Starting your story with a bang: the Inciting Incident vs. Plot Point 1

Famous temper: Sonny (James Caan) tells somebody outside the family what he’s thinking

One thing we scriptwriters are told ad nauseum is that we have to go all out in the first ten pages; if we fail to grab the reader in those first ten pages, our poor beleaguered script reader – be they a producer, development exec or agent’s assistant – will skim the rest or simply hurl it at the nearest wall.

But how many films or television shows get made that don’t grab us in the first ten minutes, if at all?

Another example of how the odds are stacked against emerging writers and demonstrates, as if we needed reminding, just how difficult it is to get a break in this industry.

Yes, the first ten pages are very important – but not as important as the rest of the first act.

In this article, we are going to look at the relationship between the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1; the first ten pages are mere window dressing compared to these bad boys. They are almost dismissed sometimes as little more than ‘set-up’, warm-up acts for the all-powerful Act II, but they are vitally important to your story – do them both well and you will have a story that keeps readers and audience hooked for a great deal longer than ten minutes.

Possibly the greatest film ever made, The Godfather is nearly three hours long, unfailingly epic in the scale of its action set-pieces and the breadth of its cast, and closes with an awe-inspiring orgy of violence in its famed baptism-of-fire montage.

It is strange then that, when asked to pinpoint the Inciting Incident that kick-starts the story, most people get it wrong.

The Inciting Incident is the hook that drags the main character into the story or starts his or her journey; the point of no return; the catalyst for the film’s second act.

‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?’

Most stories have only one protagonist, so the story becomes defined by that character’s Want and Need; there is a central dilemma and our hero or heroine evolves and develops through their responses to that dilemma.

Remember, your main character has to desire something badly – it is not simply enough that he or she wants to win/achieve/succeed at something. They must want it so badly that it means everything. The struggle to win/achieve/succeed at whatever this something is, due to obstacles you place along the way, creates conflict and conflict makes for powerful, dramatic scenes that keep the audience hooked. To what extent the protagonist’s plight arouses the audience’s empathy and reflects aspects of their own lives back at them, how high the stakes are regarding whatever it is they desire and how thrillingly and enticingly the obstacles are overcome will reveal your skill and talent as a writer.

In an ensemble piece, however, with several key characters jostling each other for position in the story, it isn’t that simple.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film is a good example of an ensemble story, with a myriad significant characters and players strutting their stuff on an epic stage.

It cannot be defined simply as one character beating a path determinedly to a badly wanted goal.

It is a rich tapestry of goals and conflicts and desires; an exploration of the duality of family and business in the lives of organised criminals; perhaps, more than anything, it is about the passing over of power between father and son, respect versus legitimacy, the sheer thrilling trajectory of a character’s corruption from war hero to Mafioso Don.

The challenge, when you are writing an ensemble drama, is to make each character’s story as compelling and dramatic as possible and to write with a common theme that binds them together satisfyingly.

If the spine of The Godfather, despite its ensemble cast and majestic sprawl, details the engagement of the Don’s youngest son, Michael, into the family business and his rise to power, surely the Inciting Incident, or first key plot point, that triggers Michael’s entry into the mob business is the Don, his father, being shot five times while buying oranges from a market stall.

Wrong.

The Don being shot is the turning point at the end of Act I – let us call it Plot Point 1, though you may have a different name for it. It is the consequence of the Inciting Incident.

Hot for the deal: Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) seizes upon Sonny’s mistake

  • So what is the relationship between the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1, and why do we care?

Regardless of whether you are writing a novel or a script or a play, it is these two components that work together in tandem to forge a successful opening act. Without this successful first act, you won’t have an audience or readership for the second and third.

So, the Inciting Incident hooks the main character in some way; whatever it is, it upsets the balance of your protagonist’s existence. More often that not, he or she is the passive part of the equation: something happens to them. They are then faced with a dilemma and must decide whether or not to take action, and the turning point at the end of the act – or, in the case of The Godfather, the start of the second act – is that they will take action and this drives the story onward.

It doesn’t matter precisely when this event happens, but you will usually find something significant must happen to the main character within twenty minutes, and sometimes sooner than that.

This event has a consequence… which is Plot Point 1 or the turning point at the end of the first act, which sends him or her off into the rest of the story.

So, let us return to The Godfather:

Sollozzo, or ‘The Turk’ as he is known, meets with the Corleone family, where he asks for a million dollars in cash, political influence and legal protection for the Tattaglias’ proposed heroin-trafficking venture.

