by Eric Edson (The Story Solution)
When you sit down to write a movie, sometimes you’ve got so many great characters running around in your head – all doing terrific stuff while you chase after them to get it written – that it’s easy to lose track of one particular character you should maybe keep an eye on. Your lead.
If the protagonist mostly stands around watching everybody else whiz past, you’ve got a story problem.
I rank a Passive Central Character as one of the major assassins of new screenplays.
That’s why I harangue my graduate students in our Cal State Northridge Screenwriting program to remember this: your hero or heroine must always take purposeful dramatic action and lead the way in every scene of every movie you write. Movies must move, and you’ve only got about 100 minutes of screen time. Just focus on the deeds undertaken by your protagonist that drive the storyline forward. All other characters function solely as story assistants who either serve to support or attack the hero’s efforts.
Even in those few scenes where the lead may not physically be present – say, a cutaway moment to see what the scheming adversary is up to – conflict taking place there still must relate directly to the action your heroine or hero is pursuing elsewhere at that moment.
So in any film story that works, the protagonist needs to have a physical, three-dimensional goal they’re chasing after.
The hero often has an inner goal, too. There’s a struggle going on inside the lead character, some personal emotional conflict that must be overcome in order to reach their outer goal. Lots of good movies have this character growth going on. But just like with outer goals, in film stories only active behavior can reveal the heroine’s inner struggle.
That way, the audience can watch it happen. It’s what makes a story a movie and not a novel.
And your protagonist must want to reach their goal a who-o-o-le lot. High stakes are incredibly important in movies – meaning that if the protagonist does not achieve the goal, something awful will happen.
Then the critical task for your hero becomes fighting everything and everyone standing in the way of their attempt to stop that Very Bad Thing from taking place.
What sort of specific goal you choose depends on the genre of your story, of course. But in all genres there are really only four goal categories that work well: Win, Stop, Escape, or Retrieve.
Now before you start hollering in protest at this idea, let me add that each of the four categories contains thousands of more specific versions of these goals you can explore. There’s a slue of ways to WIN. Scads of ways to RETRIEVE. Take a close look at the protagonist’s main story goal in any hugely successful movie and you’ll see that all of those goals, in fact, fit into one of these four general categories.
It’s because only these four broad goals supply a physical, visible finish-line. They provide a clear endpoint for any story, and your audience craves resolution.
The Awful Thing your lead must prevent can range from the destruction of planet Earth, to the loss of the protagonist’s one true love. But whether you’re writing a small family story or a sci-fi epic, the hero’s physical pursuit of some high stakes goal is essential.
Lucky for us humans, we can experience a psychological phenomenon called “identification.” As an audience, we project ourselves emotionally into the heroine or hero and in our imagination we become the protagonist so we can personally live out their adventure. That’s what elevates any story to one we can really care about.
It’s why we all love the movies so much! We get to experience a tale from inside the perspective and emotions of a worthy hero.
The protagonist can gather other secondary ally characters to help out on their crusade, sure. But your lead must take complete responsibility for choosing, then pursuing, each story action. If the hero leaves it up to others to do all the heavy plot-lifting, audiences will soon lose interest.
For an example, think A Wrinkle In Time. It’s a visually gorgeous, deeply felt and sincerely well-intentioned movie. But it stumbled at the box office because, for all the marvelous acting, the story as written had a mostly passive central character.
If you enjoy spending time with protagonists who sit around feeling lots of stuff but who don’t really get around to doing very much, read 19th century novels. I love those books, too. But just be aware that novels and movies communicate story in very, very different ways.
Now I am NOT saying that your lead can never sit down or have a kick-back moment. Sure they can. A plot action-line needs pace variation just like a symphony does. But even in the quieter moments purposeful dramatic action must press the story onward.
So, yep, in visual storytelling your hero or heroine must avoid passivity at all costs. Both physically and emotionally, they gotta keep moving.
Eric Edson has written seventeen feature screenplays on assignment. He is Professor of Screenwriting at California State University, Northridge and co-creator of the MFA in Screenwriting program there. Eric’s book The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take provides concrete insights about writing a screenplay and is currently #1 in its category on China Amazon. Eric’s in-depth interview with Film Courage can be found on YouTube. Visit his website The Story Solution to download a complimentary book chapter and to see video clips. “Like” the Facebook page to receive tips on scriptwriting.