Day M86: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part IV
This is the easy bit. Your antagonist could be a rival news anchor, a monster from the black lagoon or the protagonist’s own fear of commitment (although if your script is based around fear of commitment, I hate you). It’s just some thing that keeps throwing obstacles in the way of our hero.
Wants vs. Needs
Before you embark on the journey you must spell out very clearly is what your main characters heart’s desire is. It might be to go into space, get with the girl or win the world tiddlywinks championship. But that alone does not a good film make. What you can play with, and what you can be more subtle about, is what the character really NEEDS. Self confidence, trust, education, friends, the monster to stop eating his friends etc.
The most blatant example of the wants vs. needs fandango is The Wizard of Oz, in which nobody gets what they want off the wizard: they just needed somebody to tell them that they had whatever it is they wanted all along.
Often you’ll see a film in which a character doesn’t want to change until they are shown a world beyond what they’re aware of (‘the sleeper awakes’), but others are quite happy to spell out straight away that the protagonist is not happy with his or her lot and wishes for change. It’s not until later in the story that the real need of the protagonist is revealed: think of Charles Foster Kane’s last word.
Horror films are an exception to the rule, generally the only ‘change’ the main character needs is for things to go back to normal. This is why it’s so hard to keep a protagonist alive for more than one horror film – once they achieve the confidence or nouce they need to defeat the zombie hoards at the end of the first movie, their character arc has nowhere left to go.
Now you’ve got to kick your story into some semblance of order based on the structure I’ve just described. It sounds pretty restrictive, but usually you’ll find the bits of your script that work follow the rules, the bits that don’t work remind you of Star Wars Episode I.
Now have a look at the pacing of the film. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you want your protagonist to begin the journey around page 30. Take the blue pill, Neo. By page 60, they should be flying high, doing really well for themselves on their quest. They’ve probably met a girl they quite like and a comedy sidekick who makes sarcastic comments.
Pages 60-90 are when everything goes wrong (the end of Act Two is often known as ‘the mentor’s graveyard’ as it’s a good place to dispense with the mentor character as he or she will be useless in Act Three anyway).
Page 90 should be the lowest point (for the main character). If you’re writing a standard story, this should be the ‘all is lost’ moment. However, if you’re writing a tragedy, it’ll be the highest point for the main character. But tragedies don’t make money, so DON’T WRITE ONE.
For the record, films like Gladiator, 300 or Pan’s Labyrinth in which the protagonist dies at the end are NOT tragedies: they achieved their goal. They don’t need to survive to win. A tragedy is only when our protagonist loses, and loses big.
Pages 90-120 are when you really need to be wrapping things up. This is nothing to do with short attention spans and more to do with pacing. You gear the audience up for the dénouement and then keep them hanging on for another hour, they’ll hate you like I hate George Lucas for making Star Wars Episode I.
Also, if the links between your scenes seem inexplicable and arbitrary, “now let’s go to the pyramids!”, you’ll lose your audience. An audience confused is not an audience entertained, and suspension of disbelief only works if you rigidly adhere to the rules that your own universe creates.
Right, finally, the least important thing: dialogue. By the time your film gets made, every line will be changed, switched or rewritten by the powers that be anyway so it’s no big sweat.
That being said, silent protagonists are a tough sell, and while actions speak louder than words in real life, it’s a lot easier in the world of movies to make your characters sympathetic by having them express their desires through words rather than the medium of dance.
You should also ensure that when you read an individual line, you can (usually) work out which of your characters said it. Base each of your character’s reactions, speech patterns and slang on people you know, it’ll make it easier for you to differentiate. In general keep exposition to a bare minimum: nobody likes a lecture. If you’ve got something complicated to explain, try hiding it in a car-chase. Or use The West Wing’s “walk with me” shtick.
Now go back over the script and take out the first and last lines of each scene. Repeat until you cannot remove any more dialogue and have each scene still make sense.
Don’t waste words, you haven’t got the luxury. Everything said should move the plot forward or tell us something about your characters. In each scene, the action should arrive late and get out early.
Print out hard copies (a waste of paper I know, but it’s MUCH easier to get people to read, even if they do own a frikkin’ iPad) and distribute to your friends, family, mortal enemies, people in the street etc. Give them a questionnaire to fill out asking them mainly about three things: places they got bored, places they got confused and character actions they didn’t understand (or didn’t believe). Don’t just ask them if they think it’s any good… everyone invariably say yes as they won’t want to offend your precious sensibilities.
With all this feedback buzzing around your cranium, go to bed. Put a pad and a pen with a light on it on the side. Lie down, close your eyes and run through the script in your head like you’re watching the film. You’ll think of new connections, you’ll think of different ways of doing stuff, you’ll find characters that you can dump, scenes you can do without and ways of simply doing it better.
Then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.
When you’ve absolutely, totally, utterly and completely finished rewriting, rewrite it again.
Now set it in space, add some more robots/zombies/dinosaurs and you’re done.
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