Aydrea Walden's Bio
A former news reporter, Aydrea has since written for Nickelodeon, NBC/Universal, Highlander Films, Hawaii Film Partners, Makers Studios, iO West, The Second City Los Angeles, NowWrite! Screenwriting and Disney. She has also been featured on GOOD.is and runs the satirical blog The Oreo Experience – Life as a Total Whitey Trapped in a Black Chick's Body. (TheOreoExperience.com)
If the kids are around, you might wanna send them out of the room for a minute. I’ll wait.
Hmmhmm, dooduhdooo….did I turn off the—
Hey! You’re back!
Okay, so sex and sexuality are part of the human experience. We all got to Earth thanks to some very special hugs and chances are that at some point in our lives, we’ll do some hugging ourselves. Thus, it makes sense that sex and sexuality will turn up in screenplays. But there’s a way to do it so that it makes sense and there’s a way to do it that is creepy, alienating and ineffective.
Here are 4 types of sex scenes that tend to miss the mark and what you can do to fix them.
The scene where the lame/mean/jerky guy says something inappropriate or embarrassing to a woman but she decides that there’s “just something about him” and so she pounces on him anyway.
What people intend to show with a scene like this: That despite his shortcomings, the hero is not a bad guy and this unnaturally attractive woman sees that.
What people really show with a scene like this: That their female character is desperate and/or has no self-esteem and isn’t someone the audience is going empathize with or respect.
But, Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Girls hook up with crap dudes all the time! Yes, you are correct. But films aren’t real life. And while we may hold each other to flexible standards, audiences generally do not give such lenience to characters in film. If someone is attracted to someone in a movie, we want there to be a real reason why. Something beyond “I dunno, he’s cute. There’s just something about him.”
The person who gets pounced needs to give the pouncer something that they truly want or need. The guy can act like a bit of jerk, but if he displays a genuine soft spot for his cat or grandmother or war orphans—then he might be pounceable. But when a woman in a movie offers herself as some sort of taming device without getting anything in return, it makes both characters look weak.
The scene where the super powerful businessman/politician has incredibly rough/graphic…playtime with his assistant/secretary/wife’s friend then walks away and goes into a meeting or event like it’s totally no big deal, leaving the impossibly attractive nude lady to gather her things and get out.
What people intend to show in a scene like this: That the businessman/politician is so impressive that he can have whatever he wants and that he’s so detached from it all that he can’t even enjoy it and we should ultimately feel bad for him.
What people actually show in a scene like this: That they couldn’t think of something creative or new to show this character trait.
But Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Powerful people sometimes have crazy affairs and don’t show remorse! Yes, you are correct. But jerky powerful people also do lots of other things that show that they’re unempathetic. Ebeneezer Scrooge was the quintessential mean ol’ rich guy and there’s nothing sexy about his story.
Also, sex isn’t the only way to show that a character doesn’t care about something of value. Spending bazillions of dollars on a car, just to wreck it seconds later and not care about the little Honda Fit he destroyed in the process because he’ll just pay everyone off would get the same point across. Flushing diamonds down the toilet or having a house full of amazing gadgets that never get used, children who never get hugged and pets who never get walked could also communicate the same idea.
But Aydrea! I’ve watched movies where people use women like playthings and we still kinda want to be like them! Yes, you are correct. But in movies like that that work, those characters usually balance out their misogyny with many other likeable traits. Also, yes, there are some filmmakers who tend to be pretty exploitative when it comes to this sort of thing, and if you are Michael Bay, then what on earth are you doing reading this blog? If you’re not Michael Bay and can’t write your own ticket, then you should be trying to impress readers, studio execs and producers with substance over style.
The scene where the guy really wants to have sex, but the girl doesn’t, so the guy kinda just goes ahead and starts doing sex to her anyway and she eventually comes around and has an amazing time about it.
What people intend to show in a scene like this: That the girl really is actually into this guy but that she’s just shy or something.
What people actually show in a scene like this: That the characters are kind of okay with sexual assault.
But Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Sometimes girls just play coy and are totally okay with getting busy if you convince them! Yes, you are correct. However, films are not real life and on screen, a guy who coerces sex out of a woman comes across as a creep. And the woman who can’t stick to her point of view long enough to get to sleep comes across as weak.
(Also, let’s be honest, if someone is really not intent on any hanky panky, someone prodding them annoyingly while they’re trying to rest up for their big presentation the next day is more upsetting than seductive.)