Don Corleone turns Sollozzo down and tells him why. ‘Drugs is a dirty business,’ he says. Sollozzo tells him the Tattaglia family will guarantee his million-dollar investment, to which Sonny jumps in, in typically hot-headed fashion, and says: ‘You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment-?’

The Don, as played by Marlon Brando in unquestionably his most satisfying characterisation, realises immediately the grave error his eldest son and heir has made. Once Sollozzo has left the room, he calls Sonny back in and scolds him: ‘Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.’

But the damage has been done.

It is the attempt made on the Don’s life that calls Michael to action, faces him with a dilemma: whether or not to engage with the family business. At the start of the film, he distances himself from such criminality when he says: ‘That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.’ At the hospital, he alone has the intelligence to realise his father is in danger and he acts accordingly, moving his bed, pretending to stand outside like an armed bodyguard. He gets his jaw broken by Captain McCluskey, the corrupt cop on the payroll of one of the rival families and, businesslike all of a sudden, coolly hatches a plan of revenge.

Later, Michael meets up with Sollozzo, in the car with McCluskey, en route to the Italian restaurant where Michael plans to shoot them both, and we cannot help but ruminate upon the way Sollozzo told Tom Hagan: ‘Sonny was hot for my deal, wasn’t he?’ It is Sonny’s indiscretion, and this single line he utters in particular, that leads to the assassination attempt on the old Don’s life, which embroils Michael inexorably in the business his father never intended him to be a part of.

CL

How mastering the art of outlines will make you a better writer

 

Un Prophete 2009

The rewriting process can be a long hard slog; you need to be disciplined, in the early stages of your writing process, to work your material in such a way so that it doesn’t make rewriting it much more of a headache later on.

When you are sending out your work, sometimes you will be asked to send a treatment or summary or synopsis to accompany the script. In a future article we will discuss the challenges of mastering these and other selling documents and the pitfalls to avoid when writing them.

But in this article we are focusing on a selling document that is purely for you, the writer.

Writing effective outlines is crucial – as is working out your own methods to aid you in your progression from an initial idea to the point where you are ready to start writing.

Firstly, it is important to ask yourself why you are writing this particular tale now.

Do you have a beginning for your character’s story? Why does it have to begin right here at this point?

In a screenplay, your story starts on this particular day at this particular moment for a reason – and you have to make this reason explicitly clear.

A Prophet (2009) begins as Malik arrives at prison to start his six year sentence for attacking police officers.

Avatar (2009) begins with Jake’s arrival on Pandora after the six year journey there from Earth.

If…. (1968) begins with the chaos of the boys’ return to school after the freedom of the summer holidays.

Let yourself go with your main character. Set your protagonist free and see where he or she leads you.

Be bold and confident in the manner in which you introduce your characters as well. Don’t offer a half-baked rehash of something you’ve seen before; engineer ways of making your character hit the ground running at the start of their journey – and come in on them as late as you possibly can so you grip the audience from the outset.

A man is out jogging in a snow-covered Central Park. He slows, drops dead of a heart attack. Elsewhere, at the same time, a baby boy is born. (Birth)

A man enters a café and buys a coffee. A news bulletin on TV reports the death of the last human born on the planet. The man exits to a busy London street in 2027, pours some whisky into his coffee and suddenly the café behind him erupts in a massive bomb blast, killing everyone inside. (Children of Men)

5 Beats of Character

Once you have a clear Want for your character, it should be easier to construct obstacles that hinder his or her achieving it.

For example, let’s look at The Hunt (2012), about Lucas, a teacher wrongfully accused of molesting one of his young pupils.

In this brilliant film, the question the audience is asking themselves, by the end of the first act, is: Will Lucas be able to convince everyone that he is innocent?

So his Want is clear: he wants to convince everyone of his innocence.

Without spoiling the story for those who haven’t yet seen the film, you can imagine the fallout that would result from such a revelation, and, as a writer, you could put various obstacles in the way of Lucas as he attempts to clear his name – mistrust from people in the community, an internal investigation at school, police investigation, breakdown of personal relationships, straining of already fraught family relationships, a compelling accuser, perhaps even media hysteria, ostracism, violence or worse.

But if you are struggling with your main character, one helpful way to tap into the major events of the journey they are on is what I call the 5 beats of Character. We will discuss this in more detail in a future article, but let’s touch on it briefly here.

There is a reason why you are shining a light on this particular stretch of his or her life: you should therefore be able to discern a beginning to the tale. Can you also deduce roughly where the story is going to end – keep it vague, no need to go into too much detail at this stage, just register how you most likely want the audience to feel.

