MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Monday, August 25, 2008

So you want to write a screenplay?

The following is an excellent piece by Barry Pearson "16 Ways You Can Create a Better Hero and a Better Screenplay"

Shakespeare created many of the most memorable heroes in the English language. We acknowledge him as an artistic genius. But the Bard was also the most financially successful writer of his time. Even in modern times, tidy fortunes are made from retreading his work.

One of the keys to his extraordinary success is to be found in this trenchant and insightful quote form Dr. Samuel Johnson, who published a definitive edition of his plays in 1765.

The stage but echoes back the public voice
The drama's laws, the drama's patrons give.
For we that live to please must please to live

That one is worth pinning on your wall. It's as true for you as it was 400 years ago when Shakespeare was penning his audience-pleasing masterpieces. Writing stories that will satisfy the desires of your audience can lead directly to your success.

Moviegoers, like the Globe theatergoers in 1600, have definite and strong desires about what they want in a hero. and they vote with their feet and their wallets.

You will write better heroes and better screenplays if you use the audience's desires as your writing "laws." What are those desires? And how can you tap into them? I'm going to suggest sixteen types of audience desires, both positive and negative, that may be helpful. I'll try to illustrate with examples of what audiences want (or do not want) and what you can do about it.

1. The audience wants the Hero to be forced to struggle, change, and become a better, happier, and more successful person.

Professional screenwriters recognize this want and take ingenious steps to exploit it. Have you ever noticed that heroes at the beginning of a movie are stuck in a rut? They're usually in a state of paralysis (literally or figuratively). They're often imprisoned in some way. In Gladiator, for example, Maximus (Russell Crowe) starts out trapped in a miasma of political intrigue, and progresses to a literal state of imprisonment and despair.

By portraying this admirable hero so far from "happy and successful," the writers intensified the audience's desire to see him struggle toward justice and freedom.

Try to imagine how your Hero, at the beginning of your movie, could be in a state of paralysis, unable to act.

Perhaps she might be like Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) in The Net. Angela, in retreat from a hurtful love affair shrinks from human contact. She has woven a protective cocoon around herself and forged the bars of her own prison.

Then again, your Hero might be "imprisoned" like William Broyles Jr.'s hero Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) in Castaway. Chuck is so obsessed by the deadline culture of his job that he has become a barely human automaton.

2. The audience wants the Hero to exhibit a sense of humor.

This is a simple but important desire to satisfy. You don't need a gag writer. Audiences respond positively to self-deprecating or ironic humor. When Angela Bennett is accused of not being a risk-taker, she counters that she does like risks: she doesn't always floss, and she tears the labels off her mattresses. Try to make your Hero exhibit a sense of humor as soon as possible.

3. The audience wants the Hero to have bigger-than-life dreams and desires.

Maximus dreams of winning his freedom as a gladiator, and of bringing down the regime of the murderous usurper, Commodus, and freeing Rome. What dreams and desires (perhaps secret) can your Hero develop to satisfy this audience desire?

4. Moviegoers want the Hero to believe in (and act according to) the basic set of values that they believe in.

In Titanic Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) believes that a poor sincere artist should be true to his inner calling. He believes in the value of life. He believes that true love should triumph over class barriers and financial considerations. He believes in heroism to save a human life. These are all values that North American movigoers believe in.


Dirty Harry believes that a cop should not follow regulations if it's a case of protecting the honest citizenry from the scum that infest the streets.

What are your Hero's values? Are those values shared by the majority of the audience? Take your best shot.

5. The audience wants the Hero to struggle to overcome increasingly more difficult obstacles.

In Analyze This, written by Kenneth Lonergan (and others), Dr. Sobel (Billy Crystal) tries to get out of treating a depressed mob boss (Robert De Niro). At first, there are meetings in offices, and chases around a hotel, but the obstacles escalate, until Sobel finds himself pinned down by a hail of lead in a waterfront shoot-out.


Is your Hero's struggle escalating to the utmost level consistent with the premise?

6. The audience wants the Hero to take on an opponent who is more powerful and successful than the hero.

Erin Brockovich takes on the chemical company, Jeffrey Wigand takes on the tobacco cartel (The Insider), Angela Bennett takes on the wealthy megalomaniac computer baron, Chuck Noland takes on the ocean, and Luke Skywalker takes on the galactic forces of evil.