A scene like this can work if it’s clear that the characters really do care about each other and if there’s a clear reason for the woman’s reluctance. A scene where an exhausted Dad reminds an exhausted Mom that they’re going to make more of an effort to make a go of it could be informative and sweet. A post-therapy scene where a concerned boyfriend reminds his girlfriend that she doesn’t need to be afraid of closeness anymore can be compelling and transformative. But to show a guy just being greedy and inconsiderate and a woman finding that hot is insulting to everyone.
The scene where the woman uses nothing but her tight dress and low cut shirt to distract/disarm the powerful dude.
What people intend to show with a scene like this: That everyone has an Achilles’ heel.
What people actually show with a scene like this: That they think men are simple automatons who have no ability to control themselves if they see lady skin.
But Aydrea! Some guys really don’t know how to control themselves when they see lady skin! Yes, you are correct. But in a film, this type of scene diminishes the stakes and gets boring. If all the woman needed to do was flash some flesh to get whatever McGuffin she’s after, then why are we watching an entire movie? Why doesn’t she just prance through life in a bikini taking money from stunned bystanders’ wallets, walking out of stores with unpaid merch, and slowly but surely rising to the rank of Supreme Ruler of all the World! By letting sex or sexuality be the secret weapon, characters don’t have to think, plan or grow. And that’s boring.
A sex scene is just like every other scene in a movie. It should show us new information about the characters and it should directly affect the plot of the film. It should motivate character to new action and they should be changed, if even slightly, by having experienced that scene.
If a sex scene is inserted just to seem edgy or cool, it will feel flat, unnecessary and exploitative.
Just like actual sex, when it comes to writing about sex, the tension is often more interesting than the release. While it’s titillating (pun intended) to see nudity on screen, if you’re trying to evoke the kind of emotional reaction that will make a movie really resonate with audiences, not giving it all up is really the way to go. Enter a scene (pun intended) just before or just after the act and you’ve got a lot more to work with in terms of exploring character, defining relationships and maintaining momentum.
All right, you can bring the kids back in the room…
Okay, what’s up?
But Aydrea! You really like Wedding Crashers and there’s unnecessary boobs in that movie! What gives?? Yes, you are correct. First, I think the boobs in that movie are totally unnecessary, but here’s why they’re not a total turn off. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are good guys in that movie. They have a silly game of crashing weddings, but they don’t do it to be malicious and they help everyone have a fun time when they’re there. In fact, in the opening sequence of that movie, the guys help a fighting couple reconcile. Yes, they help them ultimately so that they can get off of work for the day, but their help is sincere. Because they are well-intentioned guys, their playtime with the girls feels fun and playful, not manipulative, gross or creepy.
But Aydrea! You liked Blue Valentine and that movie is totally graphic! Yes, you are correct. That sequence, however, falls into the “we know this couple is really trying to work on their relationship” category. The whole film is pretty much about them trying to work on their relationship. That sequence is full of personality and fun (Future Room? Awesome) and we learn things about the characters based on their interactions.
But Aydrea! I don’t agree with anything you’ve said. I think these kinds of scenes are awesome and I want to write them anyway. I think you’re just being sensitive. Maybe because you’re a girl! Yes, you are correct. But you know who else is a girl? Many of the people you’re hoping will read, pass along and green light your scripts.
Whatever! There are movies with nudie scenes and I wanna put one in mine! There’s a myth about town that says that nudity gets you an automatic distribution deal. I can’t confirm what I’m about to say, but this cannot possibly be true.
But even if it is, nudity will likely also get you an R-rating. R-rated movies are a harder to monetize because fewer people can go see them and so fewer people pay for tickets to them. So being a bit more modest can actually help your box office.
Want Some Cheese with that Whine?
(Or: 3 Ways to Make a Sad Story Sad)
Death. Disease. Destruction. These things are real bummers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to have the impact you want them to in your script. It is necessary for less-than-ideal things to happen to your characters, but not all downer events are created equal.
In order to feel bad for characters, three things need to happen
- We must know the character and care about them. This is not to say that we’re going to laugh when an unknown character gets a bad diagnosis, but without the proper set up and character development, bad news for a character can feel at best, unimpactful and at worst, manipulative. The bad news should feel specific—like something that we definitely don’t want to happen to THIS person.
