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.