Editors Note: This article was originally posted on the ScriptFest Blog. It is reproduced here with permission.
By Signe Olynyk (@Screenwriter12)
Adrift in a raft with a hungry tiger. Surviving in a downed helicopter in the middle of a Somalia war zone. Stealing the moon.
Does your protagonist have an impossible goal? Have you pushed her as far into the corner as you can, and then poked her with a stick? Have you set up a situation that has high stakes, and goals that are out of this world? In Despicable Me, the goal was literally to ‘steal the moon.’ Great! Now try pushing just a little bit more.
In Wild, written by Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed, the protagonist has embarked on the awesome task of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And then she loses her boot.
In Life of Pi, based on the novel written by Yann Martel and screenplay by David Magee, Piscine Patel is uprooted from his home in India where his family ran a zoo. When he, his family, and many of the animals from their zoo cross the Pacific by ship and a massive storm destroys the boat, he finds himself alone and lost at sea, trapped on a raft with a hungry tiger. As if things weren’t tough enough!
Great drama, right? Why? Because these exceptional writers have created impossible obstacles for their protagonists to overcome. They have created fascinating characters and put them into fantastic situations, and we are compelled to see what happens. Let’s brainstorm. In other words, let’s make a list.
Think of the most impossible situation you can. Like being trapped on a raft with a tiger, for instance. Let’s explore some of what your character might do to survive.
What to do if trapped on a raft with a tiger?
- Stay awake!
- Stay in the water!
- Feed the tiger so it won’t eat you!
- Use your skills as a trainer to dominate the tiger into submission.
- Keep the tiger seasick by feeding it salt water.
- Find land so that you can go your separate ways.
Wonderful – and that’s only a partial list. Now let’s look at what happens if any of the above situations happen. What are the consequences?
- If I fall asleep, the tiger will eat me.
- If I fall asleep, I fall into the water where sharks will eat me.
- If I stay in the water, sharks will eat me.
- I don’t feed the tiger, it will eat me.
- If I don’t train the tiger, it will eat me.
- If I don’t keep the tiger sick, the tiger will eat me.
- If I don’t find land, we will both die. Birds will eat me.
I sense a theme. Getting eaten is a very serious problem! The point is, our hero is in very real jeopardy. And he must make bold choices to overcome his situation. The stakes need to increase in severity, and the risks become greater as the story progresses. And that, my friends, is why we love stories. We watch movies to see characters grow. And they do that by making choices and overcoming serious obstacles.
Let’s make another list – what are some impossible goals you can think of?
- To cheat death
- To bring back the dead
- To launch a nuclear war
- To eat 1,000 hot dogs
Now how could your character attempt to reach these goals? In Despicable Me, written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio based on the story by Sergio Pablos, Gru’s goal was to ‘steal the moon.’ How the heck is he going to do that?! By inventing a shrink ray, of course! Impossible goals sometimes require impossible solutions. It’s your job as a writer to come up with them and make them believable.
Today’s exercise is to come up with your own list of impossible goals, and then come up with as many ideas as possible for how your character can reach them. Try switching your characters. How would an ice cream vendor cheat death, compared to an attorney? How would a little boy cause a nuclear war, compared to a pet hamster? By brainstorming the impossible, you create characters and stories we haven’t seen before, and our lives are all enriched for it.
I hope you will be as brave as your characters, fellow writers. Make difficult choices. Put yourself in impossible situations. Reach for goals that seem unattainable. Overcome impossible odds. When you do, you grow. You show character with the decisions you make. And we all want to see stories from people so brave, funny, and smart.
I leave you with these lyrics from Joe Darion and composer, Mitch Leigh. I hope you’ll think of them as your characters pursue their own impossible goals. Happy writing, everyone! Sing it, Frankie!