If you have a beginning for your character’s story and a rough idea of where we will end up, can you think of a gripping scene or turning point that is halfway between these two markers? This will give you a beginning, middle and an end.

The Hunt begins with Lucas, divorced, struggling to maintain a relationship with his teenage son but shown to be a good teacher and a well-loved member of a close-knit community.

The middle finds Lucas suspended from work, under suspicion from friends, co-workers, even his girlfriend Nadja. Klara, the little girl behind the accusations, arrives at his home. They have a brief, mesmerising exchange on his doorstep. Lucas asks her what he did to her. Klara replies that she doesn’t remember anymore.

I won’t say anything about the ending but let us presume that we have a good idea how Lucas’s story will pan out.

Can you additionally think of a first turning point that occurs at the end of the first act and a second turning point that takes place at the end of the second act?

In The Hunt, the first turning point is when Lucas learns that a pupil has made a complaint about him and claims to have seen his genitals. It is the point of no return for him; the catalytic moment.

Have a try at working out the five beats of your protagonist.

Remember, these are character beats, not necessarily plot beats; they must plot the development of the character and end with a completion.

Do you have a story to tell and a reason to tell it?

Usually, as writers, there will be a spark of inspiration for each piece: a kernel of interest that fires us to develop it into a whole story with fleshed-out character arcs and themes. Make sure you pinpoint what your spark is for this particular script or story you are working on at the moment.

Perhaps you want to show the realities of someone getting their life back on track after heartbreak or bereavement.

Or you want to write a love story that is credible at every stage without ever getting bogged down in dewy-eyed sentimentality.

Maybe you were excited about the premise of a recent film or television series but felt disappointed by it and feel you could write something on a similar theme but do a better job.

Or one seemingly insignificant moment or exchange or character is obsessing you.

When you are clear about why you have to write this next piece, make sure you write this kernel down; it is very likely that it – or the sequences and scenes it develops into – will become the spine of the story. When you feel troubled or lost at sea during the writing process, it will help to return to this kernel and remind yourself why you were excited about it in the first place.

Outlining your story makes the rewriting process easier

If you feel you can write your story from the gut, like Guillermo Arriaga, with minimal planning and signposting, then by all means go ahead.

But it can be tough when you feel like you are running out of narrative steam – or, worse, you find you have written yourself into a hole, from which you can’t get back out.

There are no set-in-stone rules for writing the definitive outline; you need to work out what works best for you. These tips are meant only as one possible guide that work well for me.

When I am working on a new project, writing the outline is the most important stage; I redraft the outline until I know the structure of the piece is watertight and I am satisfied I have incorporated all the character development scene by scene.

You can develop your story to the point that you have a scene by scene breakdown without harming the spontaneity of the piece or your ability, as the writer, to experience the machinations of the plot ‘live’ or in the present tense with your protagonist.

Mastering them will significantly aid the rewriting process and enable you to complete your scripts and stories a lot more quickly – and less traumatically!

You can keep them very rough; some writers prefer an outline that simply documents the six major plot points of the tale.

Here are the six key plot beats of Toy Story (1995), for example:

  1. Inciting Incident: Woody loses his place on Andy’s bed.
  2. Plot Point 1: Woody in the toy box sees Buzz in his place on Andy’s bed.
  3. Midpoint: Woody and Buzz are captured by Sid with the claw.
  4. Plot Point 2: Woody tells Buzz to escape from Sid’s clutches while he still can.
  5. False resolution: Woody and Buzz escape together – but Andy has already left.
  6. Resolution: Andy finds Woody and Buzz in the car.

Can you define the six key plot beats of the story you are working on at the moment?

Don’t worry if you struggle to do this. There will come a point, as you work on the outline, when these six beats become blindingly obvious.

Try not to straitjacket yourself by thinking certain plot points should occur on a designated page number, as this will constrain your creative process considerably. And, if it helps, try not to think of them as ‘plot points’ at all but an explicit exploration of the dilemma of your central character and his or her responses to it.

Try to break down your acts into scenes. You don’t need to include any dialogue whatsoever, but by all means do if an electric exchange springs to mind. The important thing is to distil the main conflict of the scene into a sentence or two. Ask yourself:

  • What happens in this scene?
  • What do we learn about character?

Plot out your character’s development in general terms. Create the framework in which the journey of your character will take place. Rewrite this outline several times – each time, consider a different component in turn: the protagonist, the antagonist, each of the supporting characters, the main theme, subsidiary themes, the pace and flow of scenes, the anticipated audience response.

