then, c. decides to take action- action that will put them into conflict with the antagonist.

However, in many movies, the Main Story Problem already exists well before the official “inciting incident.” For instance, in The Dark Knight, the Joker is already running rampant all over Gotham City before Batman even knows of his existence. Where would the inciting incident be placed there? How about American Beauty, where the protagonist Lester Burnham is fully aware of his problem even before the story begins (his life sucks), but does not do anything about it until after the fifteen minute mark?

According to the study of real-world conflict resolution, there are five stages to any type of conflict:

  1. Prelude to Conflict: Variables that make conflict possible between those involved
  2. Triggering Event: A particular event, such as criticism which creates the conflict
  3. Initiation Phase: Occurs when at least one person makes it known to the other that a conflict exists
  4. Differentiation Phase: Parties raise the conflict issues and pursue reasons for the varying positions
  5. Integration stage / Resolution: Parties acknowledge common grounds and explore possibilities to move towards a solution

In a cinematic story, the inciting incident does not happen until the first THREE phases listed above occur. The inciting incident only happens (launching the Story Spine and beginning the main conflict) once three things take place in the story: First, the Story Problem must come into existence. Second, the protagonist must LEARN that the Story Problem exists. And finally, the protagonist decides to TAKE ACTION to do something about that Problem. Until all three of these have occurred, the inciting incident has not yet occurred, and the story has yet to officially begin. Anything that takes place before all three of these qualification are met are merely part of the story's setup, and not part of the Story Spine proper.

The reason I make such an effort to point this out is that I have encountered so many scripts that go on for dozens and dozens of pages before finally reaching a real inciting incident. I have seen plenty of scripts where no real Story Problem arises until page 40. I have read 100 page scripts where the Story Problem shows up on page 10, but the protagonist neglects to take any action over it until page 60. The result of the latter is a movie that has a whopping sixty minutes of setup, but a mere forty minutes of real story. To create a properly-paced screenplay, the first three phases of conflict as listed above must take place within the first 10-18 pages. Otherwise, the script will begin to bore the hell out of the reader. Why? Because there is no real conflict. I cannot say this enough: until the inciting incident launches the story spine and initiates the main conflict, YOUR STORY HAS NOT YET BEGUN! You are just making the audience angry by keeping them waiting.

Once the inciting incident takes place, Phase 4 as listed above, the Differentiation Phase, then takes up the majority of the rest of a story, everything from the inciting incident to the story's main climax. Here the two sides play out their conflict while pursuing their goals, developing the story situation and escalating their efforts against each other. The final phase, Resolution, takes place at the story's climax. However, in a cinematic story, there can be no “acknowledgment of common ground” between the two parties. There can be no peaceful resolution or win-win situation. The fact that protagonist and antagonist have completely opposite and contradictory goals means that story conflict can only be resolved by one side winning and the other side losing. And this loss must be irrevocable, meaning the losing side is left completely unable to continue fighting. Story conflict is life or death. The two sides must be the irresistible force versus the immoveable object. The only way to end it is for one finally give.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

So what is this "conflict" anyway? - Part I: the theory

(Related article: What is "conflict", Part II)

We've all heard it a thousand times. Drama cannot exist without conflict. Drama IS conflict. Conflict is the force that powers drama. Etc., etc., etc. This is unquestionably true. As anyone who reads scripts will know, a story without sufficient conflict is a terribly dull and pointless experience. Nothing worth caring happens, and because there is no reason for anything worth caring about TO happen. According to the Story Spine, a story without conflict cannot even be called a story. It bears about as much drama as your aunt's four hours of vacation slides, or a description of a blouse in last year's Sears catalog. Without conflict, there is nothing for an audience to find interesting. No matter how creative a narrative's premise, setting, and characters, a storyteller will never hold an audience's attention for more than ten minutes without conflict.

But the question I have the arrogance to ask is, “Why?” WHY can't drama exist without conflict? Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? What is it about the nature of conflict that makes it interesting to a human viewer, while anything without is a flat bore? Over and over I have heard men and women, experts in the field of drama, make statements about conflict as if they were as much as a given as the sky being blue, but I have never heard anyone explain why. Is there a reason behind this?

In mathematics, there are concepts known as “axioms.” An axiom is a basic mathematical proposition that is considered to be self-evident. If someone wanted to proved it through logical deduction, they would find it impossible. Examples include that if a = b, then therefore b=a, or a+b=b+a. Unlike theorems, axioms cannot be derived by principles of deduction, nor are they demonstrable by mathematical proofs, simply because they are starting points; there is nothing else from which they logically follow. Doubt the axioms, and all of mathematics falls apart. Is drama=conflict an axiom of storytelling? An unprovable fact that must be accepted by faith? Or is there a reason behind it?

