You’ve done the hard work on your screenplay: You’ve plotted, written, and rewritten it to as close to a near death experience as a screenplay can achieve, and yet it’s just not there yet. When those few amazing folks who actually DO read screenplays get back to you, they don’t have the kind of feedback you need. “How was it?” – “It was good.” – “What do you mean by ‘good’?” – “You know, I liked it.”
“It was far out, man…”
Rarely do we struggling screenwriters ever get the kind of feedback we need; someone to tell us just how badly we pooped the bed and where. Most people who read screenplays aren’t screenwriters, so they don’t have the insight needed to break the truth to you.
I can break that truth to you right now in three points, and it isn’t pretty:
(Or ‘What are the three things wrong with every screenplay?)
#1) No Inciting Incident.
Simplest mistake most screenwriters make. Depending on what source you subscribe to (and whether or not you’re a time traveller) the ‘inciting incident’ should appear no later than pg 12, ideally on pg 7, and in this modern era of Michael Bay edits and trick openings, some argue it needs to appear on pg 3. But what is it exactly? The inciting incident is the ‘call to action’ from Joseph Campbells’ assessment, only it applies to your whole story. The ‘Inciting Incident’ needs to mark the change from ‘regular, everyday life’ to the story your screenplay is telling. Without the inciting incident, the story doesn’t get moving, because there is no story to tell until it has come to pass. Princess Leia loading the Death Star plans into R2-D2? Inciting incident. (Without it, the Tantive IV is captured, the plans are retrieved, and ‘Rogue One’ was an ultimately pointless endeavour) The (original) Ghostbusters encounter with the Library spook? Inciting Incident. (If not, they’d never have the ‘confirmation’ and data they need to prove that their ‘ghost catching’ theory can be applied to real life). In Die Hard, McLean’s choice to go to Holly’s work rather than meet her at home is what sets off his participation in the whole scenario = Inciting incident.
The inciting incident needs to be something that clearly defines where the change from the protagonists normal routine to the story you are telling occurs. In discussing a script with a client recently, we were trying to sort through where the inciting incident was in his script. He needed his protagonist to move from not having accesses to the resources he needed to having access to those resources and getting started on his quest. I told him that gaining access to those resources WAS his inciting incident, it just needed to be handled in a cinematic, interesting way. The client suggested that the protagonist could receive a phone call, letting him know he had access to those resources. I did my best to let the client know that unless it was the MOST EPIC PHONE CALL in movie history, that wasn’t going to cut it in terms of piquing the audience (and the readers’) interest. Simply having someone in your story say ‘Okay, go!’ isn’t enough for an inciting incident. The audience needs to know that after the ‘thing’ that starts it all, the protagonist’s world will never be the same again.
“Wait, it says you’re rebooting. Okay, just need to complete these 74 adobe updates and then the inciting can begin!”
#2) Trying to do the Impossible
Working on a horror/thriller with another filmmaker. Got to the point where we needed to start developing the villains in the story, and my colleague became sidetracked by the notion that the villains shouldn’t be ‘villains’. They wanted to create richly three dimensional people whose actions were driven by deep seated motivations and beautifully crafted character moments. Great idea, great intention, wrong genre. When it comes to horror/thriller’s, the villains are integral, but not in the way the main-body characters are. My colleague wanted to place a dramatically developed set of villains into the story, yet wondered why they weren’t meshing with the horror world we were trying to create. Villains require thought and depth, for sure, but they need to operate as per the genre you’re working in. If they’re as three dimensional and sympathetic as the protagonists, what you probably have is a drama, not a horror/thriller.
Working on another crime feature with a writer/director, I learned that it was their intention to ‘switch’ protagonists by the third act, turning who you THOUGHT the protagonist was into the antagonist, and raising a supporting character to the protagonist role. When I asked the writer/director if they could think of ANY examples from existing films where this kind of approach worked, they weren’t able to produce any. (Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is the only example that comes to mind, and this writer/director was no Hitchcock.) This isn’t about telling writers not to be original, far from it, but it IS about making sure they understand the structure and boundaries of what they are trying to do. If you want to make a horror movie, make a horror movie. If you want to make a cop drama, make a cop drama, but don’t try to make it the most ‘thoughtful, in depth examination of the nature of horror between human and monster’ if that’s not what the story is really about. Know your style, know your genre. People upend the status quo when they strike upon something truly unique and inspirational, not when they set out to show everyone just how creative they are. Cliches exist and work for a reason. Use them.
