One of your principal goals as a screenwriter is to create stories that audiences find unforgettable. Easier said than done. What makes the best movies hard to forget? Certainly, consistently great acting in exceptionally photographed shots, edited so that the story is clear and compelling will set a motion picture apart. Great plotting is requisite. Best of all is if the tale taps into a deep vein of emotion in the audience.
The above may seem simplistic and obvious, but of the tens of thousands of scripts registered every year by the WGA only a smattering are ever optioned, and fewer than that get greenlit. So, what can you do to give your work the edge it needs to attract a producer’s attention? What should you concentrate on to make your screenplays memorable?
Aside from coming up with a gripping story to tell (if your story isn’t captivating, then you may well be sunk before you start), I believe you must focus on the following three storytelling elements that I find are most frequently ignored, glossed over, or left entirely out of screenplays. I urge you to concentrate on what I call the 3-Cs: Character, Conflict, and Catharsis.
1) CHARACTER: I see it time and again in my screenwriting classes: a student will come up with a good, viable story concept, but become so excited about it that he or she will neglect to develop solid, three-dimensional characters. Instead, the protagonist and antagonist turn out to be pale imitations of characters we’ve all seen before in plays, movies, and TV shows. We must never forget that the audience wants to invest their time and energy on characters that they care about. This can only be achieved if your characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, are unique, complex, whole individuals. Understanding such depth of character usually requires a lot of thought and development.
As I say in Beating Hollywood, to draw an audience deeply into a story a screenwriter must find a way to elicit empathy for the protagonist (and probably some of the other characters, too). No one expressed this necessity for character empathy more succinctly than Blake Snyder did when he coined the catchy phrase, “Save the Cat.” Even an unpleasant jerk of a character can be transformed into a watchable protagonist by having him or her do something we believe we would do, or want done to us or for us.
Don’t believe me? Watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to see Jack Nicholson pull off an awesome trick as a crazy, but eminently watchable scoundrel named R.P. McMurphy. I don’t think too many people would desire spending any quality time with that guy – unless it’s by watching him on a screen from the comfort of a chair in a movie theatre or at home. And yet we, the audience, must identify and empathize with an unsavory character like McMurphy. Oscar winning screenwriters Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben achieved that by making McMurphy carefree and in search of a good time for himself and his fellow asylum mates. We like how good he is to the other patients, and how he defends them from their group nemesis, Nurse Ratched.
In order to develop characters deeply, you must know and understand the three dimensions of character – physiology, sociology, and psychology. By developing three-dimensional characters your screen story is likely to come alive by virtue of fully understanding what makes your characters tick. For more about how to develop 3D characters, as I recommend in Beating Hollywood, read Lajos Egri’s seminal work, The Art of Dramatic Writing.
2) CONFLICT: No conflict equals no drama. No drama equals no box office. No box office equals no career as a screenwriter.
Many writers don’t understand the importance of conflict. The audience has to sense that the protagonist is constantly undergoing a struggle to reach his or her goal. It can never be easy for the protagonist to get what he or she wants. Easy accomplishments are unrewarding to an audience.
So, what is conflict? Is it two boxers in the ring mercilessly pounding each other? Is it verbal assault? Is it a married couple screaming at one another? Is it military action? Is it a wild chase in fast cars? Is it gangsters in the street shooting at one another? The answer, of course, is “yes” to all of the above. But those examples are obvious. Conflict is often subtler.
All you need to know about conflict is that a character wants something and something else blocks the character’s path to getting it. We all experience such obstacles to our desires on a regular basis; some conflicts are more significant than others. Conflict allows audiences to relate and empathize with a character struggling mightily to achieve a goal.
Fill every moment of your story with roadblocks that prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her goal (which should be established during the Catalyst), and you will be well down the road toward finding an interested producer. Keep in mind that we want the protagonist to succeed—but never easily. Don’t be afraid to make your protagonist go through hell and back to get what he or she desperately wants.
3) CATHARSIS: This comes from the Greek word Katharsis, which generally means to purge or relieve emotions. Catharsis is what we feel when a story reaches its resolution and we sense a burden has been lifted from us. If you’ve ever walked out of a theater after watching a great movie and felt as if you were floating on air, then you have experienced catharsis.
I believe catharsis is the main reason people go to movies and plays, watch TV, read books, and enjoy the arts in general. We all seek a way to get outside of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of others (characters) and to experience a kind of relief from our challenging lives. Catharsis does exactly that. Movies that deliver a killer catharsis tend to do extremely well at the box office.
Be aware that writers must allow their protagonists to earn the catharsis. Reaching a resolution to any goal (which must be set during the story’s Catalyst) can neither be easy nor merely handed to the protagonist. He or she must work hard to realize their goal by overcoming the aforementioned many obstacles (conflicts) in the way.
Be aware that it doesn’t matter if the protagonist gets what he or she wants (the much sought after Hollywood “happy ending”) or if the conclusion to the story resolves unhappily. In either case there must be a powerful sense of relief that the protagonist has made it through the story’s arduous journey, and that a satisfying resolution has been achieved.
So, as you set out to craft your next screenplay, try to to fully engage in the 3-Cs – Character, Conflict, and Catharsis. Make every effort to develop unique characters in conflict with other unique characters, then be sure the protagonist seeks a powerful goal through to a clear resolution (either positive or negative) that results in a deeply felt release of emotions. If you do, you may possibly receive both monetary reward and maybe a shiny gold statuette or two.
Now go write something unforgettable that we can all enjoy! I hope that you will beat the long odds in Hollywood.