To proceed logically, we must begin by defining our terms. What exactly is “drama?” Both drama and dramatic are used in such various ways the terms become vague and abstract. Even in literary and artistic circles it becomes a go-to label to describe just about anything narrative, theatrical, or emotionally striking. But when one tries to pinpoint an actual definition, we find that our question is a dog chasing its own tail.  

“Drama” means “conflict”. The two terms are nearly synonymous. If someone says that a situation was dramatic, they mean that it was filled with conflict. If you had too much drama in your last relationship, this means you and your other had constantly conflicting attitudes and emotions. If something creates a “dramatic change,” this means that there is a definite contrast (a conflict in appearance or perception) between how things were before and after. Even when “dramatic” denotes strong displays of emotion, one must admit that such displays cannot exist in a person without a conflict to trigger it. Therefore, we need to throw the word “drama” out the window and change the question to, “Why does a story demand conflict?” What is it about conflict that people find interesting?

Human beings love to experience conflict. They crave it. It's an urge still alive and well after millions of years of evolution in our reptilian brains. And I don't just mean the ancient savagery of cheering for blood in a gladiator arena. It exists in all of our lives. Modern enjoyments of conflict include an interest in sporting events, court cases, politics, gossip, board games, business, contests, competitions, hunting, fishing, hide-and-go-seek, the list could go on. But people rarely want to experience conflict directly in its cruel unchecked form. Very few enjoy the stress of arguments or the threat of fist fights. We want to experience the joy of conflict from either the perspective of an uninvolved viewer, or within safe controlled boundaries, such as the rules of a sport. This is completely normal, and many believe healthy within limits. But to try to find an explanation, one would have to delve deep into the nature of human psychology. There are undoubtedly volumes of discussion dedicated to this question, but to investigate further would probably only create more questions than answers. So, I will leave that Pandora's box closed and focus specifically on how the human desire for conflict manifests itself in story

Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? I have thought about it, and try as I might, I cannot come up with any direct answer. All I can hope to do is relate it to the needs of a narrative story.
Definition time again: What exactly do we mean by “story?” What separates a story from other types of narrative communication, such as a news article or television commercial? In a chapter of my upcoming book, I present this definition:

A STORY is 1.) a structured series of events, 2.) about characters, 3.) dealing with a problem, 4.) unified by a premise.

Now, trust me when I say my definition backed up by sound logic, because the only part of this definition of interest at the moment is part #3. Stories are about problems. From the simplest of folktales to the grandest of literary epics, all well-told stories from the beginning of time revolve around a character dealing with some kind of problem. A problem naturally implies conflict. Something is wrong with the protagonist's world, and the protagonist sets out to struggle against forces set against them to solve that problem.
Why is this? Why have all real stories ever told fit into this simple pattern? The answer lies in why stories exist in human culture in the first place. Humanity has a psychological need for stories. The world we live in is chaotic, confusing, orderless, and sometimes meaningless. Things rarely turn out the way we want them to, and the cumulative effect of our hopes and desires consistently going unfulfilled can drive a person to despair or even madness

Story's most important social function is to give people the illusion of a structured, orderly world where things happen for a reason, where actions have tangible results and clear meanings, a world where things are resolved in the end. Stories are not a reflection of the world we live in, but an analogy of the world as we would like it to be.
We all have problems in our lives. They can overwhelm us. Many seem unsolvable. Sometimes our problems are so great they just might drive us insane. This is where stories come in. Stories are social therapy. Stories give us people with problems. People just like us. As the story progresses, the character moves forward to overcome that problem. Once the character's problem has been solved, the story comes to an end. Through the social therapy of stories, people come to believe that their troubles are not insurmountable, that problems do have solutions, and that no matter how bad things may seem, everyone has a shot at a happy ending.
So, one reason why a story demands conflict is because a story demands that a character struggle against a problem. From their comfortable position as a detached viewer, the audience can watch human beings like them take on enormous problems and battle against conflicts more severe than any of us ever hope to find ourselves in. We watch these people fight for their lives, their loves, their souls against forces that appear insurmountable. And the audience gains pleasure from that. If they see others fighting against such problems and ultimately succeeding, it makes the audience's own problems seem far less threatening. If others can achieve the impossible, it gives the audience hope for success in their own lives. And the bigger the conflict they experience through the story, the more pleasure they will receive.

I realize that this does not completely answer the question I originally set out to answer. It only illuminates story conflict on its most macroscopic level. Maybe there is more to uncover that will explain things on a deeper level.