Some movies -- romantic comedies mostly -- don't have an antagonist or opponent in the typical sense. The opponent is the person whose love the hero needs to win, As Good As It Gets, When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Bridges of Madison County -- in movies like these, the gulf between the hero and the loved one seems to be more powerful than the hero.

What about the opponent for your Hero? Is he or she as daunting as you can imagine?

7. Moviegoers want the Hero to play for high stakes, some outcome, or ideal, or benefit that they believe is supremely important.

What's at stake in your Hero's struggle? Will your audience believe in its importance? Is it life or death? Is it the integrity of the community? Is it winning the only woman (or man) for the hero, as in a love story?

8. Moviegoers want the Hero to be forced to undertake frightening and difficult tasks which they would not willingly undertake themselves.

This is the "don't go down in the basement!" syndrome. Nobody in their right mind would go down in the basement after a serial killer the way Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) does in Silence of the Lambs. But it's exactly what the audience wants her to do -- because she's the hero.

9. The audience wants to believe that the Hero can win. They don't want to be sure that the Hero will win.

John Book (Harrison Ford), the hero of Witness faces three lethal, armed killers who invade the Lapp farm. Book, although a trained police officer, has no weapons. The audience is on tenterhooks through the whole final sequence. They believe he can overcome the villains, but they have no idea how he will do it.

10. The audience wants the Hero to face his or her worst fears.

In the final sequence of The Terminator, James Cameron's breakthrough movie, the hero, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) faces the robotic relentless killing machine all alone. Her worst nightmare has become a reality. What's your Hero's deepest fear? Use it.

11. The audience wants the Hero to escape death (literal or figurative) by means of strength of character, persistence, cleverness and courage, not raw strength.

The quintessential example of a writer manipulating this audience desire occurs in William Goldman's Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. The heroes find themselves trapped at the edge of a cliff, with the posse closing in. Instead of surrendering, they jump off the cliff into the river below.

How many of these types of moments can you set up for your hero?

12. The audience wants the Hero to win the prize at the end of the movie.

At the end of Working Girl, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) wins her dream job and finds herself in the corner office. What's the prize for your Hero?

13. The audience does not want the Hero to be lucky, unless the luck is caused by the hero's cunning or provident preparation.

In the final battle of Star Wars, it could be argued that Luke Skywalker "gets lucky" when he destroys the Death Star. In fact audiences readily accepted his good luck, because they had shared his hours of preparation with Obi Wan Kenobi.

14. The audience does not want the Hero to be able to quit, to abandon the task he or she has undertaken.

You need to create good reasons why your Hero cannot quit. In Robert Towne's superb detective story Chinatown, Jake (Jack Nicholson) cannot quit because he has a score to settle with the villain, and because he's fallen in love with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), whose husband was murdered.

15. The audience does not want to have its expectations fulfilled.

It wants to be surprised. So don't let your Hero do what the audience expects him or her to do. Write against the expectations of the audience, or have the expectations fulfilled but in a totally unexpected way.

16. The audience doesn't want the Hero to be motivated by base selfish desires.

Audiences dislike base selfish desires like greed. They like admirable selfish desires like striving for achievement (to become a great opera star, or head of the company, or discoverer of Insulin).

They dislike base selfish desires like pure revenge. They like admirable selfish desires like wanting to redress an injustice one has suffered.

They love unselfish desires like wanting to redress an injustice others have suffered, so as to make the world a better place to live.

Caution: This does not mean that you should never create heroes with base selfish motives.

You can often create great tension and catharsis in an audience through heroes with base selfish motives. Four good examples from different eras: Macbeth, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Goodfellas and My Best Friend's Wedding.

Try to imagine all the ways in which you can satisfy the audience's desires and avoid (or manipulate) the audience's dislikes at every moment of your movie.

Try to put in as as many audience-satisfying moments as possible. Put them in on top of each other if you can.

As you write, plan how you can satisfy your audience in some way on every page. Of course all those other elements -- plot, theme, dialogue, cast of characters and structure -- are important, but the most important task for you is to give the audience what they came to the theater for -- satisfaction.

Tip for the day: Keep moving forward despite your moods.


For someone that is new to the business of writing screenplays, the term "treatment" will most definitely be new to them as well. Basically, if a writer has an idea for a story but for one reason or another does not want to write an entire script, they'll need to know about treatments.

Click on book to buy Writing Treatments that Sell on Amazon.

I welcome your comments, questions, and discussion.

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