A degenerative illness will feel like a bigger kick in the gut to a competitive athlete than it will be to a homebody. A sudden death of an up and coming star, scholar or leader will hurt more than the passing of a person who hasn’t done much nor aspires to. An agoraphobe forced to relocate because a tornado destroyed his house will invoke more of a reaction than the same situation happening to an executive who’s never at home anyway.
- The bad news should feel organic to the story. While out-of-the blue events happen in real life all the time, these deus ex machinas often fall flat on film if they’re not supported.
If we haven’t met a character’s extended family in the first 75 minutes of your story, it won’t make us all that upset if we find out that their favorite aunt died in minute 76. If a character has put nothing on hold preparing for a promotion, we won’t bat an eye when we learn that the gig went to their coworker. If we’ve never spent time at a character’s summer home, it’ll barely register when that summer home is wiped out by a late season storm.
- The bad news should affect a character on a physical level and an emotional level. Losing a job sucks, but it is completely possible to live off unemployment for a while and get a new job, so it’s not the end of the world. However, if the loss of a job means that a character has to move back home with their millionaire, superstar sibling and their controlling parents who never supported them in the first place, that character’s in a much more painful situation.
Chronic diseases are terrible. But it is possible to get medication, join a support group and have a perfectly normal life. However, if the illness is brought on by the unregulated drug the new patient invented and rushed to market…that really hits home for that person.
Getting trapped in a storm would put a damper on any road trip. But if a character gets trapped in a storm that’s just like the one that orphaned her when her parents had to drive through it to pick her up from camp because she wouldn’t stop crying…that takes the emotion up several levels.
Your audience wants to feel bad for your characters; they’re looking forward to empathizing with them. Make sure that you give them what they need so that they can.
January 10, 2012
You know that as a screenwriter, you will need to put words on the page to tell your story. You may not, however, need to use quite so many of them.
Writer types (myself included) often love basking in the glow from their sparkling, perfectly obscure, amazingly profound WORDS. Their characters say such amazing, impeccably-timed THINGS. They talk, Talk TALK their way through three acts, telling you not just the plot points you need to know, but also how untouchably brilliant the writer behind that masterpiece is.
Not that we don’t love the Sorkins and Codys of the world. But sometimes, it’s nice to give the words a break.
Hmmm, is it obvious that I watched the new silent film The Artist this week?
The Artist uses maybe 20 lines of spoken or written dialogue in its entire 100 minutes. And yet, despite the fact that we don’t hear crackling wit snapping back and forth between the characters, we always know exactly what’s going on, we’re on board with how characters are feeling and we get to delight in the visual medium that film is.
Without so many words, you get to delight in and focus on all the other ways to tell a story: what characters are wearing, their expressions or what artifacts are in their environments. Characters in fact, can often come to life much more when they are not resting on the crutch of words. Actions, in turn, get to be much more definite, clear and decisive when you don’t have someone in the shot narrating what we’re seeing anyway.
My two favorite sequences in one of my favorite movies, Children of Men, also have no dialogue. In fact, most of the third act of that movie is, apart from score and sound effects, silent. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazingly powerful and nothing any character could say would do those moments justice.
There are so many moments in our own lives that are made powerful not by the clever turn of phrase someone threw together at just the right second, but by what they didn’t say, by what email didn’t come, by who wasn’t at the party, or who was, or the way they just turned away when you showed up and made eye contact. A point, a smile, a frown, a tear, a step away from you, or a subtle scoot toward you, a kiss, a stumble, a something left behind when they thought they had cleaned up all the evidence…these types of things often speak loudly and clearly without using words at all.
Just for fun, try rewriting a scene or two of your latest screenplay without just half the dialogue, or if you’re feeling up to it, no dialogue at all and see how it changes the scene, or the piece entirely.
Thank you for your time this week. In honor of the topic, I’m gonna shut up now.
December 8, 2011
Time is precious in a screenplay, so you want to get as much contextual information (not expositional information) out as quickly as possible. In order to understand your story, the audience will need to know a decent amount about each character’s personality almost immediately.
The wrong way to do this is to have another character provide spoken exposition like the following. Imagine this scene is the first scene in a movie.
INT. AMANDA’S OFFICE – DAY
AMANDA (30s) sits at her desk. Co-worker DARCI enters.
