MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

STORY FROM CHARACTER


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Story can be grown from character or character can be grown from story - it's a chicken and the egg situation. The two are so closely connected it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. In a pair of other tips I showed you how I started with the story for my Showtime film BLACK THUNDER and found the lead character who could best tell that story by finding the theme within the story (betrayal) then creating a protagonist who would not only be forced to solve the "plot" conflict of the story but would also have to overcome an emotional conflict based on betrayal. When you begin with a concept you reverse-engineer that way to find the best character for your story. The results are a character with an emotional conflict that is not only connected to the concept, but connected to *you*. This is not only a good method to use when you come up with the concept first, it's the best method to use with assignments when you are handed a story or concept or script and need to make it *your* personal story in order to maintain interest and do your best work. If a story isn't personal and emotional it will just be a bunch of things happening - and we don't want that. We want screenplays with soul. This time we're going to do it in reverse - we're going to start with a character and grow a story from him. This is the method I usually use when writing a spec script. I begin with character - and usually that character is some aspect of me. So let's create an interesting story from character.

1) Take one protagonist...

Let's take a computer programmer who has just turned thirty and realizes he's stuck in a dead end job. Is this what he'll be doing for the rest of his life?

2) Now we're going to look for an emotional problem. When we start with story, we have a plot problem - some sort of physical conflict - but with characters we're looking at emotions. There are several places to find emotional conflict in your character:

A) What does he fear? I don't mean a physical fear, like spiders or the dark, I mean something emotional. Does he fear commitment? Is he afraid he's not good enough? Is he afraid that he'll never find happiness? That nobody loves him? That he's not worth loving? That he'll never measure up to his father? That his best days are over? Dig deep to find this fear, because it will become what the whole script is about. This won't be easy, because our protagonists are really ourselves... and that makes their fears our fears. Hey! Those things scare us!

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B) What is his flaw? What is the mistake that he keeps on making over and over again. In LIAR LIAR Jim Carrey believes that a lie is better than the truth - that's his flaw. Again, these are difficult to dig for because they end up being OUR flaws - and who wants to admit they have any flaws?

C) What is the one thing in life they could not imagine themselves doing? The one thing they absolutely refuse to do? Make a list of all of the things you would NEVER do. Would you make out with someone of the same sex? Would you become a cannibal? Would you drive cross country with a serial killer? Would you live in the wilderness - sleep on the ground and eat bugs? Now pick the one thing that you absolutely will not do and give that to your character.

D) What is their dream... and how can it turn into a nightmare? I love to use this in thrillers - to let a character's big wish come true and have it go really wrong. Now they are stuck with this thing they've always wished for... and the baggage that comes with it. Want to be married to the sexiest person alive - the person everyone in the world wants to sleep with? Okay - now you get your wish, but how do you hang on to this person when everyone else in the world also wants them?

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Let's have our protagonist wish that he was someone special, not just a guy in a tie. He wishes he was Superman... but that turns into a nightmare when people expect him to actually save the world.

3) Now we're going to find the story that forces them to deal with whichever of the above you've decided on. If your protagonist has a fear of commitment, the plot will force him to get married - THE BACHELOR did this. If your protagonist's flaw is that he believes a lie is better than the truth, we're going to force him to tell the truth for 24 hours. If your protagonist can't imagine themselves living in the wild, we're going to crash their plane in the wilderness and force them to live off the land.

If our protagonist has wished to be Superman, and people expect him to save the world... there's an actual threat to the world and he HAS to save it.

4) The story we come up with takes the character to the limit. It's not a minor conflict, it's the conflict that really pushes them to deal with their emotional problem. If a character isn't going to lose everything if they don't resolve the story problem, you haven't found the right story!

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So our 30 year old computer programmer who is afraid his destiny is a dead end and wishes he was Superman meets a woman in a night club who tells him that he is the chosen one - it's his job to save the world from The Matrix.

