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.