Hey Amanda, since you are too busy and shy to meet anyone since your recent and painful breakup from Mark who works downstairs, I thought I’d invite you to a party tonight. You’ll probably freak out at all the people there since you have social anxiety, but I want to help you since I know that deep down, you really do want to connect with someone.
You will not want to watch the rest of this movie.
The dialogue above is boring, on the nose and takes all the fun out of discovering who a character is.
Following are are five effective ways to introduce your characters to the audience without spelling it out for them. Imagine each example describes the first time we see a character in a movie and notice how much information you can learn without having someone directly say who the character is, what they care about or what they want.
We’ll look at each method with the following characters:
Johnna is a focused and dedicated athlete.
Terri is a fiery and successful politician.
Amanda is sweet, shy and kind of a loner.
Show the character in a situation or environment where they are comfortable.
A character’s positive or relaxed reaction to their environment will tell the audience that this is where they belong, that these are the things that make them happy and, per screenplay logic, the world that will be yanked out from under them later in the movie. You could get a lot of mileage by showing:
• Happily crossing the finish line of a race many seconds ahead of the other competitors.
• Tossing yet another medal onto a pile of trophies
• Doing an ordinary task in an incredibly athletic way.
• Shaking hands at an election event
• Posing for pictures in front of festive bunting
• Hotly debating her barista Lincoln-Douglas style over the benefits of soy vs. nonfat milk in their coffee and earning thunderous applause for her position.
• Happily making a reservation for one at a restaurant
• Engrossed in a book in the company break room while everyone around her chats with each other.
• Doing yoga, bird watching or a crossword on her secluded back porch
Show the character in a situation where they are uncomfortable
By showing us what makes a character uncomfortable, we get a different, but equally as informative view on who they are. You would learn a lot about our characters by seeing:
• Frustratedly coaching beginning athletes who are unable to keep up with her regimen
• Slowly walking a 10K for charity with her aging grandfather.
• Arguing with a teacher who doesn’t believe in ranking students by giving them grades, scores or competitions
• Working with a deaf coworker who can’t hear her ranting
• Getting restless at a stoic, quiet event like a funeral or classical music performance
• Yelling at the TV while members of the opposing political party are talking about perfectly reasonable points.
• Breaking into a cold sweat while trying to give a speech
• Getting startled when strangers politely speak to her on the street
• Trying to hide on a cramped bus full of her rowdy family on their way to a reunion.
Show Us the Character’s Environment
It’s not always necessary to use other characters or dialogue to help define your character. An audience could get a pretty good idea of who they’re about to meet if they see:
• A state of the art gym
• An extensive trophy collection
• A race track just after a race with foot prints and an awards podium still on the field.
• A campaign office filled with posters
• A line of cars in a motorcade
• The UN building
• A simple and sparsely furnished home
• A hidden garden, beach or park
• The exterior of an office building with only one office light on
Show Us an Object Meaningful to the Character
Almost everyone has an item or two in their possession that defines or illustrates who they are. Giving these kinds of objects to characters helps define and illustrate them for audiences. Imagine what people might learn if they see these characters holding, looking at, putting away or taking out:
• A gold medal
• Well-worn boxing gloves, baseball mitts or knee pads
• A leg brace that she puts on reluctantly
• An historic coin
• A picture of her with the President
• A newspaper with a scandalous headline
• A nearly full journal
• A pair of state of the art noise-cancelling headphones that she keeps at work
• A thank you note written on and sealed in beautiful stationery.
Make the Character’s First Line of Dialogue in the Script Emblematic
The first thing a character says should tell us something about them. Instead of just taking up space in the scene, that first line of dialogue should pull the audience into the character’s point of view immediately. Here are some examples of lines that might do that.
• “What do you mean I didn’t win?”
• “I’m only on mile 67, I’ll have to call you back.”
• “I don’t walk cramps off, I scare them off.”
• “I think I’d prefer them to call me ‘Mr.’ President.”
• “While I appreciated the arguments presented, you may still not attend the sleepover as our family vacation will take precedence.”
• “If he says yes to the bill send a flower basket or beer of the month membership or something. If he says no send him to hell.”
• “No…but thank you! I appreciate it, but I shouldn’t…can’t…. I have a … thing…”
• “Can I get three tickets for this flight in a row together…No, just one passenger.”
• Opens her mouth to talk, but can’t get words out—only quiet squeaks. Her coworkers walk away uncomfortably.