Work through each component as you go through the outline. Have you completed each and every character? Taking in separate strands – for example, the whole stretch of a character’s arc – ask yourself: does any part of this need to be spelled out more clearly? Which part of this could the audience find hard to understand? Go back and simplify this.

It is important to remember that this is for your eyes only. It can be as vague or as detailed as you like, but I would advise you to turn it into a complete scene by scene breakdown, with at least a couple of sentences describing what happens in each scene.

You will be amazed at how this helps to expose where the weaknesses are in your story. You can now fix these weaknesses before you start writing.

Some writers may recoil from such an idea and feel that the quality of their storytelling would suffer as a result. Your outlined story is by no means set in stone though. As soon as you start to write, it may well seem that all bets are off and your characters pull you off in a completely unexpected direction.

Remember Mike Tyson’s famous line when asked what was going to happen during an upcoming fight: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’

But you will have the confidence that you have arrived at the correct structure so that your story works to its fullest potential. This can be immensely comforting when you can barely scrape together enough hours to get this latest opus finished or are dreading a looming deadline.

Outlining effectively will make your rewriting process so much easier because you will have found a way to envisage the whole sweep of your story with an objectivity that you would lack entirely from writing each scene in freefall and experiencing events ‘as they happen’.

Rewriting a ten-page outline is much easier than rewriting a ninety-page script, so don’t be afraid to create a scene map for yourself that paves out a path through your character’s story and acts as a guide for your journey ahead.

CL

How to craft characters that resonate with an audience

Image

Whether you are writing a film or television script or a novel or even a play for the stage or radio, the need to create dynamic, challenging and complex characters is the same.

Every story is character-driven. Without characters, there are no stories.

We have already covered the basics for creating a compelling protagonist, which we defined by asking the following questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • How badly do they want it?
  • How are they having difficulty achieving this goal?
  • Why do we care?

All your significant characters must change in some way or learn something, even if it is extremely subtle.

Each of them is there in your story to serve a specific purpose – make sure you work out what that purpose is. Once you know this, you can make sure you complete the character in satisfying fashion.

For example, if your character is a tough-talking drill sergeant whose job is to whip your raw recruit protagonist into shape, you are raising the question: will the drill sergeant succeed in whipping my protagonist into shape? Make sure you answer this question satisfyingly by completing the character: either yes he will or no he won’t.

  • What is the premise of the story you are working on at the moment?

If you cannot articulate the premise in terms of character, have a rethink and see if you can rework it with one or more of your significant characters at its heart.

Structure can be the key to making your story work effectively. Thinking about the premise and the main thrust of the story in terms of your character or characters will help you to find the right structure for their journey ahead.

For example, look at how, in Inception (2010), it is Dom’s emotional journey related to his wife and children that carries us through the tale.

Never lose sight of the emotional journey your characters are on; it is a journey which will be redoubled by the audience’s emotional response.

  • How is Act II of your story going to change your characters emotionally?

The second act of your story is twice as long as the first and third acts and contains within it the main thrust of the dramatic story you are telling and explores in detail the dramatic question at the heart of your character.

Will Woody conquer Buzz and regain his position as Andy’s favourite toy? (Toy Story)

Will the lounge jazz pianist Baker brothers make it to the top now that they have new singer Susie Diamond in tow? (The Fabulous Baker Boys)

It is so easy to lose your authorial grip on proceedings, in terms of pacing and the rhythm and flow of scenes, given the length of the second act.

How many films can you remember that sagged in the middle and lost their narrative way?

Have another look at Saving Private Ryan (1998) – there is an example of a film with a flabby midsection. You can probably think of countless others.

Motivating your characters explicitly

The stories we write aren’t real, but audiences and readers expect them to be real.

The motivations of your characters are what make the experience of reading your script or novel or play real in that moment.

Explore your characters’ motivations. Do they make sense? Are there any aspects that can be simplified or made clearer?

What are their instincts regarding the plot machinations that are thrown their way? The reader wants to know why they react in the way that they do and also why they want to achieve their goal so badly.

Readers and audiences need to believe 100% in the authenticity of the world of the characters; for that to happen, we as writers need to know that world inside out.

Even in a genre film, the thrills or the comedy or the romance have to emerge organically through actions the characters take. Remember, your characters should be the ones telling this story. It is their decisions and responses that drive the plot forward. As soon as the events of your story seem contrived, your audience will discern the writer pulling the strings and they will no longer suspend their willing disbelief.

