Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Main Man (m/f)

"Most writers work alone. They send in the script and it gets rejected. And they never find out why. The fact is, you can't succeed as a professional writer if you don't get professional feedback. You must find out the weaknesses of your story or script before you send it in." This is not me talking, it's John Truby (photo).

People who, like me, get to read a great number of Australian screenplays are astounded how poorly developed most of these works are. The ones that stand out are often the ones that have had and taken on board professional feedback.

Really baffling is how many writers seem to have trouble with the protagonist. Writing for the screen is ALL about the protagonist. You can mess with pretty much everything else, not with your hero. When script gurus talk about the structure of a story or a script, they almost always mean: the structure of the protagonist's journey. Before you can build a journey, you need a protagonist and that, so it seems, is not as simple as it sounds.

I have listed below six of what I believe to be crucial principles against which budding writers are often sinning in terms of their heroes. Although these principles are to a certain extent flexible and extremely skilled, talented and experienced writers have bent the rules with great success, you cannot ignore them altogether. If you take liberties on one, you must compensate on the others or your script will be rejected. Please note that I will be using the ecumenical pronouns "he, him, his" in a unisex fashion when referring to the protagonist.

0. Desire: Driver of all strong characters' actions and decisions.

Drama is based on character, desire and conflict (and if you have trouble with these, check out THE HERO'S TWO JOURNEYS, there is a link in the right hand margin of this blog). Desire is the central one as in a screenplay it defines both character and conflict. It is so important it precedes everything else: if your protagonist does not have a strong desire, whether internal or external, you don't have a movie. As a writer, you will need to know at any point in the story what your hero's objective is. To find out who is the protagonist, most of the time you only need to find out who has the strongest desire in the movie. And don't forget that it takes great obstacles (conflict) to prove a strong desire.

In HALF NELSON with Oscar® nominee Ryan Gosling the protagonist gradually shifts from Dan (Gosling) to Dray (Shareeka Epps), depending on who has the strongest desire or more accurately: with whom we share the desire. Interestingly this transition doesn't happen for every viewer in the exact same way as we don't empathise in identical ways. The writers keep tight control as we see how the movie's POV shifts with the centre of desire. These things are not coincidental. In a subtle and complex movie such as HALF NELSON, the understanding and careful manipulation of these elements makes the difference between an unbearable arthouse bomb and a quality indie with Oscar potential.

1. Single vs. Multiple Protagonist: Hardly a matter of choice.

Here are two questions for you. 1)"Are you an experienced writer with produced feature drama credits?" 2)"Are you targeting an audience of intellectuals?" Multiple protagonist stories are risky business but if your answer to either question was NO, it would be insanity to even contemplate going there. The emotional impact of multiple protagonist dramas is limited because empathy jumps from one character to the next, resulting in a more cerebral experience. The lovers of these movies will almost always be an audience of intellectuals. Think about directors such as Paul T. Anderson and Robert Altman.

2. Screen time: Stay with your hero.

It is not good to abandon your protagonist. This goes hand in hand with the principle that single POV movies have a stronger emotional impact than omniscient or multi-POV movies (see below). If you divert into a subplot, keep it lean. A great example of an amazingly tight subplot arc is the one of the executioner in QUILLS. On the other hand I seem to remember that the last movie in the Matrix Trilogy failed miserably, partially because protagonist Neo suddenly disappeared to make place for a gargantuan subplot diversion. The Wachowskis couldn't care less for their hero. What were they thinking!!?? By the time Neo returned into the story, the movie had flopped. A successful movie is all about the protagonist. Once he's gone, your movie is too.

3. Action: The protagonist drives the story.

Screentime is essential but not sufficient. While the protagonist is on screen, he should be driving the scene. Or rather: his desire/objective should be driving it. Any other character can be central to the scene but the objective should be related to the protagonist's. If this sounds too technical, try an example: say the hero's objective is to save her son from the hands of his kidnappers and a particular sequence is about finding the last person who saw him. A scene may show how the antagonist prevents the hero from finding that person. Though it may seem as if the antagonist is driving the scene, its purpose can be easily traced back to the protagonist's main objective. Action can also be: resisting strongly to act. Andie MacDowell's character in SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE is a good example of that.