November 22, 2011
Q: What should you keep in mind before writing your first screenplay?
Question from EYESthatHEAR on Facebook
1. Screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, there are some prodigies who can whip out a perfectly formed first draft, but most professional writers will spend months or even years on a script before they plug every plot hole, smooth every character arc and crystallize every line. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
2. You are writing a character’s story, not your story. Even if you are writing a story based on your life or the life of someone you know, you will need to give your character their own existence. They shouldn’t do, feel, think or say things simply because you do, feel, think or say those things. Your character needs their own motivations, reactions, faults and desires.
Even stories about famous people are rewritten for dramatic effect. Most people’s lives don’t naturally fit into a three-act structure, so even if you’re basing the story on a personal story, you will have to embellish or even create some details to make a story work.
3. Structure supports your story. Songwriters need to understand music theory to make songs work. Car designers need to understand engine mechanics so they make sure there’s room for one in their latest concept vehicle. Architects need to understand structural principals so that their buildings don’t fall down. Surgeons need to understand how cells interact with each other so they don’t kill their patients.
The same concept goes for screenwriting. In order to make a story work, you have to understand what the parts of a story are, how they work together, where they should fall and why they’re important. Otherwise, you may have a whole bunch of scenes, but not necessarily a working screenplay.
4. Writing a screenplay, selling a screenplay and producing a screenplay are very different things, so know what your end goal is. If you just want to write for the joy of writing, then have at it. If you want to sell your screenplay, finishing the script is only about 50% of the work—because next you’ll have to make and nurture the connections that will lead to a sale. If you want to produce your screenplay, you should make sure that what you’re writing is within your production capabilities—i.e. unless you have access to lots and lots of capital, maybe figure out another way to do that explosion on the moon sequence.
5. You’re in good company. Writing a screenplay is difficult work, but the good news is that lots of people have done it before you. There are plenty of blogs and websites (like this one) that can give you good, solid advice. There are produced writers (like this one) who can mentor you along the way. And there are hundreds of thousands of movies to watch to keep you inspired and writing!
The Sum of All Parts
A fractal is geometric shape that can be broken apart into infinitely smaller versions of itself. They look like this:
They show up in land formations, on some animals, in lightning and in frost patterns. They should show up in your screenplays.
How does a screenplay work like a snowflake, you ask? Well, apart from the fact that it’s unique and its existence requires you to often be cold and transient, the 3-act structure that guides your whole screenplay should also guide each scene.
Your characters should be different at the end of your screenplay than they are at the beginning. At the beginning of your movie, an inciting incident forces the character to act. At the first act turn, they should make a choice that fundamentally changes their trajectory. At the end of the second act, they should, because of their own actions, be at their worst so that they can be redeemed by making a new set of choices through the third act.
Each scene should work this way as well.
The changes and choices will be on a smaller scale, but the same emotional movement should apply.
Your character should be different at the end of each scene than they are at the beginning. If they are not different in some way that means that they’re not changing. And that’s boring. If your character is happy at the beginning of a scene and then, regardless of what happens, is happy at the end of the scene, that indicates that either nothing happened or that your character doesn’t have the ability to react to things that are happening. Also, if your character isn’t changing from scene to scene, then it is unlikely that they will be able to change as a person when you look at the whole screenplay.
Each scene should have an inciting incident—something that makes this scene necessary. Whether your character is answering a phone call, introducing themselves to a new customer or planning how they’re going to jump off a bridge, there must be something new that is happening that your character is reacting to.
Your character should take action. Even if the character chooses to be inactive, the character must do something. The character can choose to answer the phone…or not. They can choose to be nice to the customer, ask the customer a question or throw food in the customer’s face. Or they can use tripadvisor to find the perfect bridge.
Something must happen in each scene that is new or different. The phone call can be from someone unexpected, or from someone expected but who’s delivering unexpected news. The customer can deliver a present, detonate a bomb or propose. All the bridges in the country, your character learns, have been washed away.
Your character must have a physical and emotional reaction. They may hang up the phone, call the police on the customer or decide to start building their own bridge. Whatever they do, they must feel differently at the end of the scene than they did at the beginning. If they were happy before the phone call, they must now be embarrassed or defensive or scared. If they were bored before the customer, they must now be titillated or sad. If they were content before the bridge searching, they must now be determined or vengeful. Whatever the change is, it needs to happen so that the larger change can happen by the end of the screenplay.