Your protagonist’s Want should be clear, but if you are having problems with your other characters or struggling to make sense of their motivations, go back to the main themes of your story and ask yourself:

  • Is this character aligned with the theme or in opposition to it?
  • How do I show this alignment or opposition?
  • What is their relationship to my protagonist and my protagonist’s Want? How can I maximise tension in this relationship?

This returns us to our earlier point: your character must want something badly. This is what gives them a strong, clear motivation.

Perhaps you know that your raw young recruit wants more than anything to be an officer in the army. But have you shown this explicitly in your story? Does his desperation flavour every scene, permeate every pore of his being? Does he articulate this goal to himself or to others? When did he first realise this was his dream? What is obstructing his progress and creating conflict and tension at every step of the way – his rival, self-doubt, emotional baggage, illness or injury, all of the above?

You will never lose your way in the second act if you clearly understand your characters’ motivations. Understanding these will lead you in turn to the most effective way to structure the tale so that it resonates with an audience to its maximum potential.

How to set up a main character that connects

Here are some shortcuts to help you create characters with which readers and audiences will feel an emotional connection:

Jeopardy

If your story is a thriller, your main character needs to be in some sort of danger.

If you are writing a horror story, your character is more likely to be targeted by someone or something.

Sympathy

Make your character the victim in the story or show him or her being victimised by an organisation or another character or group.

Normality

This is the hardest to pull off. For this, you have to create and sustain a character who is a nice person – and very often they can end up a bit dull and wishy-washy.

Here are a couple of examples where the film-makers got it right:

Göran, in Lukas Moodysson’s Together (2000), is the affable, good-natured lynchpin who holds the ‘Tillsammans’ commune together.

Marge, in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, is the heavily pregnant Minnesota police chief who solves an elaborate extortion and kidnapping case.

Power

Power is seductive in fiction as well as in reality.

Consider the character of Amon Goeth, in Schindler’s List (1993), as played by Ralph Fiennes. Spielberg stated he saw ‘sexual evil’ in Fiennes’ audition and it is this magnetism that forces the viewer to engage with him, despite the horrific acts he perpetrates.

Omnipotence

It is hard for the audience not to engage with a character if they are in nearly every scene of the story.

Intrigue

If there is something curious or oddly different or even weird about a character, this will pique an audience’s interest.

But how is your character weird? Does the weirdness develop over time and culminate in a moment of completion where he or she learns something about him or herself? If not the main character, are they aligned with or in opposition to the main character? Have you shown what first caused the weirdness and how this has affected their life?

Likeable / Familiar

If your character lives or works in a familiar setting – for example, a teacher in a school – this encourages the viewer to engage with them, because he or she inhabits an environment that they already know well.

But if your character exists in a familiar setting, try to come up with something fresh, bold and interesting about the character to give some contrast. Ask yourself what is different about this character, what will make this particular teacher so unlike all the other celluloid teachers out there.

Why do people dislike characters?

  • They are too convenient
  • They are inconsistent
  • They are boring

Here are some tips to avoid the above:

Create some of those electric moments where an audience is going to think to themselves: I really wish I had said that or done that.

Remember Vivian, in Pretty Woman (1990), telling the stuck-up store workers: ‘You work on commission right? Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.’

Or headstrong Grazia, in Respiro (2002), setting free all of the stray dogs from the island’s makeshift dog pound.

Or when Travis says to Rowntree, in If…. (1968): ‘The thing I hate about you Rowntree is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy bear to Oxfam and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.’

  • Does your character have a flaw? If so, have you hidden it in a way that serves the needs of the story?

Look at how Clarice’s unresolved childhood issues are used dramatically, in Ted Tally’s screenplay, as a means of hunting down Buffalo Bill. (The Silence of the Lambs)

  • How does your character overcome their flaw? Can you show this in more dramatic fashion?

Truman’s fear of the water, in The Truman Show (1998), makes him vulnerable and appealing, while also providing a dramatic thread that runs through the story, for only by overcoming this fear will he ever escape from the scripted reality of his life.

If you are worried about your character becoming too unsympathetic, return to their Want and Need. In particular, focus on their Need. How much are they aware of it? Maybe they need to become aware of it sooner and be shown to struggle with it.

Remember, the audience doesn’t necessarily need to find your characters sympathetic, but they must engage with them. For this to happen, the character must exist credibly in the world of your story and they must perform a dramatic purpose.