Suddenly "Agents" arrest him at work and interrogate him about Morpheus and the underground movement. He is taken to meet Morpheus, who tells him the future of the world is in his hands. Yikes! The problem with being Superman is that bad guys want to kill you and everyone expects you to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a train. That dream just turned to a nightmare and there's no waking up! The more he tries to say "You've got the wrong guy, I'm not Superman" the more the situation escalates so that he HAS to be Superman. They need Neo to be the "chosen one"! At the same time, everyone around him seems to have more super powers than he has - there are kids who can bend spoons and make blocks levitate. He can't even do the basic fighting programs! He's a FRAUD and everyone needs him to be the real thing! Because we need to take the conflict to the limit and make things the worst they can be, Morpheus is captured and Neo is the only one who can save him... from the super-powerful "Agents". He HAS TO BE SUPERMAN in order to rescue Morpheus. He has to confront his fear that he's just an ordinary guy, he has to metamorphoses into the Superman he wished he could become. He has to grow as a character in order to survive...

The story comes from the character. The story is designed to force the character to deal with their flaw or fear or dream gone wrong or do the thing they will not do. Every scene forces them to deal with their emotional problem. Every scene is ABOUT the character's emotional problem - whether it's Neo not believing in himself enough to jump from building to building, or Neo surrounded by the magical kids, or Morpheus sacrificing himself so that Neo can live. The scenes all come from the character!

Now, when you write the screenplay, because it is all about the character you need to make sure you make the scenes and situations and dialogue and actions all about the character and their emotional problem. And make sure you have the big emotional decisions and big emotional moments in the screenplay. It does you no good to start from character, find the great high concept story that explores that character... and then *fail* to explore the character. Story *is* character. Every scene, no matter what it is - car chase, shoot out, big comedy scene - needs to be about character. If it's not about people with problems, what *is* it about? Fireballs?

CONNECTED PROBLEMS

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This works in any genre, because *story is character* - and the purpose of any story is to explore character. They are connected. When you remove the character, no one will care about your story - it will just be cardboard cut outs going through a series of incidents.

If you really want to explore a character with survivor's guilt, you will end up with a story where that emotional conflict will be pulled to the surface by the actions. You start with a character struggling with survivor's guilt - and usually your protagonist is secretly you... that doesn't mean that *you* suffer from some extreme survivor's guilt, but maybe you have some similar feelings that allow you to understand the character and you are using the extreme version of the emotional problem for dramatic purposes. One of the idea creation tools in my Idea Blue Book is *Magnification* where you take some small emotional issue and magnify it in order to make it exciting and dramatic.

1) Our protagonist is a war veteran - an ex-Airforce Pilot - who is in love with a woman but afraid to commit... so she breaks up with him. Like every character, he wasn't *born* afraid to commit - there was a cause to this effect. Part of our job as screenwriters is to understand human behavior and human motivation - to dig into our characters and find out *why* they do the things they do. We need this in order to create believable and consistent characters.

2) We obviously have a surface emotional problem, but what caused it? Our ex-Airforce Pilot who was the only survivor of a mission during the war. Because he was in charge of the mission, and those men and women who died were under his command... he feels responsible for their deaths. Yes, they were killed by the enemy, but if he had a different battle plan - would they have survived? If he had only (fill in the regret blank) - would they have been alive? Our lives are filled with regrets - and usually they are minor things. They may live on in the dark shadows of our minds, but they usually aren't big enough issues to control our lives. Except, this ex-Airforce Pilot may have caused the deaths of everyone around him - and *he* walked away without a scratch. This haunts him every hour of the day.

This is why he can't commit - because he's afraid of responsibility, afraid that everyone that he touches will die... and it will be his fault.

3) So you are exploring these character issues - what is the *worst* situation for someone with survivor's guilt to be placed in? What story will force them to be in that place and deal with their issues? What story brings out the character? What story allows you to explore the character deepest? What is the external conflict that will push that emotional conflict to the surface? Okay, we have the relationship issues - but will that really bring out the ex-Airforce Pilot past? Whatever elements of character we are exploring we need to find the *best* external conflict. The external conflict that is *connected* to the emotional conflict.

It's not some One From Column A meets One From Column B - all of these things are connected at a core level. Real life is random, we are telling a *story* - and that means things are connected.

Ted Stryker in AIRPLANE! feels guilty about getting George Zipp from his fighter squadron killed in the war and has not set foot on a plane since, so having your story take place on an ocean cruise is just stupid. Even in a silly comedy movie, it's all about exploring the *character*.

