Updated: Dec 23, 2019
By Dan Hoffmann
Most screenplays have problems; Problems with the plot, dialogue, structure, characters subtext, genre, with suspense, surprise and much more. These are mostly, easy to fix but one specific plot problem that most spec scripts have is so problematic that it feels like staring down into a bottomless pit. This article is about that problem and how to fix it.
THE BOTTOMLESS PIT
Imagine a story, a sequence of events that leaves you indifferent. Imagine being forced to read and memorize the entire Yellow pages from cover to cover. The words make sense because they are written in English, but none of what you read makes you feel anything at any time.
But this is not the yellow pages. This is one of the many, many spec scripts that I was asked to read, while I was reading for studios. Strangely enough, there was nothing wrong, per se, with the story.
Some of these stories would be jam-packed with what should have been exciting chase scenes, life-threatening situations, ticking bombs counting the few minutes left, before the whole world would blow, kidnapped daughters, best friends that would betray the hero just as we thought he was in the clear, surprising last moment reveals of psychopathic serial killers, faceless stalkers who somehow would know every lurid detail about the heroine, massive explosions leaving innocent people trapped in elevators, unfathomable monsters dripping with green slime, people having visions of God, heroes, being betrayed by their unloving parents, kids ending up in Nazi concentration camps, government conspiracies poisoning the water supply and much more.
And yet none of those events, in any of those screenplays - None of those screenplays, ever saw the light of day because, at the end of the day, the stories left us, the readers, the producers and the executives, utterly indifferent.
Why is that? - you may ask
Well, the thing is that events in a story, any event, is in itself meaningless. It is the context that gives it meaning and in storytelling that context is character emotion.
Let me explain:
Let us take a short event in a randomly chosen plot:
"A man is chased by government agents. Just as he is just about to make a narrow escape, the agents shoot and kill him."
Had this been a well-written script, this could have been a suspenseful scene. During the first part of the scene, it could have left you at the edge of your seat; hoping that he would make it, fearing that he would not.
And during the end of the scene, you could have felt a lump in your throat, contemplating as you were, on the tragic loss of his life.
But all that didn’t happen. I guess that you felt close to nothing when reading these lines. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with the scene itself.
When we are searching for an emotional response, we are left looking down a bottomless pit of emptiness.
The reason is the lack of context and character.
You see, storytelling is a bit like drawing. The reason why you able to see an artist’s sketch is the simple fact that the color of the pencil stands out from the color of the paper. If artists had, let’s say using a white pencil on white paper, you wouldn’t have been able to see the drawing.
The same is true for plot and character.
The events in a story will make you feel absolutely nothing had it not been for the character.
It is the character that gives meaning and emotion to all the events.
Let us take another example:
A woman comes home, one day, only to discover that her husband has left her.
It is a very simple event and yet, you do not know how to feel. Was it a good or a bad thing that he left her? Maybe it was the worse thing that ever happened to her but perhaps it could have been the best.
If she was madly in love and trusted her husband explicitly with her life, the for sure - it was a bad thing.
But if her husband was a psychopath who abused and kept her a prisoner in her own home, then he’s leaving her might very well have been the best thing that ever happened to her.
It all depends on the context. And, in storytelling, that context is always character; who is she? what is her situation? what are her emotions? what are her core values?
Without all those things, the events, in themselves, mean absolutely zip, zilch, nada.
The plot in itself, have no meaning, makes no sense to anyone, no matter what the plot is and how exciting the events are.
It all depends on who is experiencing them.
For that, and many other reasons, all plots are essentially about the people who experience these events and if there is no character, if I can not feel what he is feeling, how he feels about these events, then I feel nothing. And that is detrimental to a cinematic story because cinematic stories are essentially emotional stories.
It would be like watching a football game where there was no football.
As I said in the opening, the fix to this one is not an easy one. How do you fix an omelet that has no eggs? - It’s lacking its most central ingredients. It is, in fact, the very ingredient that makes it a story, in the first place.
Nevertheless; Here are a few principles that I urge you to adopt.
PRINCIPLE ONE: Who does this story happen to?
First of all; consider the above question. Who does your story happen to?
Consider it deeply and thoroughly because it is the most important question you will ever face as a screenwriter.
In screenwriting, there’s an old Hollywood principle that states that the events that happen in a story should always happen to the person who will suffer most from them.
What this principle means is this; Think of what your character must go through to reach his goal and then consider who your character is in relation to that. For instance, if your character’s goal is to go to Nashville to plug himself as a country singer, and if he only has little time to do it. Then you would have to ask yourself; which character would face the hardest time, doing that? which character would hurt the most, be challenged the most by these objectives?
And then you would perhaps arrive at a character like Red Stovall, the main character in “The Honkey Tonk man” - He is an alcoholic, so he can´t drive anywhere, let alone to Nashville. In fact; the very first time we see him he crashes into a fence with his car.
He is also suffering from tuberculous, is in fact, dying from it. And that would make such a trip nearly impossible.
PRINCIPLE TWO: WHO DOES THIS GOAL MATTER MOST TO AND WHY?
Your character’s goal is everything he fights for and given the fact that he will face excruciating obstacles in getting to it, his goal must then be the most important thing in his life.
Characters in stories do not pursue goals that they are only mildly interested in. Don´t waste our time with anything less than the most important goal your character has ever imagined.
Great drama comes from characters that are fighting for the most important things, they know.
Don’t give us characters who are just in it for the money, or who are doing the things they due, just because it’s their job or just because they are curious.
Drama comes out of necessity. That’s why it is dramatic.