CL

How to write a great film script by understanding genre

If 1968 final shot

Understanding genre has nothing to do with wanting to write something commercial; it is about acknowledging what the audience expectations are from this type of story and realising how useful this information can be for your work.

There are three things your script needs:

  •       Theme
  •       Emotional resonance
  •       Entertainment

Your audience will extract the theme without even realising; this is what will give the film meaning for them. What is your story actually about when you distil it down to its purest essence? Examples of some common themes are:

The loss of innocence.

Triumph over adversity.

The fragility of relationships.

Love conquers all.

The emotional resonance of the piece will come from an audience’s connection with your characters. Is your main character shown to be struggling in some way – make this explicitly clear.

Look at how Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) manages to hold our heart-strings in the palm of her hand in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996). How does this character manage this? She is struggling in life; she has no money; she is lonely; she lives in a fraught situation with her daughter Roxanne; she exists on the edge of an emotional precipice the whole time, frequently close to tears. We bond with her emotionally through her hardships and feel invested in the story by the time the daughter she gave away for adoption at birth gets in touch and wants to get to know her.

The audience must also feel entertained by the story you are telling; this doesn’t have to be high-octane car chases and seat-of-your-pants casino raids but there do have to be thrills of one kind or another.

Again, do not try to be commercial. This will be the death of your story. You must simply write from the heart; if you do this well, others will respond to it and your work will find an audience.

When an audience knows something that the main character doesn’t, this is a good source of dramatic tension. Exploit this until it is resolved – and resolve it in the most effective way you can.

Hitchcock was fond of illustrating this point: ‘There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…’

When an audience stands shoulder to shoulder with the main character and learns about events alongside him or her as they occur, this can be just as satisfying dramatically too, so don’t feel that you have to keep your characters in the dark.

When the audience knows less than the main character, this is boring however, so try to avoid this.

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How can genre help you write a great script?

The genre is the type of film you are writing; once you know this, you know what the audience expectations of that genre are.

For instance, if you are writing a Romantic Comedy, this is what is expected:

  •       Two characters – nearly always contemporary – who the audience want to be together;
  •       Neither character needs necessarily to have any psychological depth; they can be defined simply by their current situation and circumstances;
  •       The pivotal moment, which takes place during the first act, is when one falls for the other;
  •       The second act will be full of near-misses, trials and tribulations as they fail to get it together – all invested with humour, because this is a comedy;
  •       The question the audience will ask themselves throughout is: will these two end up together?
  •       The answer is always yes. In a romantic comedy, there is always a happy ending.

So once you are comfortable with the conventions of the genre in which you are writing, they can become a form of guide for you as you map out your story.

What genre are you working within at the moment? Think about a similar film and consider how that film was structured.

Try to distance yourself from your writerly, emotional reasons for writing this story. Think of it in more disciplined, dispassionate terms:

  •       Who is my audience?
  •       What are their expectations?

There are very few pure genre films made anymore, but it is worth looking briefly at the different genres in which your story could be taking place.

Here are some classic film genres:

Film Noir                       Action/Adventure                        Comedy                    Myth/Epic

Gangster                                 Fantasy                                   Thriller                 Romantic Comedy

Historical Drama                 Musical                                  Western                          Sci-Fi

Courtroom                               Crime                                       Heist                      Coming of age

Social Drama                      Romance                                   Horror                       Ghost Story

We will look at these genres in more detail in future articles, but, for the moment, try to work out which genre you enjoy exploring the most.

Drama is by far the broadest genre; in fact, it is unhelpful to label a film as a drama without qualifying it further.

Is it a rites of passage or coming of age drama, for example, like Stand By Me or The Kings of Summer or The Perks of Being a Wallflower? All these films have comic elements too, so perhaps we should call them rites of passage comedy-dramas, to be strictly accurate.

In a rites of passage story, the main character has to be taken out of his or her environment, for example by moving to a new area, going to war, starting at a new school. There has to be a steep learning curve in the second act, where they are in charge or have responsibilities that they didn’t previously have. By the end of the story, they have learnt a great deal about themselves and matured through their experiences of having to overcome a great obstacle, be it surviving in the woods over the summer, passing their exams, searching for a body, surviving the war.

If you are writing a rites of passage story, complicate your main character’s passage; create something about them – a flaw – that they are trying to hide; make sure that it is only when they deal with this flaw that they are able to overcome the challenges they are facing.

If you are writing a character piece, which is what I call a certain type of drama that addresses explicitly issues of character – sometimes referred to as a ‘character study’ or ‘slice of life’ drama – your film will very likely be about a connection between two people. Who are these two people and why do we care about them? Have you brought them together in the most interesting, involving, dramatic manner?