4. Empathy: Share the desire

Most paying audiences want to forget they are watching a movie. They want to be absorbed by it. To achieve this, ideally you should make them feel as if they have moved into the hero's mind, as if they become the protagonist for the duration of the movie. This complete identification is ideal but not essential. Empathy is. Where lies the distinction?

Michael Hague (photo) has a five point test to create empathy with the protagonist: likability, sympathy, jeopardy, humor and power. Those elements certainly help but I believe the real test for empathy lies in the degree to which we share the protagonist's desire. If identification means wanting to be the hero, than empathy means wanting to be what the hero wants to be*.

(*Note after publishing: Rightfully, Jack Brislee points out although he loved KENNY, he did not share the ambition of wanting to be a top rate outdoor toilet contractor. He is right, but not until the credits roll. Until that point, you think and feel with the protagonist and you share the desire. Take DOWNFALL, about the last days of Hitler. Some perfectly sane people have told me how they felt sorry for the character in the movie, although that very character explicitly expresses how he doesn't care if the German people would be wiped out. If they can't win the war, they're too weak to deserve the Third Reich anyway. Wow... Why do we feel sorry for such a character? Because for (at least part of) the duration of the movie, we feel his desire and the pain of not being able to fulfill it.)

5. Point of view: Single vs. Multi vs. Omni

In his book STORY (link on the right) McKee says: "the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. [...] The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story." Seeing the world through the eyes of the hero often helps us understand his desire and therefore it enhances empathy. It makes it easier to plot the hero's main story arc and it guarantees ample screen time.

McKee claims "[single PoV] is the far more difficult way to tell story." Here I disagree. Not limiting yourself in this way will make it infinitely harder to write a story that works for the screen. Bottom line: if your story is in trouble, try rewriting it from a single POV. It may be a shortcut to resolving a lot of issues...


Writer Arriaga bends the rules of screenwriting but compensates by telling each of the four parallel stories as a class example of traditional narrative: four protagonists with strong desires, major obstacles and a three act journey each.

Despite its nomination for best screenplay, BABEL's breaking the code has caused controversy. Just compare the top four 'external reviews' for the film (IMDb)! I found the Tokyo story's connection to the events in Morocco manufactured and to me it worked on a logical level but not on an emotional one. However, in this movie it's the only story about the search for love and therefore inevitably the most powerful of all four. No wonder its resolution concludes the movie.


Great traditional narrative. When Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) finds out somebody is controlling his life, he wants to stop her from killing him. The conflict: antagonist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) needs to finish her book and can't without doing exactly that. A beautiful example of a strong inner and outer journey for protagonist Crick plus an exemplary 'relationship line' around the Ana Pascal character (Maggie Gyllenhaal). As Michael Hague puts it: the hero needs to complete his arc in order to get the girl.
From the trailer I believed the antagonist would have had more screentime but this is another case of a story arc told with the greatest economy. Everything we need to know about Kay Eiffel is there in a handful of brief scenes. Instead the writer focuses increasingly on the love thread, which is the smartest way of getting an audience head over heels involved in the drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but the ending left me confused. It turns out that I'm not the only one. Some reviewers hinted that Miller had reached Pixar levels of perfection with this film but to my taste this is not entirely so on a story level.
HAPPY FEET is a hugely successful movie, and deservedly so. Still I suspect the ending could have been more gratifying had Miller stuck to the Pixar way of developing story.
In case you have seen HAPPY FEET, ask yourself: What is Mumble's journey? What is his main desire that drives the whole movie? Does he want to fit in with his peers and be accepted by the penguin colony? Or does he want to prove that he is not the cause of the food shortage? From the first scene with Lovelace, I would have thought he actually wanted to resolve the mystery of the Aliens.
Of course it is a combination of all three and each has its own resolution in one way or another. But had it been set up more clearly, I believe we would have had a more satisfactory feeling at the end. Right now the ending is kinda cool and happy and euphorious and all that, but you somehow feel the climax is slightly off the mark. As a matter of fact, the whole third act felt a bit messy to me, probably because of the lack of a clear Act One Turning Point. I have never had that feeling with a Pixar movie.
I may be completely wrong here and I'll surely have another close look once the DVD is out. Meanwhile I'd love to hear some other opinions on this one!