“Then Rainbow Dash claimed the EVIL Allspark, and knew from that moment her desire to make the greatest pie in the world for her dying mother could not be stopped by mere mortality.”
#3) Your Protagonist sucks
Seriously, they probably do. Creating an intriguing protagonist is easily the hardest part of any of this, not because people can’t do it, but because they often don’t realize they have to. I finished a TV pilot a short while back that involved a very much ‘fish out of water’ protagonist with a big secret in their backstory. The main idea was to keep the audience guessing until the 3rd episode reveal of the protagonists big secret. I was so proud of how I interwove the ‘truth’ of this character versus the deception of the feint I was trying to employ, and I awaited praise for my amazing talents from my readers. The result? Turns out my protagonist was the LEAST drawn of all the ensemble. My attempts to keep details mysterious/hidden left the character feeling flat and empty. A great friend of mine pointed out that if the audience KNEW what the big secret was from the start, even if the other characters didn’t know, that would go a long way to generating tension and suspense in their interactions. I was sabotaging exactly what I was trying to do, thinking I was being clever.
But how did I get to the end of a 74 pg TV pilot without realizing this? My protagonist participated in action, drove the plot and made critical decisions all exactly where she was supposed to. The story that happens around her is big, bold, full of action and peril, but the readers didn’t connect with her. Because I, the writer, knew what her deal was, and I saw all the ways she interacted with the other characters and plot, I completely missed the fact that others who don’t know her deal couldn’t connect with her. I thought my protagonist was the bomb, but she still needed work.
I see this problem, and the flip side of a totally boring protagonist, very often. Scripts that come from ‘a big idea’ or ‘a theme I really want to talk about’ usually have the ‘boring protagonist’ problem: Because the story is so much more about ‘what happens’ rather than ‘who it happens to’. If you’re Star Wars, it’s easy to get away with a boring protagonist (Yes, Luke Skywalker is NOT all that interesting. He’s a whiny farm kid who gets caught up in galactic politics. Good thing everyone and everything else around him is pretty damn amazing, because otherwise the ‘Luke Skywalker: A Star Wars Story’ movie would be a true snore. Now if you’re writing something that involves space-travel, laser weapons, rich world building and space-magic, you can probably get away with having a somewhat dull protagonist. But even THEN, you should STILL try, because you’re doing your work a disservice otherwise. Story comes from character, and if your character is a throwaway or not really important, then your story is probably the same. If the character is interesting, the audience will be on board with almost ANYTHING you want to do.
Just think of Jordan Belfort in ‘The Wolf of Wallstreet’. He’s a greedy, womanizing, profiteering criminal, but the audience loves him. Why? Because he’s interesting. Because we all know someone like him, who will take all the credit and reward but never their share of the responsibility or blame. He doesn’t let the world of high-finance tell his story, he IS the story. What about the ‘The Narrator’ in ‘Fight Club’ (Spoiler alert: The Narrator is Tyler Durden. Ed Norton is Tyler Durden.) He’s a useless, hopeless schmuck, yet the audience relates to how comfortably pathetic he is, especially in the beginning. He is the true ‘everyperson’ the story needs, and is captivating in how much he wants to change his life, without knowing anything about how to do it. How about Ellen Ripley in ‘Alien’? She’s a career crewhand like the rest of her co-workers, but while John Hurt and Yaphet Kotto argue about how much they’re going to make from their latest haul, Ripley is concerned with protocol, following the rules. Normally this would NOT be the sign of an excellent protagonist, but when compared to the other cast membes, Ripley’s moral compass stands out. (And if they had all listened to her and kept Kane, Dallas and Lambert OUTSIDE the Nostromo Lander for 24 hours, the alien would’ve never made it inside and the entire franchise wouldn’t exist – unless you presuppose the events of ‘Prometheus’ have already happened, in which case…)
Even if the rest of your film is terrible, the audience will remember a good protagonist. Take time and care crafting yours. You won’t regret it.
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Writers conquer the world, one story at a time.