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Wait... you thought we were talking about some heavy drama? No! *Every* genre is character based. Even silly parody films are going to be character based if they want to connect with an audience. Here's my "proof": AIRPLANE! was a huge hit but the ZAZ follow up which I also love, TOP SECRET! - was a big flop. *Both* have a zillion gags, *both* have a ! in the title, and I can quote the hell out of TOP SECRET! if you wish - no shortage of really funny lines. But there really is no emotional conflict for Nick Rivers. He's just an idiot rock & roll star who wants to know if your daughter is 18. I'm sure they thought they were making a parody of CASABLANCA - but Rick *says* and *demonstrates* that he sticks his neck out for no man in CASABLANCA, Nick doesn't have any character based emotional struggle in TOP SECRET! No Ugarte character. So where AIRPLANE! was a hit (because it had characters struggling with emotional problems), TOP SECRET! flopped (because it's a bag of gags - great gags, but all of the characters are there to service the gags, rather than the gags being part of the characters). Even silly parody movies need characters!

AIRPLANE! is all about Ted Stryker's guilt and obsession with his past mistakes (mostly George Zipp's death). He has not set foot on a plane since then, and once he gets on this plane - all he can do is talk about how he screwed up his whole life by killing George Zipp. Whatever passenger is seated next to him would rather kill themselves than hear him go on-and-on about it. Character based comedy!

Why did he break up with Elaine? He was never himself after the war - and George Zipp's death. She dumped him. That's why he's on the plane, right? To get her back. So there is no movie without his emotional problem! No break up, no "smoking section?", no Howard Jarvis in the taxi - all of that comes from his guilt over killing Zipp... in a PLANE!

4) Remember, we have to take the character's emotional conflict to the limit. So Ted Stryker is on a plane for the first time since the war... and the pilots had the fish (while the doctor had the lasagna) and they get food poisoning and fart and have bird's eggs in their mouths, and we need someone who can fly a plane and did not have fish for dinner! And that's Ted Stryker - a guy who is racked with guilt for killing Zipp and the rest of his squadron IN A PLANE and hasn't been on a plane since the war.

It's *connected* - not some random external conflict glued onto some random emotional problem. Just like THE MATRIX, just like LIAR LIAR, just like introverted romantic adventure novelist Joan Wilder having to go on an adventure and finding romance - the pieces are connected and come together to create a whole. Your screenplay is like a jigsaw puzzle and in order for the audience to see the picture the pieces have to fit together. Forcing one piece into another does not result in a picture.

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So Ted Stryker is the only one who can fly this plane who didn't have fish for dinner... but he does not want to be responsible for killing a whole plane full of people (including the woman he loves) just like he killed George Zipp in the war, so he does everything he can to get out of flying that plane. See how the situation is designed to bring the specific emotion al conflict bubbling to the surface? The pieces connect. Though AIRPLANE! Is a parody of another film, so it basically hijacks the character issues from ZERO HOUR (1957) - which is also about a guy named Ted Stryker who is haunted by a decision he made during the war that killed everyone in his squadron and boards a plane to chase down his wife and son... when the pilots get food poisoning and he's forced to deal with his demons and fly the plane. The took the serious character and serious story from ZERO HOUR and added jokes - but keeping that great emotional core... and using it for character based jokes like the passengers who get stuck sitting next to him being bored to death (literally).

And much of the other comedy in the film is character based, from Lloyd Bridges' Steve McCroskey picking the wrong day to quit sniffing glue, to the late great Stephen Stucker's Johnny who sees the world differently than you and I. The supporting characters have character flaws and fears and issues that create comedy.

What's the worst that could happen to the protagonist in AIRPLANE!? - Ted feels responsible for George Zipp's death - and now they want to make him responsible for all of the passengers on a pretty white plane with red stripes and curtains in the windows. What if he kills all of them? He must struggle with that emotional conflict, get through it ("Win one for the Zipper!" - this *is* a comedy) and literally sweat buckets of water to get that plane back on the ground safely so that everyone can go down the fun slide. It's a silly movie... that has real character issues at its core.

Emotional conflict and Physical conflict. Solve (or deal with) the emotional to resolve the physical. You can start with the character and the emotional conflict and find the physical conflict that best brings out the character. But first we need to really know our characters - what is their fear or flaw or worse case scenario or dream? What drives them? What is that thing under the surface that tints almost every decision they make?

Movies are about people with problems.


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Available Scripts

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!