Or, maybe drama=conflict IS a storytelling axiom. All I know is that, like science, continuously increasing our understanding of our craft on its most basic level can only make us greater, more insightful storytellers on its most advanced. Keep digging.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


(Related article: How to Save $19.99)
Over the past decade, Blake Snyder's “Save the Cat” has been the world's best selling instructional book on screenwriting. Go to and type “screenwriting” in the books section and “Save the Cat” will always come up at the top of the search list. But in my opinion, this book has been the biggest detriment to the community of aspiring screenwriters in decades. If I had my way, every copy would be cleared from the shelves. If I ever hear another screenwriter wanna-be using the phrase “save the cat” as if it were an actual term of the craft I will personally take his or her copy of the book and make them eat it.

My problem with this book is that Snyder has taken all the over-emphasized, often short-sighted terms, theories, and rules preached by the various screenwriting “gurus” over the years, and has diluted then down into a collection of cutely-named cliches. The result has been an entire generation of aspiring young screenwriters who believe that they can create an audience-pleasing screenplay by simply connecting the dots and covering all the bases. Though they may follow these “rules” exactly, their work still stands little potential of ever becoming real produced films because their superficial knowledge and assembly-line approach creates nothing but weak, formulaic shells, inadvertently soulless hackwork because these writers have not been given the deep-down under the surface knowledge about the craft of storytelling necessary to create works of real merit. They are never given the real information on just exactly what a cinematic story is, how it works, and why it works. Synder's outside-in approach creates nothing but pretty facades. They look fine on the surface, but are hollow underneath

Forgive this opening rant. The target of this article is not Blake Synder's book in its entirety (that would take too long, and probably not necessary. Hopefully the readers of this blog have grown out of a beginner's book like this anyway). Instead, I want to debunk the idea that Synder names his book after. Synder suggests that in the setup of every story, we should see the protagonist have a “save the cat” moment. By this he means that the audience should see the hero doing something nice, something that the audience would approve of, such as saving a cat stuck in a tree. This is so that we can that the hero is a “nice guy.” Supposedly wedging in such a moment will create audience sympathy, or empathy, or whatever the hell you want to call it. Either way, he seems to suggest that the only way to make an audience get behind a character is to make him “likeable,” in a nice kitty-petting sort of way.

I began thinking on this subject the other day as I was reading a spec script penned by an aspiring writer. The story's protagonist was supposed to be a sort of financial/Wall Street/investment badass. He is the James Bond of investment firms, able to flip on the world news and instantly understand how turmoil and misfortune around the world can be easily exploited for millions of dollars. And exploit them he does. However, he is “above” the trapping of the rich a successful. He's so good at making money it bores him. He has no interest in the booze, drugs, and women that his coworkers revel in. Seems like a nice anti-hero, right? A person who has a lot of room in himself to grow and branch out to become a better person.

But then, I get to an abrupt and completely disconnected scene where this detached badass is sweetly teaching math to underprivileged children as a unpaid volunteer. It was at this moment that I KNEW that this writer had “Save the Cat” sitting on his bookshelf. This “pet the kitty” scene did not help the script. Quite the contrary. Not only was its content irrelevant to the rest of the story, but it actually served to undercut the character. Everything the writer put into this scene completely contradicted the character traits that the writer had already worked to establish. Instead of a clearly defined character, he became a confused middling mush. Instead of have a clear path for his character arc, it became blurred and unclear whether he should have one at all. The writer didn't need to show that his protagonist is a “nice guy.” He is not SUPPOSED to be a nice guy. He is an exploiter. No one can be a “nice” exploiter. He is a man begging to be taught a life lesson through the conflict of story events and to grow into a better human being because of it.

Let me ask a question: Just what is so wrong about having a FLAWED character in the first place? A character whom we in the audience with the collective moral judgment we bring with us to the theater cannot completely approve of? A character who has ugly black smudges on their soul that can only be awakened to their wrongs and purge those black marks clean by having their life being thrown into chaos and fighting the struggle of their lives to grow into a better person? Isn't this what a character arc is supposed to be all about? Isn't this what STORIES are supposed to be all about? Who among us in the audience do not have black spots on our own souls? How many of us are not incomplete persons ourselves, ashamed of our shortcomings, and held back in life by our flaws? And who among us who has ever watched a film and not felt on a deep subconscious level uplifted and inspired by vicariously watching another flawed person, a person even more flawed than ourselves, find redemption on the screen? Now let me ask you, who the hell is going to say that the people in the audience will not identify with these “unlikeable” characters? Whose eyes would you yourself feel more inclined to identify with? A character we can share a secret affinity through our own weaknesses and insecurities? Or some goody-goody kitty-petter who has no real need for the catharsis of character growth?