Where Are You
As you work on your screenplay, you will notice that your characters will need to be somewhere. Whatever is happening from scene to scene, it must happen in a location that the people in your movie can populate. And since your characters are going to be stuck in these places, why not make those places interesting!
The locations in which your characters appear should not just provide shelter from the elements and a place to hide the boom mic. They should tell us as much about your characters as their dialogue does, they should surprise us and they should provide pressure, inspiration and/or motivation for your characters.
Any location can go from being just a set to being a place unique to your character and story. Even if the location is someplace relatively simple like a bedroom, office or bar, it should still give us additional information about the people we are watching. Why did your character choose this bedroom, office or bar? What specific things are in those places that make your character feel at home…or feel uncomfortable? What photographs, art or random oddity is on the walls, shelves or floor that inform this story? Or, is it a location that your character doesn’t mesh with? What’s in the place that lets us know that? How does your character blend in to or stand out from this location?
Try this to build your locations the same way you build your characters: Think of an office. Let me guess, there’s a big window, a sizeable desk and some sort of Aeron Chair? Nothing wrong with that, but nothing exciting either, what can you do to that office to make it as memorable as your story? Are the walls a strange color? Was it decorated by a hippie? A robot? A child? A prison designer? (Don’t laugh, my dorm was designed by a prison designer. When we were told that, it made a lot of things about the space make much more sense).
Is the window too big or too small, or does it have windows at all? Is the chair one of those kneeling chairs, maybe a yoga ball or is the desk a standing desk? Is the room in disrepair? Is there a friendly spider that lives in one corner that no one has bothered to clear away? Are the plants in good shape or do they all (like every plant I’ve ever touched) have one starkly dead frond that signals its imminent doom? What was in that office before it belonged to your character? A school? A drug ring? A nursery?
While you don’t want to get overly clever and take your viewers out of the story, think of ways to make your location unexpected. For example, if your character is in someplace typically messy like a construction site, is there a way to make the site unusually clean? Or vice versa. If your character is in a typically sterile environment like a hospital, is there a way to make it messy? Are they in a cave that’s bizarrely brightly lit? Or on a porch that was built so that it can’t get any sun? Inside of a sauna whose motor has broken so it’s cold or a walk in freezer that’s malfunctioning so it’s hot?
You should also look at how changing a location changes the feel, importance, urgency or meaning of the scene. I had a director take an argument scene I wrote that was originally set in a car and set it in a guest bathroom during a party. The actors suddenly had way more pressure on them than I gave them and the scene sparkled to life in a whole new way.
What can you do to put your characters someplace where what they’re doing matters in a new way? What’s going on just outside or just off screen of where your characters are? If it is a scene with coworkers, are they at an awkward team-building event instead of the break room? Stuck in a long elevator ride? Locked out on the balcony of an office they weren’t supposed to be in? Participating in a fire drill?
And once you get away from typical locations, you can have even more fun. Are they backstage at a play that has alternately loud and soft scenes? Maybe they’re hired killers practicing at a firing range on the same day that a soccer mom meetup is there? Breaking up during a hot air balloon ride?
These things should not be done at the expense of your story. If your character needs to be in a typical location with typical features, leave her there. Chances are, however, you can take a few chances with location details and make your story even more memorable.
How to Make Sure We Feel For Your Protagonist
If you were to draw your protagonist’s happiness level through the course of your movie, it would look like a right triangle next to a big ol’ rhombus. You know, like this:
Act I, II Act III
The straight line at the bottom is the timeline of your movie and the upward slopes represent your character’s happiness/contentment level through the course of the film. Nevermind about that backward slope on the other end of the rhombus. It doesn’t really enter into this equation; I’m just not that savvy with designing in word.
Here’s what the other shapes are about.
At the beginning of your movie, your main character has a goal. It should be a goal that is difficult for that character to achieve. It could be something that’s universally difficult like becoming President or figuring out cold fusion. Or it could be something that’s simply, for whatever reason, personally difficult for your character like finding a date or getting to White Castle.
During Acts I and II, your character is steadily marching toward this goal. There will be setbacks, but generally, they will be making progress. And they’ll be feeling pretty darn good about it. They’re feeling so good in fact, that when they get to the moments right before the end of Act II, they think they’re about to be as happy as they can be. They’re almost to their goal after all. Why wouldn’t they be pleased as punch?