American Beauty 1999

How do we define genre?

Firstly, let’s take a look at your protagonist. You could be writing an ensemble drama, in which case you will need to consider your film to have multiple protagonists, but let us presume for the moment that you have just one main character.

How would you describe your protagonist?

  •       Is he or she a hero?
  •       Is he or she a victim?
  •       Is he or she just an ordinary ‘everyman’ type of person going about their business?
  •       Is the main conflict internal or external?
  •       What kind of journey are they on?
  •       Where do they begin their journey and where do they end up?

Now let’s take a look at your antagonist.

You need to create your antagonist out of your protagonist’s obstacles.

The more realistic the antagonist, the more realistic the main dramatic conflict of your story.

Don’t let them be an overly simplistic stereotypical ‘baddie’; make sure they have a clearly defined want and need and that they are on a journey of their own.

Do they have any kind of an existence outside of your protagonist’s journey? If the answer is no, go back and work out what kind of life they are leading; what are their fears; who do they love; what aspects of their character make us care about them?

Drama is the one genre that doesn’t demand a resolution. Of course, you need to resolve your tale but you can do so simply by showing the change that has taken place in the world of your protagonist or in their character. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a resolution to the story itself. Without giving any spoilers away, consider the endings of The Ice Storm or The Fabulous Baker Boys or Good Will Hunting.

So have a think about the story you are working on and the character at the heart of it and ask yourselves these questions:

  •       Can you define the genre?
  •       What kind of emotional experience is the audience expecting? How are they supposed to feel by the end?
  •       What kind of protagonist do you have? (hero, victim, everyman)
  •       What actually happens? Can you define the catalytic moment – or point of no return – for your protagonist, that takes place in the first act?
  •       Now describe the main conflict of the piece in no more than a few words. If you aren’t able to, go back to the themes and your character’s want and need and think about what they need to learn about themselves to achieve their goal.

The most important thing to remember is that genre conventions are not rules with which to tie yourself up in knots; they are simply an acknowledgement that audiences watch most films and television shows with expectations and we, as writers, must never lose sight of what those expectations are.

Once you have accomplished this, it will be clear if you have a great story on your hands and a reason to tell it – but also, crucially, you will have the freedom of knowing in what terms this type of story should be told.

CL

How to create unforgettable characters: the Protagonist

The Silence of the Lambs 1991

So you have a great idea for a script. Now you need to create some amazing characters. The characters are what will sell your story to agents, producers, actors, investors. Without great characters you won’t even end up as a doorstop under your poor beleaguered script reader’s desk.

Well, you may end up as a doorstop but believe me that is as far as your great idea will get you. Character is everything. What are the three most important things in a script? Character, character and character.

So, to begin with, let’s create a memorably complex, rounded and interesting protagonist.

Wants and Needs

The Want is the easy part: it’s the main desire of the character that thrusts him or her through the story; the external, physical goal.

To escape from prison.

To defeat the monster.

To win the race.

To protect the President.

To find a cure for the disease.

To get the promotion.

To solve the mystery.

To locate the long lost mother.

You get the idea. The most important thing about this want is that your protagonist wants it badly. The more badly they want it, the higher the stakes are. If the stakes aren’t high enough for your protagonist, you run the risk of your audience not caring whether or not they achieve their goal or not.

After a tsunami devastates the island on which they are staying, Maria is on a desperate search to discover if her husband and children are still alive. (The Impossible)

If Brody doesn’t catch the huge man-eating shark, more people on his beach will die. (Jaws)

Clarice Starling must catch Buffalo Bill or more innocent women will be abducted and murdered. (The Silence of the Lambs)

In a character-piece, the stakes will very likely not relate to a heist or an alien abduction or a murder, but they will be just as important for the life of the character.

If Travis Bickle doesn’t find a way to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ – by saving Iris from her life as a pimped young prostitute – he will very likely end up dead. (Taxi Driver)

If Solomon doesn’t find a means of escape from his life in slavery, he will die a slave and never see his family again. (12 Years A Slave)

If Anders doesn’t get his head around starting his life afresh after a stint in rehab, he will kill himself by the morning. (Oslo, August 31st)

The Need is more tricky. It is the internal wound of the character. He or she may not even be aware of what their need is until it clashes with their want late in your story. It could be an unresolved childhood issue; it could be a flaw in their character that is holding them back; it could even be a physical wound that needs to heal.

Brody needs to overcome his fear of the water if he is to catch the shark.

