What are you afraid of?
I ask because I’m in the middle of writing Save the Cat! Strikes Back (the third and maybe best Cat! yet) and it suddenly occurs to me what many a movie hero has in common — at least at the start of the story — and that’s fear.
Fear in a thousand forms is part of so many hero’s stories when we meet them — from fear of failure revealed in a braggart (Ryan Gosling in Fracture) to fear of financial insecurity (when Paul Newman trolls for business at a funeral in The Verdict) to a funny corporate lab rat’s fear of a stifling future (Ron Livingston in Office Space).
And each tale is the story of how the hero gets rid of that fear by confronting it.
It’s one of the reasons we tell stories — so the hero can go through this horrible process for us — and we don’t have to! The hero can show us how it’s done.
And we get to watch and pick up tips on how he did it, all from the comfort of our plush red velvet seats.
Exploring fear in the hero of your story shows where the story really is. And making those moments ring true starts with figuring out something you might not have considered — facing your own fears!
We too are mired in fear, often hidden behind all manner of acting out. We know instinctively that our fears must be dealt with, and yet to stare down what we fear is worse than limping along with it!
Which is another reason we admire those who finally face the muzak.
The climax of many a well-told tale is that exact thing — when the hero confronts what scares him most. And as writers we can reverse engineer our stories in re-writes to make these moments even more on point. Who knows if wonderful Roy Scheider’s character in Jaws started out “afraid of water,” but it made his winding up in the drink, along with a killer shark, that much better of a story. And his deed that much greater.
And that goes for us too.
Any time we do something we think we can’t, we get stronger. Facing our fears adds gravitas to our lives, and more to the point of this blog, to our writing. When we tap into that moment we stood up to a bully, said the glaringly obvious thing everyone else was afraid to say, or simply had faith enough to lift our foot up off the bottom of the pool and trusted we would float, we are emboldened.
And that goes right into our writing.
Take a look at a favorite movie and ask what the hero is afraid of when he starts, and how that fear is confronted. You’ll be surprised. It’s what explains the superhuman qualities of Bruce Willis in Die Hard, who isn’t as afraid of dying as he is of losing his wife! It’s why “fear of being ordinary” drives Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and why the outcome of that film is all the more poignant for it. It even explains silly comedies, for fear can be funny too. So long as even the silliest hero faces what he is most afraid of!
And by looking at our own fears, even minor ones, we can put that experience into our work. No, it doesn’t have to be fear of bungee jumping. For you, a much more horrible fate could be public speaking, apologizing for a past misdeed, telling the truth… or showing someone your new screenplay!
By looking at our fears, and facing them, we can be bold in our writing… and in life!
- Matthys Boshoff
Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes.
The thing the character fears is very often the element that sculps the character from flat to 3 or multi-dimensional.
Think about Indy…
- Matthys Boshoff
It creates the paradox in the character.
Fear is usually a reactive force. In overcomming his fear, the character learns to live proactively…
I’ve written many many scenes for this story. I have even better scenes still in my head that I have yet to write.
Thank you Matthys, and Blake of course, for helping me to put those scenes into perspective.
I have had SO much help with this story. SO much brilliance poured out to me.
That said, I’m gonna get this write…Ret
It seems many films start with a hero afraid of something – water, say – and then really crank it up as the film moves forward and especially during the confrontation scene. Example – Jaws – if Roy Scheider is afraid of water, let’s envision the confrontation scene with him not just in the water, but in the water aboard a slowly sinking ship in a battle for his life against some horrible, man-killer shark. Now, he’s not only in the water, but he’s about to be drowned AND eaten – legs first. He thought he was just afraid of the water…but now…”How would you like to come down here and shovel this s***?”
I agree that defining the protagonist’s fear is a great divining rod for writing a story. I see that fear morphing, much like the hero’s goal:
Saving Private Ryan – First they’re afraid for their lives in general
just being soldiers; then they’re afraid they are putting themselves
at even greater risk hunting down a merely ordinary soldier
Schindler’s List – First he’s afraid he will lose business during the
war, then he’s afraid for others’ lives and that he won’t save enough
Goodfellas – First he’s afraid he won’t be accepted and/or successful;
then he’s afraid it’s all falling apart and he’ll get caught
E.T. – First he’s afraid of E.T., then that he’ll be found and taken
from him, then that they will kill E.T. and himself (because of his
“connection” to him)
Dead Calm – In their grief, they fear they won’t recover. Then, when
they’re separated at sea, they fear (among other things) that they may
die AND never see each other again
Is the hero’s fear and his goal always two sides of the same coin?
- Stephen Todoro
Great reminder, Blake! I was working on a section of script that seemed flat and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I read your blog on the element of fear and there was my answer! When I realized that, it was easy to put myself in the place of the main character and let the fear get the creativity going. It all goes back to your point of primal urges getting our attention. When in doubt, get down to the primal and it will open you up!
The fear I have has already been written about by Stephen King and has already been made into a movie….’IT’
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I studied a lot of Michael Hauge before discovering STC. The most profound statement that he’s made (according to me) is on one of his DVDs. He says:
“Be willing to be afraid”. Hauge
Now here I hear:
“By looking at our fears, and facing them, we can be bold in our writing…” Blake
How do you look at *your* fear, face it, and boldly incorporate it into the life of a character?
Let’s see if I’m on the right track. Let’s say that my fear is…FEAR OF POVERTY. (not that it is, I’m just let’s saying).
I’ve made my Protag a workaholic, because he doesn’t want to die poor. He had a very piss poor entrance into this world (welfare paid for it). He wants to leave, when the time comes, with dignity. He wants a tombstone.
How did I do? Does this ^ come close to what you mean?
Even so, I still don’t understand what Hauge is discussing: “Be willing to be afraid.” I stare blankface.