I have had the privilege of getting to know Lew Hunter, the Chairman Emeritus of the UCLA Screenwriting program. Several months ago, I was thumbing through his book Screenwriting 434, a collection of his wisdom from his years of teaching the craft, and found this little nugget buried in the back:

We do not need to “like the people.” We need to understand the people.

This was found in his chapter on dealing with the business of being a professional writer. (My wager is that Lew became so exasperated throughout his career with receiving notes from network suits about whether a character is “likeable” or not, that he chose to make a special note of it). However, I immediately wrote his words down on a post-it note and put it by my computer, where it remains today, because I recognized its truth went far beyond its context. In movies as in life, we do not have to like everybody. But as long as we can understand them, who they are and why they act the way they do, we will still care.

Books on screenwriting need to stop talking about “sympathetic” characters. Many books, on the other hand, explicitly argue against sympathy and emphasize the importance of making character “empathic.” But I think both terms should be eliminated. For one, most aspiring writers can't seem to understand the difference between the two. It's not their fault. It's hard for ANYONE to really tell the difference! Don't believe me? I have here Webster's New World Dictionary. Here is their definitions.

sympathy [Greek syn- together, -pathos feeling] 1. sameness of feeling. 2. mutual liking or understanding. 3. ability to share another's ideas, emotions, etc.

empathy [Greek. em- in, -pathos feeling] 1. ability to share another's ideas, thoughts, or feelings.

Hold up! Am I seeing things or do both sympathy and empathy have the exact same definition?! No wonder there is so much confusion! “Character empathy” has always been such an abstract concept to define that, no matter how hard the script gurus try, most writers remain unsure. Plenty aim to hit this so-called empathetic character but end up swerving left into the sympathetic. And this problem gets worse when we take into account that modern English given “sympathy” the connotation of either a feeling of pity, or a feeling of sweet emotions. And from this we get writers who feel compelled to have their characters save cats.

But “pity” or “sweet feelings,” are certainly not necessary for an audience to get behind a main character. Really, they do not care if a character is “sympathetic,” or “empathetic,” or if the character is a “nice guy.” What they want, and need, is a character they can RESPECT! We the audience will get behind a character, support him, and even love him despite of all his ugly flaws and unsympathetic traits as long as there is something about the person that we can respect. Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane harbors plenty of unsympathetic characteristics and commits many actions worthy of disapproval. But we still love him. Why? Because we can respect him. We respect his guts, his leadership ability, his charm and charisma. Hannibal Lecter could be the the most detestable human being ever to live on the screen. Yet we love him because there are still things about him we can respect, such as his intellect, his exquisite tastes, or his ability to size a person up in seconds. Our financial badass who leads the spec script discussed earlier has qualities that show potential for the audience's respect. He is brilliant and resourceful, and he has the personal strength to not get sucked down into the vices that can come with money and power. We do not need to see him acting all cuddly and cute with disadvantaged kids for us to get behind him.

The worthiness for audience respect as the most important trait for a protagonist to possess. The reasons for this are quite clear. When an audience enters a story's world, they look for a person they can latch on to. They need someone they can identify with, someone whose eyes they will see the story's world through, someone through whom they can have a vicarious emotional experience. However, they are by no means looking for someone who is “just like them.” How many movies have you ever seen with a protagonist who was exactly like you? To enjoy a story, the audience needs someone who will be their guide in this unfamiliar story world. In short, they need someone to be their LEADER. What the audience needs out of a main character are traits that make the audience comfortable enough with them to trust this character to lead them into the story and not be disappointed.

Think about it, for what reason would you choose to follow someone into danger? Or rather, what qualities would like to have in your mayor, governor, or president? Would you follow someone because they seem like a really nice person? Or because they have qualities that you can respect and trust as your leader?

The ability to garner audience respect is the dividing line that separates a hero the audience will love from a villain they will hate. How many movies have we seen where the hero is a thief, a killer, a con man, a blood-sucking vampire, or a beast from hell? What makes these unlikely characters “heroic”? We still consider these people heroes in spite of their immoral activities because they still possess other character traits that earn our respect. You will find in many movies that the hero and the villain are the same type of person. It is just that one has something a little more that makes them worthy of our respect- and affection- and the other one does not.

But, of course, there's always a chance you'll create a character whose only respectable trait IS that he rescues cats stuck in trees. However, I have faith that you can all be a little more creative than that.