Because that’s boring. And audiences don’t relate to people who are pleased as punch. And how pleased is punch anyway? In my experience, punch is pretty moody.
And that’s what that big drop-off is about. Your character has to go from being their happiest to being at their lowest point yet. They can’t be ‘kind of bummed out’ or ‘sort of full of ennui.’ They have to be devastated. Not the most devastated a person could possibly be ever. But they most devastated THIS character can be about THIS goal. They have to hurt. It has to be uncomfortable, sad and painful.
Sounds mean, right?
Well, it’s only so we can build them up again.
If someone sets out to achieve a goal and then achieves it without too many problems along the way, it’s hard to relate to or empathize with them. But if they fail big time, like the rest of us humans do, then we have a reason to invest in their recovery and to be thrilled when they pull through.
You’ll notice that the rhombus is bigger than the triangle. That’s not my shoddy design skills coming into play. That one’s on purpose.
During Act III, your protagonist will climb a whole new hill. They’ll have realized that what they thought they wanted wasn’t really what they should have been after. They will have forgotten about their want and be headed for their need.
- If the WANT is the Holy Grail, the NEED is to have faith (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
- If the WANT is to get home/find their son, the NEED is to take risks (Finding Nemo)
- If the WANT is to have a beautiful companion, the NEED is to truly connect to someone’s inner beauty (Pretty Woman)
- If the WANT is justice, the NEED is to not depend on others to see the truth (Shawshank Redemption)
- If the WANT is to be the favorite, the NEED is to accept others for what they have to offer (Toy Story)
Abandoning the want and going after the need will make your character truly content and happier than they thought they could be. But it’s gonna hurt to get there.
What happens in your movie? Both TO the character and IN the character?
When developing a story for a screenplay, you need to make sure that you’re considering both the physical action of the story and the character’s emotional arc. It can be easy to favor one over the other or to neglect one altogether.
I had these conversations with clients recently. Some specifics have been changed to protect the property, but apart from that, here’s how it went.
Me: So tell me about your movie.
Client: Well, it’s set in 1715 on the coast in Japan. It’s about these four women. One’s an acrobat—she has a famous father, one’s an immigrant—her parents were killed in a car crash, one’s an architect—she also loves poetry and one’s a domestic worker who’s about to get engaged.
Me: Okay, so what happens?
Client: Well, they all deal with their lives and they learn to be stronger people.
Me: But what happens?
Client: Well, like the acrobat wonders if she should be following in the family business. The domestic worker wonders if she should really marry this guy—
Me: Okay. But what happens?
Me: So tell me about your movie.
Client: Well, this guy finds out that the material that will save his cat is under the ground in his neighbor’s yard. So first, he calls up the vet, but the thing is the vet is actually a “vet”—like he went to war—so he gets all weird and says that he’ll help him, but only if the guy first helps avenge the death of his fellow soldiers. So the guys go and do that and it turns out that the guy who the vet wants the guy to kill is actually his neighbor, so the guy thinks that’s great because now he can get the mineral that’s in the neighbor’s yard, but the neighbor paves over the entire yard and then the guy’s wife is dying, so the one guy can’t kill the other guy unless he kills the wife too, so he has to go track her down so that he can get them both in the same place and he and the vet go on the road together. So it’s like a buddy comedy with an assassin angle.
Me: Okay. So what happens?
Both of these pitches leave out a key element. The first told us quite a bit about the characters…but lacked plot. The second had the opposite problem.
When developing an idea for a script, your story should have both elements. There should be action and events that your character initiates and deals with. There should also be an emotional transformation as well. Ideally, these two threads are related.
Here are some wildly random examples from real life:
Plot: An up and coming stock broker gets a chance to make millions working for his idol.
Emotion: Once after money, fame and power, Bud learns that what he really wants is his moral fiber and his father’s respect.
The Shawshank Redemption
Plot: A man escapes from prison.
Emotion: A man used to just taking life as it was dealt to him learns to stand up for himself, takes charge of his life and escape physical as well as emotional captivity.
The Change Up
Plot: Two men switch bodies.
Emotion: Best friends come to respect each other while more deeply appreciating their own lives.
The King’s Speech
Plot: A man hires a tutor to fix his speech impediment.
Emotion: A prince who believes he does not deserve the honor of being king overcomes his lack of confidence to accept the throne and lead his country during its most difficult hour.
