This was first posted on May 15, 2008. Needless to say, it still resonates.
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!