Clarice needs to let Hannibal Lector inside her head to explore her unresolved childhood issues if she is to catch Buffalo Bill.

Travis needs therapy to explore his traumatic experiences in Vietnam, which are undoubtedly behind his inability to sleep and which send him off on his chilling descent into madness.

Taxi Driver 1976 (1)

Don’t worry if your protagonist’s need isn’t immediately apparent; sometimes, as the writer of the piece, you will have to experience the character’s journey alongside him or her and it will take a while before you can think objectively about the themes of your story and what it is really about.

Remember, M Night Shyamalan himself didn’t realise the huge secret of Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense until he was several drafts in.

The needs of your characters are what will make them rich, complex and well-rounded; they will cease to be one-dimensional ciphers, however determinedly they beat a path to their goal.

If you are having difficulty identifying the need of your main character, consider what it is he or she must learn about themselves over the course of the story if they are to reach their goal. What is it in their nature that is holding them back?

The more contrast there is between the protagonist at the start of the story and the changed person they have become by the end, the more dramatic and transformational a journey he or she will be perceived to have been on.

Delineate this carefully from the start of your planning stages, when you first begin to work your idea into an outline or treatment. Ask yourself if your protagonist is the most extreme version of anything.

Joan Wilder, in Romancing The Stone (1986), is the most naive, unworldly American novelist – so her ensuing adventure in Colombia is set up from the very beginning as being ripe for fish-out-of-water potential as she sets off to find her missing sister.

Try to consider your protagonist as having two parallel goals in your story: one conscious, the other unconscious. These two goals will interact with each other throughout; at some point they will clash and either your character will evolve and adapt and change (and the story will have a hopeful ending) or your character will find themselves unable or unwilling to change (and this fatal flaw will give the story its tragic ending).

What kinds of obstacles are stopping your main character from achieving his or her goal?

These obstacles can take various forms; they can be other characters – including an Antagonist, who must have a clear want and need of his or her own – issues of circumstance and bad luck or even aspects of the protagonist’s own character.

You need to create characters who are in opposition to the main character and who are in his or her way. The chief exponent of this, the Antagonist, does not have to be a sworn enemy or ‘baddie’ of the piece, such as Darth Vader or a James Bond villain, but once these lines of opposition are drawn, it becomes much easier to work out the major plot points and beats of the journey ahead.

If your character’s biggest fear is of failure, for example failing to get the promotion at work, then you could create a character who would be the one to succeed at your main character’s expense. Develop the relationship between these two; perhaps they have been rivals at work since they both joined the company, only the Antagonist has been working there half as long and is on a seemingly effortless fast-track to the top. The audience will be asking themselves, by the time they reach the second act: will our hero manage to beat this guy to the promotion (and get the girl, make his family proud or whatever other strands you bring to the table).

If your character has a flaw or vulnerability that they must overcome, you could hide the flaw in an interesting way at first, perhaps by having the character deny its existence. Audiences connect with characters whom they see are trying to hide in some way.

Let your character externalise their inner conflict and overcome their flaw; having attempted to hide this vulnerable part of themselves, there has to be a subsequent moment when they deal with it. When and where is the crossover point and is it dramatic and interesting?

Consider Ernesto’s asthma in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). It is there from the opening scene of the film. This frailty to his character arouses our sympathy and makes us care about him; it is the reason his family are concerned about him; why he gets sick later in the story and, most importantly, what lends a real sense of danger to his climactic, symbolic swim across the river to the patients at the leper colony.

In American Beauty (1999), Lester Burnham wants to have sex with his daughter’s fit blonde friend Angela. But he is the most boring, out of shape, suburban nobody.

What are the obstacles to his achieving this goal?

His cold, controlling wife; he is about to be fired; his low self-esteem; his weight and fitness; the fact that he has forgotten how to experience joy.

To win Angela round, he needs to remember what it feels like to be alive and to experience the beauty of everything around him in his life.

American Beauty 1999 (1)

Why do we care?

As the audience, we have to root for your main character. How he or she develops and changes over the course of the story will engage us.

Seeing aspects of our own lives reflected in a character’s plight elicits an audience’s empathy and we invest emotionally in proceedings.

We make sense of characters by understanding why they say and do and react in the way that they do, so there has to be consistency in their actions and speech.

So make sure therefore that your main character’s motivations are clearly laid out and easy for the audience to understand.

It is so rewarding for your poor beleaguered script reader when they realise that it is your protagonist guiding them by the hand through the story.

CL