E.T did not want to go home merely because he thought it might be fun to visit the old folks.
He did it because he would die if he didn’t.
Rick Blaine did not give Ilsa those plane tickets because he wanted them to see the world. He did it because he thought it might save the world from the Nazis.
John Mcclane did not risk his life to kill terrorists just because he thought it was the right thing to do, he did it to save his own family.
Stories are about important things. That’s why we watch them.
For a writer, however, the real question is also; why does this mean so much to this character?
It’s not enough to say that a character like Bud Fox (in wall street) is fighting Gordon Gecko because he wants to save his dad.
It won’t suffice to say that John Mcclane is trying to save his family.
All these things are just unfounded claims. Even the most depraved, shallow person can justify his actions by pretending that his real motive was a just virtue like his family or justice.
No, as a writer it is your most important duty to show us why he cares, why this is important, what this means to him. Not only that, but you have to make me, the audience feel the importance in my own heart.
Whatever your hero is fighting for, you must always make sure that you show us why that is important to him. Don't think you have it covered by merely showing us that your character, Like Bud Fox, is doing it all for his dad.
Because the next question would be; and what does his dad mean to him?
He could have a close strong bond to his father but then again, he could very well be estranged from his father, in which case, it won't matter that much.
So, when Bud fox is fighting for his dad in Wall street, it's not just a shallow claim without evidence. From the movie's earliest scenes, we see the importance of their relationship. Every time Bud is in trouble or he needs money, he always goes to his dad. And even though his dad does not have much money to offer, he always offers what he doesn't have. And we can see that when he gives Bud some little money, he makes huge personal sacrifices to do so. But he never talks about that. He suffers in silence.
And Bud's dad not only knows and loves Bud, but he does it to such a degree that he even knows what is on his mind, even before he opens his mouth.
And Bud's dad is also the character who taught Bud everything he holds dear; The value of honesty and hard work and responsibility.
We see this in numerous scenes, throughout the script.
We also understand that his dad founded his own small company. It is his life work. And then bud convinces him to let Gecko take it over. And then Gecko trashes the company. Not out of necessity but because as he says; "Because I can" In other words, Gecko takes pleasure in destroying a company that someone has worked their whole life to build up. He is just doing it for the fun of it.
And then Bud's dad gets sick Bud rushes to the hospital. he has just helped Gecko destroy his dads legacy and now he is dying. Bud's guilty conscience almost seeps out of the silver screen.
Do you now understand why Bud fights for his dad? do you feel it?
The fact that Bud is fighting Gecko is not just the shallow claim of a screenwriter. - It is the ENTIRE STORY. Every scene, every beat.
Yes, Wall Street is not a story about Wall Street brokers. It is a story about a boy and his relationship with his father. That is why it's such a powerful screenplay.
It is a movie about guilt and remorse. It is about protecting your dad and admitting your mistakes even though it's painful. It is a story about a son's love for his father. A story about how he comes to realize that the values he taught him are true and good and that he, therefore, owes him everything.
The secret to all this is to make your story, no matter what story it is, about relationships. Not only that but about the troublesome and complex feelings we all have in sorting these things out.
The second secret is to make the whole story about that.
A screenwriter must always know the difference between what is the gift is and is the wrapping. The plot is always just wrapping. It's what is inside that makes us feel anything.
PRINCIPLE THREE: WHAT IS YOUR Character's EMOTIONAL DISTRESS?
Let us talk about beginnings.
Some spec writers think that we must present or establish the character in the beginning.
The truth is that the only thing you need to concern yourself about at the beginning of your story is establishing the emotions of the characters.
The alternative is not worth thinking about, You establish everything there is to know about the character and I am still left indifferent.
Why would I care that your character is an attorney, named Travis ? or that he plays tennis in his spare time? or that his wife's name is Betty and that they have two beautiful kids and they all love barbecue dinners and that he has a brother who is a real estate agent and a lot of fun and that they all live in Jackson, Mississippi and that Travis hates coffee but loves his toasts slightly burned.
Why would I care about that?
Does any of those things tell me anything about who he is?
From what I told you he could be a really nice guy, honest, guy. He could also be a serial killer.
There is nothing in what I've told you about him that has anything to do with character at all.
These are all characteristics but they are not character.
What I want to know is anything that makes me identify with him. Anything that makes me feel who he is.
And that all comes down to the emotional problem that the story is about. It makes all the difference.
The Emotional problem is what should begin the movie.
Little Elliot in E.T, is shunned by his mother, his brother, and his friends. He feels alone.
Anyone can relate to that, because its an emotion.
In Star wars, one of the first time we see Luke, we understand that all his friends have left the planet to pursue their dreams and Luke is left all alone to do his uncle's hard work at the farm. Life and opportunity are passing him by, he feels.
Do you know that feeling? can you relate to it?
Of course, we have all felt that at times. That is why we relate to Luke. Not only that, but that is, in fact, what the whole movie is about from beginning to end. It's not just cheap claim made at the beginning of the story. The whole thing is about realizing your hidden potential.
It is so important that a screenplay dives right into the emotional problem from the beginning. - As soon as the page permits it.
It is the reason why we connect to a story and it is also the reason why we feel anything, even though we are reading about fictitious characters.
In short; make your story bleed emotion from beginning to end.
In short; make your story bleed emotion from beginning to end. But don't just show it, design all your scenes, all your beats in such a way that I, the audience, feel it.
This is true for all the screenplays, that were approved for production and also untrue for all the scripts that were ultimately rejected.
So, how do you fill the hole in your screenplay? with emotion. What emotions?
- Your emotions.
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Happy writing !!!