Plot: A man is hired to go inside a someone’s dream and change his mind.
Emotion: A man must come to terms with the death of his wife…while still seeing her spirit every day at work.
Without the emotional layer, the plots sound kind of boring. And without the action of the plot, the emotions sound kind of schmaltzy. But put them together and you have movie magic!
Well, maybe not with The Change Up, but you get what I’m saying.
Here’s how the first pitch might sound if a plot were added.
Client: Well, it’s set in Japan, 1715. Four women decide that since the country still has a ban on Western literature, they’re going to form an underground book club. They work to smuggle books across the country, teach other women English and hide their meetings from the authorities. The work affects them all differently and as they read stories, they each begin to rewrite the story of their own lives. One realizes that her family’s business is a worthwhile career choice. One realizes that she must break off her wedding. One finally gets up the nerve to publish her own book. And one adopts a child to create the family she didn’t think she deserved.
Now we know the plot of the story: Four friends form a secret club.
And some sense of the emotional through line: By taking a risk, stifled people learn to open up.
The second could be helped like this:
Client: Well, it’s about guy who’s afraid to interact with people so he loves his pet cat more than anything else. In fact, he hates humanity as much as he loves his cat. He hates people so much that when he learns that the only way to save his cat’s life is to kill 2-3 people, he’s willing to do it; so he plans and trains to be hit man. But when he begins to develop relationships with his tutors (the girl who teaches him how to fire a weapon, the guy who helps him get fitted for Kevlar, etc.) he learns that people aren’t so bad after all and faces a tough choice between his cat and his new friends.
Plot: Angry guy becomes a hit man to save his pet’s life.
Emotion: Shy guy learns to connect with people.
Your script will need both of these elements in order to register with audiences. Explosions and plot twists are fun, but it’s the emotion tying it all together that makes it meaningful and memorable.
When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.
When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.
One of the challenges with screenwriting is that it is necessary for your characters to do things. There is a plot to service and so characters are obligated to take various actions. And as humans (or other thinking, feeling entities), your characters will need to puzzle through their decisions, come up with a plan and execute it.
But you know how tedious it is when you’re discussing the pros and cons of the various logistics of your evening with friends? It’s just as tedious to hear characters talking about their logistics as well.
BOB: What should we do for our date tonight?
JANE: Well, we could go to the movies.
BOB: Oh, and then we could get fro yo after that.
JANE: That sounds good. What time will you pick me up? Or should we meet there?
BOB: Why don’t I pick you up at 8 so that we have time to find parking and get good seats.
JANE: Great, see you then.
I was so bored writing the above passage that I just woke my roommates up with my snoring. We don’t know anything about the characters other than their plans for the evening. While the plot has ostensibly been moved forward, we don’t know what it means in terms of character development. We don’t know whose side we’re on, or if the characters are in danger or if they even like each other.
When your characters are deciding to do something, avoid having them list out the details and instead, have them talk about their feelings so we can see how they’re reacting to the situation.
BOB: I cannot wait to see you tonight!
JANE: I’m not sure we should be doing this.
BOB: We’ve waited two years to have one night together, Jane. We can finally act like a normal couple–go to a movie, maybe get some fro yo.
JANE: Argue over where to sit and how much to tip the valet.
JANE: You’re right. I can’t wait to see you tonight.
This time, the scene was so excited, I almost peed my pants.
That’s not true. There was no almost about it.
In the second version of the scene, we still get the basic information: Bob and Jane are going on a date, they’re going to the movies and out for yogurt. But we also get so much more. We know that Bob is excited and Jane is nervous. That there’s something in their past that makes this night special. That Bob is able to convince Jane of his point of view and that Jane acquiesces to Bob without much of a fight. When we do seem them on their date, we will be full of anticipation for them because we’ve been given a description of the stakes of that date.
The second version has plot, character development, tension and movement. The first version does not.
In some genres, heavy and specific logistics are necessary to the storytelling. If you’re writing a procedural, then at some point, the doctor is going to have to explain what she’s doing or the team of detectives is going to have to tell their no-nonsense boss what they’ve found. We can get away with those kinds of moments in procedurals because that information is important and is usually something the audience has been waiting for anyway. But if you’re not writing the next Law and Order: Phoenix/Toronto/Master Bedroom, then make sure that any logistical information your characters talk about tells us more than the next scene’s agenda.